Cash-Strapped Birthday Dinners

Dear Helena,
My birthday is coming up, and I’m leaning toward dinner in a restaurant. The problem is I hate inviting all my friends to a birthday dinner and then expecting them to pay for themselves. Inevitably they’ll end up covering my share too. I wish I had the cash to treat everyone, but short of that, is there an alternative way to celebrate?
—Bday Bummer

Dear Bday Bummer,
It’s not like you are asking your friends to contribute to your Outward Bound expedition or Burning Man trip (I’ve actually received emails from friends asking their circle to chip in for both these things). After all, your friends will be enjoying the dinner too.

Still, the occasion often seems to create problems. Birthday dinners in restaurants have been the source of numerous threads on Chowhound (most recently, this one). People may haggle over the bill, a topic I’ve written about before. It’s no easy matter to pick a restaurant that will meet everyone’s dietary needs. Not all restaurants will take a reservation for a large party, and when your friends have busy lives it can be hard to get them to plan ahead.

Rene Ravenel, a software developer in San Francisco, points out another problem with birthday dinners: “You’re seated the whole time, so you can’t move around and talk to others easily.” You could end up trapped between your best friend, whom you love but talk to every day, and his nice-but-boring girlfriend, who talks about nothing but her knitting blog.

If you’re set on celebrating in a restaurant, you can keep costs down by negotiating a set menu beforehand. Many restaurants are happy to do this. Then your friends at least know the evening’s price tag in advance and can decide whether they can afford it, instead of growing more and more anxious as their fellow guests order the filet mignon and merrily call for yet another bottle of wine.

Better yet, move your party to a bar. Ravenel says his most memorable birthday of recent years was at Zeitgeist, a biker bar in San Francisco with a large outdoor beer garden. “I spent several hours there as friends came and went. There were never more than eight people there at any given time, and I got quality time with every one. ... No one felt rushed because they could arrive when they wanted. No one spent any more money than they wanted.”

If you’re lucky, a friend will show up with a cake to soak up the alcohol. Note to guests: Cupcakes are a bar-friendly option.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.