Ten Tables of Four Please – A Modest Proposal

Lemon Tree RelumeAlong with all my travel, I go to a lot of group dinners; usually around 40 people.  At these dinners, generally, there are quite a few social media folks and people in startups (no one person is going to pick up the bill, unlike a banking dinner).  I love the thought of getting together with a large group for dinner, but really, the dinners are always a mess.

The restaurants are not used to big tables, this results in slow meals, quite a bit of waiting (while everyone is hungry).  You only get to talk to the people around you (5 people, three across from you, one to your right and one to your left) and splitting the bill is painful.  The dinner usually lasts over three hours, and people leave somewhat frustrated and tired from some of the stresses.

I put myself through college working in fine dining, and with all that time, I have developed quite a few theories on dining, and in turn, think I know how to do this table of 40.

So here is my modest proposal, if you are going to a group dinner, don’t, and this is a sincere please, don’t, ask for a table for 40. Instead, go ten four tops.  Picture the night in three steps:

5:30-6: Gather the group.  Get drinks in the bar area.  If you go early in the night, one or two bartenders are working, and should be able to focus on the group without having too many tables to deal with.  Pay for your drinks at the bar when your purchase them, tip the bartender.

6 -7:15: Migrate to the dining room in groups of four.  This shouldn’t be done all at once, and should happen in a somewhat random way (ask the host or hostess to pick the groups naturally, seating them one group at a time until all the groups are seated).  Because you are 10 groups, you will have the entire staff working on your party, instead of just the section your big table is.  Ordering can be quick, for both drinks and food.  Four is the average table size, so cooking your food and getting it to your table is quick.  Talk to the three other people in your group, you have an hour to go into some topics.  Share and learn.  Enjoy the food and wine.  When you are done, split the meal fairly. Splitting the bill 4 ways equally is what I usually try to do, and should not be a huge inconvenience to the server (whereas, splitting the bill 40 ways with one server is a monumental pain in the ass).  Tip well, and say thank you to your server and the manager if you see them.Startup Drinks Boulder 4

7:30: Gather in the bar again, make plans to go out for more drinks, an activity, or keep hanging out.  Everyone will finish their meal at different times, so getting a drink at the bar will be quick and painless.  Pay for your drink as you get it.  Meet people that you have not met, and make introductions of people that you had the opprotunity to spend an hour with with people you already know.  Dinner has taken two hours instead of three, everyone has had a much better experience, with time set aside for real conversation and general networking.

That is my idea for better conference dinners.  Next time you are in that weird situation, you can suggest this method, and let me know how it works.

Remember to call a day or more ahead, saying you would like to reserve 8-12 tables for four, seated in different sections.

  • Great ideas.. i really love the random sitting chosen by the host. A free round of shots would be cool. I'd suggest a 4 to 6 tables and maybe some sort of standard appetizers to be served to everyone so no one is waiting, there's a good excuse to start drinking asap and taste something while picking up the main course.

  • Agreed. Large tables are a huge hassle for everyone involved, unless the restaurant specializes in private parties and you have a reservation. (Some places can serve 40 people together without flinching.)

  • I totally agree with this direction… big tables are a mess… but I think people will still be clamoring to sit at the “hot” table for 4 rather than the one with the boring old nobodies… but at least the conversation will be focused and you can make actual connections.

  • I like the idea in principle, but I can't help but think it's a failure on two parts: the organizer and the restaurants lack of technology.

    1) The organizer should make sure people come prepared. This means that there should be “Bring 40 with you: a twenty, a ten, a five and five ones.” There should also be agreements in place: “Boozers split the drinks tab separate of food. Appetizers are covered with the meal and the tab is split equally.” Also, letting them know in advance that your coming with a group is key as well so you don't freak them out. With just taking 5 minutes to send an email beforehand, you make it stress free at checkout. This assumes there's an organizer though.

    2) The technology needs to be better. What I mean by this is that in your model, 4 tops are easier because that's how the kitchen is set up to process orders. I think the whole ticketing system is crap. What we need is a system that knows how much time each item takes to cook. Then coordinates by saying when things should be “cooked” or “prepped”. The kitchen need not know of tables, just dishes.

    That's my thought. The 2 hour instead of 3 is a ding against your system, but that's just a matter of preference. I know my biz partner would freak out over a 3 hour dinner, whereas I'd see it as just right.

    I do agree though. We need better systems, because the general madness just doesn't work.

  • Planning ahead has to be the best way to go about it.

    The restaurant should know ahead of time how many are coming in.

    to aid the process, the guests could even pre-order what they want to eat (not everyone but a good chunk, I know a lot of people like to make a game-time decision). Emailing a copy of the menu could save a lot of time.

    This way the restaurant knows what to expect in terms of orders and the number of people.

  • andrewhyde

    I like the standard apps, perhaps the restaurant or host could spring for them.

  • andrewhyde

    While some are great at it, others are more than bad, and I feel like I have dined at most of them 🙂

  • andrewhyde

    I wonder how that would work out, great conversations can happen with anyone, it doesn't matter how known or not you are.

  • andrewhyde

    re 1) I wish a simple as would make it easy, but some people need to use their corporate card, don't carry cash or have been on the road for a while and won't make the time to do it. With the small tables, splitting alcohol sales is pretty easy.

    re 2) I've worked with chefs that can do this, it is pretty entertaining to see a four person kitchen produce 120 meals in an hour.

    It is a 2 hour base, and could go longer.

    I want to try this out!

  • I think you have some good points. When doing the CommunityNext VIP dinners we would seat people randomly (so you'd get to meet people you otherwise wouldn't). We would have them at small tables (so you get to intimately talk to them). We would also have drinks afterwards (so you can introduce your new friends to your old friends).

  • andrewhyde

    I've seen many variations of this tried, and it never seems to work out. I wish they did, but restaurants work in sections, and very few will break up a table to two waitstaff.

    Actually, some of the worst dinners I've been to this year were preorder dinners. Don't know why that is.

  • andrewhyde

    I love the random seating idea. If you are at the same conference, the chance you can learn or share something of value is there. I love dinner at tables of 4 or max 6.

  • Great post.
    1. I have rarely enjoyed a meal with more than 5 people at the table, especially in a crowded resto where it can be hard to hear what others are saying. Also, don't you find there is always that one person in a group who doesn't put in their fare share? Ten four tops. Hell yeah.

    2. I don't know I like the random seating idea… Theoretically it's great, but I've been burned before. 🙂 I don't care what you do, I care who you are. Been stuck next to boring dullards before.

    3. Tip well. I'm with you Andrew. This is key. If the location is great we want to be welcomed back.

    4. I'd be happy to be included in any dinner experiments.

    -Grace

  • TimothyJ

    I also think trading seats with people post the meal can work if you're going to grab that capuccino. Order it, wait for it, take it with you and see if someone wants to swap with you for a bit. This is usually better in groups where everyone knows each other.

  • Good suggestion Andrew.
    Defrag used an interesting process for their conference and getting people out to dinner. They called it “Birds of a Feather” They set up a conference wiki with different topics that were of interest and people signed up for what interested them. You could do something along the same lines for your 4 tops so that participants had something in common to talk about.
    I like the part of gathering in the bar for apps and drinks beforehand. These two items are the most discretionary in a dinners selection. Stepping back into the bar after dinner could allow a quick clearing of the tables for a dessert / coffee round at different table so you'd get double the exposure.
    Many in social medial enjoy the conversations that large crows create. Limiting the tables to 4 tops impedes this. Rotating between distinct courses brings back the social element. Just cannot do it too many times or staff will go nuts.

  • BugFrog

    Good idea. Some love the big group gigs, but getting to know a smaller group better would make the next large group meeting that much easier. If you are new to a group, only having to give your “I am/I do” speech once or twice would be great.

    Meeting people and creating relationships can be very different things. This idea would seem to serve for creating beneficial relationships much better.

  • Make it an iPhone app. Have you thought about China?

  • This makes too much sense. The anonymity and chaos of a 40-60 person group makes paying for dinner hell. As far as dictating how the bill is split up at a small table, I've never had dinner at a small table with good people that didn't end in too much money on the table.

    Jeremy

  • This makes too much sense. The anonymity and chaos of a 40-60 person group makes paying for dinner hell. As far as dictating how the bill is split up at a small table, I've never had dinner at a small table with good people that didn't end in too much money on the table.

    Jeremy

  • This makes too much sense. The anonymity and chaos of a 40-60 person group makes paying for dinner hell. As far as dictating how the bill is split up at a small table, I've never had dinner at a small table with good people that didn't end in too much money on the table.

    Jeremy

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