Wilmington resident David St. Clair has hosted parties for friends, family, former schoolmates and business associates. While some took place in his home, many were held in restaurants and other outside venues. “It’s a lot less work,” he says of his reasons for going off-site. “It’s a built-in facility and easier for guests to find, park, and come and go.”
What’s more, he doesn’t need to cook, pour, clean or order extra tables. During the holidays, the ability to leave the work to others is a stress-reducing plus. Plus, a house might be too small to hold all the guests.
But even a party in a restaurant requires careful planning. Here are some tips on how to make your event a success.
Determine your head count
The number of guests will narrow your choices. If it’s a small group, consider reserving tables in a restaurant’s main dining room, says Ryan German, owner of Caffe Gelato in Newark. Stick to eight to 10 people per table, he recommends. “If there are 24 people, ask for three ‘eight-tops.’”
However, restaurant dining rooms often set a limit for large parties, notes Cindy Bene, who handles banquets for Harry’s Savoy Ballroom, adjacent to Harry’s Savoy Grill in North Wilmington. The regular kitchen line can only take so many simultaneous orders, she notes. Also, if guests order à la carte from the menu, the cost can exceed a planned menu in a secluded room.
If noise is a concern, a private dining area is better, and many restaurants have one or more. For instance, Bluecoast Seafood Grill in Rehoboth Beach can serve plated dinners for up to 40 people in the “library,” complete with a fireplace, a door and bookshelves filled with cookbooks.
The Chesapeake Inn in Chesapeake City has private rooms for between 35 and 50 guests and outdoor areas. Tonic Seafood & Steak has a private section off the dining room and boasts the adjoining Juniper by Tonic, which has flexible space.
Chelsea Tavern in Wilmington can handle from 10 to 75 guests in private rooms. However, clients have bought out the entire restaurant from 9 p.m. until closing on a Friday night. “Most places will allow it if it’s worth it, and our regulars always understand,” says owner Joe Van Horn. “We have to make money to stay available for them.” Stitch House Brewery can accommodate 200 for a full book-out.
You can rent Drip Café in Hockessin after 4 p.m., and Hank’s Place in Kennett Square after 3 p.m. Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar permits a total takeover only on nights when the eatery is closed to the public. There are other options. For instance, on New Year’s Eve, Jane Goldberg and her invited friends booked the entire last seating. Each person paid for the meal and beverages except for the Champagne she brought.
Small restaurants like Snuff Mill and Drip Café are ready-made party rooms. Cajun Kate’s on Philadelphia Pike, Drift in Rehoboth Beach, Sonora in Newark, La Fia and Merchant Bar in downtown Wilmington, Uncle John’s BBQ Stand in Claymont and Luigi Vitrone’s Pastabilities in Wilmington’s Little Italy all offer the entire space for parties. The Room at Cedar Grove in Lewes, a supper club and concert hall, is also available for rent.
No matter the choice, don’t overfill the room, says Linda Majewski, who hosted a reception at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. She had a seating chart even though she had under 40 guests, and children sat at the same table.
Choose the right tone
A restaurant already has a concept regarding the ambiance and food, and party hosts can match a formal or informal get-together to the location. For instance, a brewpub or barbecue joint is ideal for a casual occasion. Harry’s recently renovated ballroom is contemporary yet elegant for those who wish to wear fancy clothes.
Create a budget
Juniper offers clients a package that helps them pinpoint expenses, including room fees. Admittedly, food comprises much of the cost. To help customers decide, Juniper offers three plans: heavy hors d’oeuvres, buffet or three-course plated meal. Some people do a combination.
Consider the décor
Around the holidays, most restaurants put on their winter finery. For next-level ambiance, host a party at Klondike Kate’s seasonal Sleigh Bar pop-up, which takes over the first floor of the Newark restaurant. (The second floor is also decorated.)
“We have a ton of different parties for the holidays, especially because of the Christmas theme,” says owner Gianmarco Martuscelli, who also owns the Chesapeake Inn. Groups that book the upstairs will descend the stairs for a photo in Santa’s sleigh.
Holidays aside, he’s noticed an increase in banquet customers who want an elaborate theme. “The décor and the setup that goes into them is way more than ever,” he says. “Before, we would allot an hour before the event for setup. Now people are coming three hours before the event to do the decorations.”
Find a restaurant that you like, set [a] number of people, [a] cost per person, décor, favors, music. You’re ready to go.
The standard accoutrements are often enough for many guests, says Amanda Jones, who handles events at Juniper. For instance, the venue has farmhouse tables with runners and round tables with linens. The room is outfitted with plants, and Juniper supplies votives and all of the serving items.
For more, Jones calls on Alexis Wirt Curtis of Alexis Floral, formerly Petal Pushers Floral Designs, who can create low tablescapes with flowers, fruit and other foliage. SoDel Concepts has a design team that handles most of clients’ décor requests, and Chesapeake Inn has a list of décor specialists. Some establishments allow customers to bring in their own items.
Note that many places will charge an additional fee if you require a lot of setup time.
Ask about entertainment policies
A restaurant is not a firehall or country club, which can accommodate large bands without the risk of annoying regular diners. You may need to rethink the venue if you want a five-piece band.
Juniper allows a DJ, or customers can connect to the venue’s sound system and play their own music.
Those planning a holiday party now may be out of luck. In October, Juniper’s weekend calendar was booked well into 2024, and there are only so many weekends between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
More people are opting for weeknights or daytime hours to increase the odds of getting a desired date.
Give the restaurant a firm count
Most of us are guilty of forgetting to RSVP by the required date. Unfortunately, the lax response has become an event planner’s worst nightmare. Don’t be that person. “Make sure your guests know there are deadlines, and stick to it,” Jones says. “It complicates things when you add this person or remove another.”
Enjoy the event
The advantage of booking a party in a restaurant is having more opportunity to enjoy yourself. As Goldberg puts it: “Find a restaurant that you like, set [a] number of people, [a] cost per person, décor, favors, music. You’re ready to go.”