What are you doing tonight? Will you be breaking bread at a table at a fine dining establishment with 16 of your closest friends? Are you—horror of horrors—invited to a group dinner? Get out of it now; call in sick; leave the country. Run, run, far, far away, as fast as you can. Group dinners are the worst.
See, it seems all well and good and fun and that's exactly how they get you. You like these people, you really do, all 8 or 10 or 40 of them. And you have to eat, right? Everyone has to eat. So why wouldn't you pair the two, efficiency and efficacy-wise, so you can "talk" and "eat together" and "share in this festive bonding experience" of dining?
The problem is, that rarely if ever happens. Repeat after me: Group dinners are the worst. They fail to give you even the basis of what they are supposed to be—a group, dining together convivially, mingling cocktail-ready conversations seamlessly and with great pleasure—because you'll inevitably be seated next to only two or three people (unless you're into really avantgarde dining, like on beds or trampolines or some such, in which case, please explain!). You'll be stuck talking to so-and-so on the left and so-and-so on the right, and maybe you don't even like those people all that much, or, you know, they're O.K. but not your favorites. They are only the two people you can actually hear in the overwhelming din of the group dinner (all those concerts in 7th grade really did a number on the old ears). Your favorite of the group is the person for whom everyone has come to arrange themselves in this terrifying and terrifyingly loud formation, and that person is going to have all of about one minute to speak with you, because it's his or her birthday or anniversary or she's getting proposed to or whatever it is that we're celebrating. And that person, for his or her part, is going to feel generally stressed out because she invited everyone and now feels incapable of being the "good host" she feels he should to be, because there's just not enough time, there's never enough time at a group dinner. (Birthday 2013, I'm looking at you.)
And then. And then. There's the food part. This may be an unpopular view, but why do we insist on staring at each other when we eat, anyway? I suppose a one-on-one meal, in which proper conversations and eye contact can take place, is acceptable. But to surround yourself with the open maws of so many others, and then to have to fight for the last breadstick or that last bit of wine, and then, oh no, are you sharing the food itself? Do you have to coordinate your order together? Is it "family style"? With all of these mouths to feed you're hardly going to get enough, or you're going to eat too much, your diet flung out the window, and feel awful the next day, or that one person with the atrocious table manners is going to put you off your feed. There will be no leftovers, and you love leftovers, and if there are leftovers, the birthday girl is going to get them.
Further, the group will be loud and demanding in the restaurant, because there are so many of you, and you'll be difficult because there are so many of you and there's always at least one difficult person in every group, and by the end of the meal you will want to give your server a huge tip out of guilt. Conversely, you will be angry because you realize, when the check comes, that they add a 25 percent gratuity for groups of more than six people and there will be someone at your table who will loudly exclaim "This is crap!" (Then, again, you'll have to make up for that person by leaving a tip that's even larger.)
But the worst part of all, of course, is the money part. The check will come, and someone will insist on not splitting it equally among all but instead on counting out their particular items ordered—a small salad and a water!—and reminding the table that they didn't drink anything. This forces everyone else to tally up their orders, a chain reaction of mathematical horror and not paying enough. The person who sets this in motion, also, will never tip enough, because tipping is not in this person's nature, so the poor, overworked appointed group-bill-manager will scrounge around in her purse and pocket and be like, "Hey guys, we need to throw another $20 on this," and a couple of people will pony up a little more, because, oh yeah, they forgot that they ordered that appetizer or that specialty cocktail before dinner that went on the tab. Everyone will leave feeling a little bit bad about the experience, not least because group dinners always cost more than you think they will. Never has a group dinner been "cheap," unless you're invited to someone's house for a group dinner, which is an entirely different story and one I'm O.K. with.
After a group dinner, you go home and you eat a snack or you drink another drink or the whole bottle and you wake up with a feeling of shame, your wallet more empty, and the pressing knowledge that you still need to go out, just the two of you, with that friend who had the birthday who you never got to talk to. This the Group Dinner Hangover. Remedied by dining in 2-person and 4-person formations when eating in public, unless absolutely necessary. I know, sometimes, these things can't be helped.
Image via Shutterstock by Csaba Vanyi.