Dining with a big group of friends or family can be fun, but arranging it? Not so much.
Frugal Foodie recently tried to make dinner reservations in New York City for a family reunion. Her first-choice restaurant decreed that groups larger than eight must eat family-style from a smaller version of the regular menu, and that they don’t accept large parties on the weekends at all. A second-choice restaurant wouldn’t take a reservation for groups smaller than 20, and a third warned that it didn’t offer split checks. Finally, she and Mr. Foodie found a restaurant that didn’t blink at the group size — and even threw in a few free appetizers.
If you’re looking to organize a group dinner, here’s how to streamline your planning:
Try reserving online
Search OpenTable.com for available reservations by party size. The free reservation site will sort them by area, time, and pricing. Savored.com also takes online reservations, charging $10 in exchange for discounts of up to 35% off your bill.
Ask about group deals
“Some restaurants are more accommodating than others, and may be willing to extend a discount for confirmed groups of six or more,” says Steven Zussino, president of GroceryAlerts.ca. Sierra Mexican Restaurant in Dundee, Ore., for example, will take 10% to 20% off the bill, depending on the size of your party. Zussino says other restaurants will offer deals in terms of freebies, like free desserts for a large group celebrating a birthday.
As Frugal Foodie found out, there can be plenty. Ask about requirements like family-style dining, a restricted menu or deposits to hold a reservation that may be forfeit if the number of guests diminishes. Restaurants may be reluctant to offer separate checks or run multiple credit cards, which could prove difficult for some groups.
“Getting in before the rush may increase a restaurant’s willingness to let a large group fill up a lot of its tables,” says Zussino. They may also extend more of a group discount, if there’s one on offer.
Try a food tour
Joyce Weinberg, president of CityFoodTours.com in New York and Philadelphia, says prices start at $35 per person for two-hour tours and tastings at six different places. “You end up paying less than you would for a sit down meal, and you get better food, more variety and it’s a lot more fun and interesting,” she says.
Create a menu
“If you’re footing the bill for a group dinner, it can be easier — and cheaper — to work with the restaurant to create a special menu,” says Zussino. “That way, guests get to experience the best of the restaurant without too much freedom to run up a tab.”
Take advantage of cost-cutters
Some discount vouchers from sites like Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com allow multiples per table, so consider stocking up in advance of a group meal. “If you’re responsible for the whole bill, look to a credit card that offers cash-back on restaurant spending or sites like iDine.com that offer reward points,” says Parag Raja of FrequentFlierUniversity.com.
It’s a smart idea to decide in advance whether the group will be splitting the bill evenly, or asking each person to pay for his own. It’s also helpful to ask diners to bring cash if possible.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.