The Private Dining Room Is Making a Comeback
Maybe it's because the option to go out to dinner with friends still hasn't gotten any less thrilling, or perhaps it's that my office is located above a shopping mall that has already seized the opportunity to loop the Mariah Carey holiday album, but I'm downright giddy about gatherings right now. It seems I'm not the only one: Restaurant industry pros say private dining rooms (also known as PDRs) across the country are booked up for November and December. The private dining room at NYC Italian mainstay L'Artusi received 1,742 inquiries in the past 30 days alone, according to owner Kevin Garry. "In the last four to six months, private events literally went from zero to 100," he says. "It's clear that the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and colleagues over a great meal is good for our collective soul."
Previously, the PDR was a go-to option for corporate retreats and office holiday dinners — events typically fueled by expense accounts. "This year, we are seeing more requests for groups of friends or families. Most inquiries are for groups between 15 to 30 guests," explains William Bradley, chef and director of San Diego's Addison. Likewise, the private dining room at The Standard Grill has been booked constantly for months, says Marc Geller, director of marketing for The Standard, High Line. "The vibe recently has been very social, with a lot of brunches, lunches, and private dinners."
Even freshly minted spots are being flooded with inquiries; at Brooklyn hotspot Runner Up (sibling to beloved bakery WINNER), service director Emma Steiger notes that despite the fact that her team hasn't made an official announcement regarding private events, they've been hosting between three to five private events per week, with interest only mounting as Thanksgiving and the December holidays approach.
"We've only been open a few short weeks and the number of inquiries for our private dining room or semi-private spaces is quickly approaching triple digits," says Felipe Donnelly, executive chef of Comodo, a new Latin American-inspired restaurant in New York City. Donnelly nails one of the core draws of the PDR experience in 2021: "Private dining rooms provide the restaurant experience without the full commitment of dining indoors with a lot of strangers. Many people are still hesitant to be in close proximity with people they don't know, but as the season change brings colder weather, outdoor dining is losing its appeal — and that's where private dining rooms come in."
It makes sense, given that PDRs are effectively ideal COVID-friendly socialization pods. They offer the intimacy and peace of mind that comes from guaranteed vaccination status in establishments that mandate it, not to mention the ability to escape one's own living room (and the burden of doing dishes after everyone's gone home). "There is a feeling that our guests are ready to celebrate and make up for the occasions they missed out on last year," says Heena Patel, chef and co-owner of Besharam in San Francisco.
Lilli Sherman, founder of brand marketing studio OMA, recently booked the PDR at Brooklyn's Rule of Thirds for her partner and best friend's joint birthday party. "I would say beyond the safety element, we all are craving more intimate, less overly stimulated experiences...dinners where we can actually hear each other and feel connected versus being in a large dining room with blaring music and drunk diners, beside our party." Sherman says the private bungalow feel to the PDR at Rule of Thirds made the experience truly memorable — and hospitality pros are pleased to see other guests following suit. "If people are able to gather together and share a meal in a space they feel comfortable, it may just be the ticket to helping the restaurant industry swing back and thrive again," says Donnelly.