You are out at dinner, your large group easily the biggest and noisiest at the table in the restaurant. Everybody has, albeit laboriously, managed to place their order with the long-suffering, infinitely patient waitress. Tonight, for reasons best known to yourself (you’re on a diet, a budget or the wagon) you will be perfectly happy with just a main, or even two entrees, and two glasses of wine to ensure you will still be able to drive home. Someone in the group has, however, decided to order a couple of platters of dips and breads to tide everyone over and to provide sensible lining for stomachs steeled, if the first 20 minutes of the evening are anything to go by, for some Serious Drinking.
The night will be very long, which is part and parcel of being in a large group. And because you have mentally calculated that the $50 note you have set aside for this particular occasion should easily cover your choices it comes as a very rude shock, several hours later, when the bill arrives and is split up by someone who announces that it has worked out to be $80 a head.
Possibly the same person whose executive decision it was to order the bread and dips
had also gone on to lavishly order salads and vegetables ‘for the table’; non-designated drivers were celebrating their freedom by ensuring freshly opened bottles of wine materialised magically throughout the evening. And yet, as with bitterness you extract the necessary sum from your wallet, you do not really have the courage to protest, or to remind the group that you, the killjoy, have consumed half as much as anyone else – it feels mean, and churlish, and definitely not in the high-pitched festive spirit of the evening.
This is one of the worst aspects of dining out in a group, and having spoken to many friends about it I am still unable to arrive at a solution. The obvious one – an announcement made at the outset to the effect that everyone should keep their own personal tabs on what they order – is in practice as much atonal as the post-prandial complaint. And often it is not even as if those members of the party who so extravagantly keep ordering extras are wanting them greedily for themselves: caught up in the mood they are merely seeking to perpetuate it. (I know this because I have been guilty of it myself.)
From the restaurant’s point of view, group diners can be hell as well, however lucrative. I remember a particular dinner at one of my absolutely favourite local restaurants where eight of us had converged. It was a Saturday night in summer, light until late, and we were all excited by the mere fact of being there all together, hungry and privileged, with the prospect of a Maxi Taxi to eventually bear us all away. The several smokers among us would periodically remove themselves from the table – it was one of those evenings in restaurants with friends which metamorphose easily into small parties of musical chairs and forays to the bar punctuating the procession of dishes we ordered.
It was, in short, the loveliest evening – and yet there were intervals when I felt that the staff had been absent for a long time. Days later I spoke to the restaurant’s owner about it, and was edified to hear that, as far as Group Dining is concerned, there resides a small dilemma. Should the staff hover constantly – or should it sensitively assess the situation and, at a certain point, opt for invisibility? Apparently the evening in question had so completely looked as if we wanted to do our own thing, uninterrupted, that the staff had responded accordingly. The truth of the matter is that on the whole Group Diners are not a pretty thing. Maybe we should scrap the whole notion, and save dining out for intimate dinners a deux.