This piece was originally published in Slate on Oct. 21, 2008.
What has become of the birthday party? I used to love a good birthday get-together. Some other kid’s parents are picking up the tab for an afternoon of bumper bowling? There might be a Cookie Puss from Carvel? Fire up the Datsun, Mom, we’re going to be late!
I’m told that when you’re a legitimate grown-up—with a spouse and kids of your own—birthday parties are once again events you look forward to. You leave the munchkins with a sitter and go to the Johnsons’ for an evening of cocktails and casserole. Maybe an animated game of Taboo breaks out. Sounds delightful. But in the moment between earning your college degree and signing your first mortgage, the birthday party transmogrifies into something else. It becomes the birthday dinner.
For me, it happened in my late 20s. As my friends moved from graduate programs and entry-level positions into decent-paying jobs, a birthday meet-up at a dive bar to pound SoCo-and-lime shots started to feel a shade déclassé. Yet everyone was still living in small studio or one-bedroom apartments—no place for a proper cocktail party. The compromise: People started celebrating their birthdays by inviting friends out to dinner, typically at a moderately fancy restaurant. The kind of place that frowns on bringing your own candles and Cookie Puss but isn’t averse to sticking a sparkler in a crème brûlée.
Seems like a nice idea, the birthday dinner. It is not. It is a tedious, wretched affair. It is also an extravagantly expensive one. In these wintry economic times, we need to scale back. I hereby propose that the birthday dinner go the way of the $4 cup of coffee, the liar’s mortgage, and the midsize banking institution.
Consider, for example, the birthday dinner I attended not long ago in honor of my friend Simon. In the past, Simon’s birthday parties have been rollicking good times. His 25th, celebrated at a Manhattan club, ended memorably, if abruptly, when Simon was ejected from his own party by a bouncer who’d discovered him taking an indiscreet catnap on the bar. For his 30th, Simon, now a brain surgeon, organized a more civilized affair: dinner for 10 of his closest friends at an upscale Tribeca steakhouse.
Everything that can go wrong at such a dinner did. A maitre d’ led us to a giant oval table, where I was seated a country mile from the man of the hour. Could I have hit him with a strenuous toss of a French roll? Yes. But polite conversation was out of the question.
Instead, I found myself wedged between Simon’s high-school friends and his college friends. Feeling more of a ken for the high-school side of the table, I tried to orient myself in that direction, but the effort required a socially and anatomically awkward craning of the neck. I was left in a no man’s land—on the fringe of two conversations, an active player in neither. Had we been at a bar, I could have maneuvered my way out of such a quagmire by excusing myself to order another round of sweet, sweet SoCo and lime. Thus escaping, I could have muscled my way over to the guest of honor and given him a good birthday noogie. But mired in the middle of this dinner table, the only way I was going to get Simon’s attention was by faking an aneurysm, and I just wasn’t feeling up to it.
I busied myself by studying the menu, looking up in time to catch a nefarious glint in the eye of our white-smocked waiter. I understand from friends who’ve waited tables that serving a large party can have its annoyances: It’s hard to get anyone’s attention; you’ve got to extol the virtues of the soup du jour four times over. But a seasoned server knows how to work the situation to his advantage, and this guy proved to be positively au poivre.
Given the built-in gratuity for a party of our size, our waiter clearly realized there was nothing to lose by making the hard sell. He was getting 18 percent of whatever he could push on us, so he might as well give it a healthy shove. For an appetizer, he vigorously recommended the frutti di mare platter—an item accompanied on the menu by the dreaded “market price” designation. Working each flyleaf of the table separately, he managed to sell us three of these massive, adjustable-rate heaps of shrimp and lobster tail. One would have sufficed.
I can’t lay all the blame at the feet of our conniving server, however. As is often the case at birthday dinners, several different tax brackets were represented at the table, with humble grad students and servants of the Fourth Estate alongside deep-pocketed bankers and lawyers. Members of the latter group, accustomed to large, expense-account-financed lunches and dinners, were not going to let a few uneaten crustaceans slow them down. When our waiter returned to take our entrée orders, one of their number reached for the wine list—round of bubbly for the birthday boy! Ouch. It was time to think strategy.
There are three approaches to ordering at a birthday dinner. I actually didn’t know that the first approach was possible until this particular outing. Early in the evening, I noticed Simon’s friend Justin, a legendarily frugal graduate student, engage our waiter in an extended colloquy. After dinner, I sidled up to Justin to complain about the exorbitant bill, knowing my outrage would fall on sympathetic ears. Instead, he flashed a wicked grin and revealed that he had “seceded from the check, Jefferson Davis-style.” That is, having realized things were getting out of hand, he had worked out an understanding with the waiter whereby he would order on a separate tab that would include only his appetizer, entrée, and beverages. It was a brilliant stroke, though it required Justin’s unabashed cheapskatedness, which, like his taste in metaphor, is rare indeed.
On to the more subtle approaches. The first is to order as inexpensively as possible, in an attempt to foster a norm of fiscal conservatism at the table. This strategy is rarely successful. You order a house salad and the chicken and roll the dice that the guy next to you will feel too embarrassed to order an entrée called “steak for two.” Such restraint cannot be counted on in a large, salary-diverse group.
The other approach, the one I favor, is to order offensively. Your typical birthday dinner is around 10 guests strong. Given a group of this size, you can safely assume there will not be an itemized accounting of who ordered what come bill-paying time—it requires too much math and is usually adjudged to be not in keeping with the celebratory nature of the event. Armed with this knowledge, the only way to order is with abandon. If I’m going to be subsidizing the sybaritic corporate lawyer at the end of the table (who, I happen to know, wouldn’t think of ordering a beer unless it was brewed by a Trappist monk), you’d better believe he’s going to be paying for a tract of my baked Alaska.
I developed this system after too many birthday dinners where I went home poor and hungry. This way, at least, you get the food you want. But the victory is pyrrhic. Tradition holds that the birthday boy make a perfunctory swipe at the check before it’s whisked from his grasp. In the case of Simon’s party, not only was the man of honor off the hook for his portion of the bill, but at the suggestion of a chivalrous spendthrift who I’d have kicked in the shin had the table not been so vast, the group exempted Simon’s girlfriend as well, since she’d undertaken the arduous task of sending out the Evite. A check that would have been a hardship split 12 ways now was to be split by 10.
Simon is one of my oldest and dearest friends; I like to think I’d do just about anything for him. But sitting here looking at a charge for $168.51, I find myself wondering how good a friend he really is. $168.51! Do you know how many Uno‘s individual deep-dish Spinoccolis that would buy? Seventeen. That’s two-plus weeks of dinner.
In a way, though, it is I who owe Simon. The piles of jumbo shrimp floating on seas of melted ice; the untouched beds of creamed spinach; the endless rounds of marked-up Beck’s Dark—they flash before me now whenever a birthday dinner invitation comes my way, and I can’t bring myself to RSVP yes. The excesses of Simon’s dinner were what I needed to find the social gumption to swear off such affairs entirely. Throwing a party for your birthday? I’ll gladly attend the festivities. Point me to the bowling shoes and buy me a few frames. Cook me dinner—I’ll bring the Taboo. Otherwise, see you next year, pal.