7 Tips for Great Group Dining Experiences

great group dining

Admit it — juggling a group dinner can have its challenges. There’s your BFF with food allergies, the other pal who only carries cash, the one who doesn’t drink, and the one who always goes for the priciest wines. Choosing the venue, cuisine type, and price point doesn’t have to create any friend-group drama when following the advice of experts. We spoke with groups manager Drexel Heard II from Michael’s Santa Monica; Alcove of Boston owner Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli; Karen Bonarrigo of the Vintage House at Messina Hof Winery in Bryan, Texas; Heirloom restaurant manager Maurice Jaurez in New Haven, Connecticut; and Joseph Palminteri of Via Sophia in Washington, D.C. to help you have great group dining experiences at restaurants on OpenTable.

Find the right restaurant

Start your search on OpenTable by looking for restaurants that have been deemed good for groups in verified diner reviews using the ‘good for groups’ tag. There are also monthly Diners’ Choice lists in most major metropolitan areas for good for groups restaurants that you can search on as well. Palminteri suggests looking for restaurants that have flexible seating arrangements and a variety of experiences to keep things interesting. Via Sophia, for example, has a 10-seat pizza bar for foodies to “watch the magic happen”; indoor dining; and a lounge-style casual patio. Schlesinger-Guidelli helped design Alcove with various scenarios in mind: there’s a private dining room, a living room area for 10-75 and moveable banquettes for parties of up to 100.

Settle on the best number of guests

Heard says, “Groups should be small enough for everyone to get to talk to everyone, but large enough to fill a room,” recommending the 15-person capacity Santa Monica room or the Garden area for 8 to 12.

Consider transportation options

Restaurants with easy rideshare access, parking, or public transit are clutch. Alcove is near a commuter rail and train station, and Via Sophia is inside a hotel with a garage. At Heirloom, where a lot of Yale graduation dinners just wrapped, there’s an included-valet option for private events, making it easier for grandma and grandpa to park.

Take appetites into account

One of your friends prefers Italian, and the other is a maki maniac and one is gluten-free. How to choose what to feast on? “The hybrid family-style/a la carte menu works well for this,” says Palminteri. “Our strategy is to have shared plates lean toward allergy-friendly fan favorites, and then guests can get creative with their main dish.” Bonnarigo touts limited-menu options and allows the pre-purchasing wine to keep things within budget. Schlesinger-Guidelli also recommends that groups of a dozen or more “streamline” and pick a few menu options instead of offering the whole menu for all to mull over. As for sips, he says, consider a punch bowl. “There’s a reason many restaurants are offering them; they make a group feel special and allow the restaurants an ability to execute seamlessly.”

Nominate a couple of guests to get involved

Besides always making an OpenTable reservation in advance — where the organizer can flag things like food sensitivities or needing a booster seat or space for a wheelchair in the Notes section — Schlesinger-Guidelli spreads out responsibilities. His group will have one person do the food ordering from what’s been decided in advance while another oversees ordering large-format wines to share.

Settle money matters ahead of time

This one’s also probably best broached in advance. Is everyone chipping in for the birthday boy or girl or going Dutch? “Confirm with (friends) ahead of time so no one’s blindsided,” says Heard. “Come up with a plan or speak with a server on the side about taking your portion off the bill.” Venmo does make it easier to split the bill without a restaurant having to process a dozen cards. Likewise, Palminteri says having one guest manage the bill “makes it easier for both the group and the restaurant.” At Heirloom, prix-fixe menu options for groups of 15 or more typically remove the pain points of bill-splitting since everyone owes about the same per person.

What to ask before you arrive

Jaurez says punctuality is key so no one has to wait to dig in until the final friend arrives. Be sure everyone understands the reservation time and that the whole party may not be seated until everyone gets there. And despite best intentions, when bringing gifts or a cake, it’s always better to ask in advance if you can bring things in, says Bonarrigo, who is happy to help find a spot for the gifts or oversee cake service to keep things running smoothly.

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C. Dimiti is a true carb addict who can’t resist a good breadbasket, but is just as excited about a good side of Brussels sprouts. She thinks the best restaurants and chefs are those who are inspirational, thus forcing those who keep shoes in their oven for storage to reorganize and try to re-create the magic at home. Shoutout at foodfitfun27@gmail.com.