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NYT - "You Do the Math" about anxiety over birthday parties in restaurants

This was published back on May 6, but I couldn't find any mention of it searching this board (sorry if I was wrong). It talks about some of the gripes people have about celebrating birthdays in restaurants with big groups. Main issue, of course, is the fact that those who don't eat or drink much get stuck subsidizing those who do - a topic that's been hot on the CH "Not About Food" board. As someone who typically doesn't drink much in restaurants, I found the situations described in the article very familiar!


Lots of funny quotes:

"It’s not that we don’t wish many happy returns to [the birthday person] ... really, we do. It’s the guy two chairs down who ordered the foie gras appetizer, Dover sole entree, side of truffled mashed potatoes and three martinis made with designer gin whom we never want to see again."

“Vegetarians always get screwed at these things...”

"Large groups of friends going Dutch at birthday parties, at what people persist in calling “ethnic” restaurants, is common practice just out of college. 'After age 30, it’s tacky'... "

I wholeheartedly agree with the first two quotes above (unless said vegetarians are big drinkers!), but I'd say the jury's out on the third one, depending on how fair your friends are!

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  1. I read the original article and I thought it would have generated a lot of discussion on chowhound as well. Fortunately, I live in places (Birmingham, AL and Durham, NC) where most restaurants (even higher end) do not have a problem splitting checks. However, on those occasions when I do end up at a restaurant that doesn't split checks and there are 6 or more people, there's always one friend who ends up putting it on his credit card and others pay cash. What bugs me about that is that there's always one person in the group who has dubious math skills (whether intentional or not) and ends up shortchanging the person who put the bill on the card. That irks me to no end. It doesn't seem to really both the other person but I get plenty mad for the both of us. :)

    1. Sad to say, but with my wife's family I've always learned to bring plenty of cash to any group dining. I was the credit card person once and ended up about 20% light on the bill and way under on tip. Now I just pony up my share in cash and let someone else be the sucker.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Scrapironchef

        To make everything easier the person making a reservation should automatically inform the restaurant that separate checks will be needed. With enough notice most restaurants usually do not have a problem. Another option would be to work with the restaurants manager and assemble a preset menu with about three entree choices (of course a vegetarian item is always assumed, but typically not printed). Then at least a certain price will be set and the party planner can inform everyone of the cost (before wine, cocktails, etc).

        Otherwise I always bring enough cash and keep track of what I consumed and how much it is (pain in the you-know-what, but I have been on the overpaying end before). I like what my good friend does for her birthday every year: Teppenyaki. Because at most places a table of eight is normally independant couples or families so the checks are assumed separate-no squabbles or mistakes. Of course, I can't see doing this for my birthday, too much noise at times.

      2. I know this will strike some people as incredibly tacky, but the best investment I ever made was spending $3.99 on a solar calculator from my local drugstore. It is slim and small enough to slip into my pants pocket and I am quick to bring it out when I am in a large group setting where the big eaters may be relying on a subsidy from those who are only feeling like a snack.

        The first time I brought it, there were complaints until I asked why anyone would be offended at having to pay for exactly what they ordered. Since then, I have found my trusty calculator has added much needed chlorine to the acquaintance pool as those who were looking for a subsidy are now always too busy to join in the fun.

        It may be tacky, but it certainly has saved me a lot of money and discomfort.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Seth Chadwick

          Every cell phone I've owned has a calculator built in.

          1. re: KTinNYC

            KT...when our son goes out with a large group of friends they all pull out their cell phones to calculate the bill, some sort of right of passage for young adults...but once they start earning their own money it's amazing how "smart" they get!

          2. re: Seth Chadwick

            Y'know, Seth, you make a great point.
            I always thought it was nerdy and/or rude to bust out the calulator -- like insinuating people are dishonest -- but you're right: who would be offended?

          3. I've come to a different place on all of this: I don't go unless I'm willing to fork over a lot of money. For big group dinners (ie, more than, say, 8) I figure that someone is going to end up adding far more money than they should strictly owe. I also always figure that's going to be and my wife. If we're good with that, then we'll go. If we feel like we don't like the other people in the group enough, then we'll decline the invite and usually take the birthday person out another time or have them over for dinner to our place.

            I'm not claiming some high moral ground here...its just I figure someone is likely to get hosed in a large group dining situation and I always make my decision based on whether I'm willing to be that person.

            3 Replies
            1. re: ccbweb

              I very much like this idea (although for now it means I will have to stay home, being a poor graduate student)

              1. re: ccbweb

                I'm with you on the idea of knowing you may have to cover a little of someone else, I've paid for people when it is appropriate. Your method works fine with friends who are "optional", but family events can be another story.

                1. re: Scrapironchef

                  Very very true about the family events being a different story. I do find that to be true across the board and not just in this sort of situation.

              2. I posted something! http://www.chowhound.com/topics/401179

                Brilliant, insightful article!

                After a heinous experience at Zibibbo restaurant in Palo Alto back in my college days, group dins are verboten for me. Better to have people over at home for large group celebrations.

                If I do go (for good friends, no more than 8, and some of those got to be couples) I mentally prep myself to accept that I'm going to be paying more than I intend to.

                Btw, something just doesn't feel right about punching away at a phone calculator on the table...

                2 Replies
                1. re: amandine

                  nothing feels right about getting hosed amadine :) (wink) pull out that calculator!

                  1. re: HillJ

                    Fortunately, my friend's bf is a graduate student in mathematics, and an incredibly good guy, so I just hand it to him and save myself the anxiety...

                2. After plenty of these experiences, I eased into the practice of entertaining at my house. I'd tell people to bring alcoholic libations (which cut the cost in half). I figured it was cheaper for me to feed 12-20 people in my house than to pay my share and the difference to make a decent tip at a restaurant. And it prevented me from having bad feelings which was way more important.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: thinks too much

                    I have done that, too. Not only is it often a better deal, especially if one's friends are good enough to bring things like wine or dessert, but it's easier for people to talk with those who aren't sitting directly next to or across from each other. And I agree, it's often the feelings, rather than the money, that get saved, but that matters. In reply to comments both above and below, I've also found that it's often less stressful to skip the big group restaurant gatherings (especially when I know certain big spenders will be present and ordering freely) and invite the birthday person out one on one another time.

                  2. Treating a friend to a birthday lunch is my pleasure, one on one. I've gone to countless work parties where someone from the office attending the party and had no cash/credit on them...and wound up owing someone money. For me, that goes too far. Stop at the ATM...make a quiet arrangement with a co-worker to spot you a 20.00 before you order...or decline the invite.

                    As with other threads on how to handle a group tab, I still believe if you can't communicate with your dinner companions, why break bread with 'em.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: HillJ

                      Nice also to go the extra mile and break that 20 into small bills... or else everyone has the same thing and no one has change.... how I hate that.

                    2. HaHa... that's a great article. Reminds me of the time my friend had a birthday dinner at a restaurant and invited about 20 people. At the end of the night, it got "late" so half of the party just got up, threw down $30 each and walked out. The bill came and it turned out to be $50 per person, mostly because of all the drinks and dishes the walk-out group ordered. I didn't find out about this until a week later... my birthday friend ended up paying for her own dinner and the difference plus their share of the tip! That was just a wow experience. This world is full of all sorts of people.

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: bluishgnome

                        Did she expect others to pick up her tab because it was her birthday? Sorry to get nitpicky here, but if she "invited" people to the restaurant, she should have paid the entire bill.

                        1. re: marcia

                          Well, I don't know what type of group you're hanging out with... but in mine, when it's someone's birthday, we like to treat them a bit more special than on a normal day. That usually includes chipping in an extra $10-15 each to pay for the birthday person's share of dinner... it's not much and it goes a long way.

                          But I guess we all have different customs. Thanks for sharing yours.

                          1. re: bluishgnome

                            I think you're spot on, bluishgnome. It's a bunch of friends at a restaurant and generally there's one person there who picks up the birthday person's dinner. Actually, it's my birthday tomorrow night and I've invited 8 people to meet me at a semi-nice restaurant for dinner where they may or may not split checks. While I'm not expecting anyone to pick up my check even though they have in previous dinners (and I do reciprocate) I definitely do NOT expect to be footing the bill for the entire dinner. I know my friends don't expect me to do so either.

                            1. re: gyp7318

                              Just got back from my birthday dinner tonight. One of my friends picked up my bill and the waiter split the check w/out any issue. No problems to report!

                              Even though I invited my friends to dinner tonight, I certainly did not expect to pick up everyone's tab nor did anyone expect that I would. I am really puzzled by those responses to the OP.

                          2. re: marcia

                            My opinion is that rule only applies when you invite one person to dinner (especially if its a date) or perhaps if you and your partner invite another couple to dinner. Unless, of course, its understood by everyone involved that you're going out to dinner together rather that someone taking someone else out to dinner.

                            Its all about context.

                            1. re: ccbweb

                              It's definitely all about context. And if someone invites me to a birthday party at a restaurant I expect they will pick up the check, as they are the host. If I had a party at home I certainly wouldn't expect my guests to pay for it. I'm not sure what the difference is.

                              1. re: marcia

                                The difference is, some people don't have wads of cash to throw a restaurant party, even if it is once a year. Waving up from the lower class ;) Hope the weather is better up there than it is down here.

                                1. re: bluishgnome

                                  It's not about the money, it's about the social conventions you are used to. In my social circle, no one would call up her friends and invite them to take her out to dinner for her birthday. On the other hand if someone is having a birthday, her friends might organize a birthday party at a resturant for her.

                                  I your group the birthday person does it him/herself and as a results gets to where they want with whom they want.

                                  It is possible that not having heard of this custom before, marcia is just trying to get to this idea that you have lived with for years. My guess is that the social customs of her group are those who invite, pay. I don't believe she is trying to be intolerent or condesending of your style, she just doesn't understand it and is trying to reconcile it with what she knows.

                                  1. re: bonmann

                                    Thank you, bonmann, for being more eloquent than I.

                                    To tell the truth, I am not partial to one social convention over the other. I have, however, been the victim (for lack of a better word) of being "invited" to a birthday/anniversary party at a restaurant and then, at the end of the evening, told to fork over my share of the meal. Now, I was raised to believe when I INVITE someone to dinner, be it one person or 20, I pay.That's it. A guest is just that, a guest, meaning they are not required to pony up any bucks whatsoever. This is my reason for hating cash bars at weddings, for example, but that's a whole 'nother issue.

                                    That all said, if someone suggests a get together at a restaurant, or is merely the organizer of such, I expect to pay my way. I suspect it's all in the semantics.

                                    1. re: marcia

                                      Miss Manners would say that the person doing the inviting should pay. However, with birthdays, the trick is not to organize your own, but draft a friend into it. So the friend calls people up and says, "Let's all take the birthday girl (or boy) out to lunch!" Then it's clear from the beginning and the birthday person isn't seen as a greedy mooch!

                        2. A couple of thoughts:
                          1. re: the calculator ... i dont think the main problem is people's ability to add and multiply.
                          i think the main problem is social conventions, awkwardness, perverse incentives and
                          somewhere further down, poor math skills.

                          2. as somebody who usually orders a fair amount, i try to "be a mensch" and offer up
                          some extra $$$ for the scotch, and perhaps more importantly offer to speak up if
                          somebody noticeably consumed less. "hey, let's split the bill n-1 ways, since jane
                          just had wine and dessert, and she can throw in $15". i think it's really awkward to
                          speakup for yourself in a large group where you may not know everybody and it's
                          nice for somebody else to look out for you.

                          3. i think this is the kind of thing where hard and fast GAAP type rules dont work
                          but you need some sense of fairness. in repeated interactions with people, there
                          are some people who develop reputations as free riders of one kind or another.
                          e.g. the person who announces "i'll just have a salad" but then "tries" each appetizer ...
                          hey guess what, when you order 8 appetizers to be shared over 10 people, everybody
                          is "trying" an appetizer. or just has a "taste" of the wine ... hey if everybody got 3x3oz
                          pours, and you had 2x1.5oz + 1x2pour, you are now participating in the wine course.
                          if you just have a sip out of your friends glass, ok you're excused there, and i'll say
                          something about "jane didnt have any wine, so let's do an n-1 calculation there".

                          4. among the 30 somethings i know here in SF, i think the convention is much more
                          treat the birthday boy/girl rather than put them are on the hook for a 20person bill.
                          often these arent especially close friends, and it solves the problem of bringing a
                          present. these are more a case of "organizing an evening out" than a hosted dinner.
                          if the birthday person truly was hosting a party at the restaurant, i think that means for
                          formal rsvps, presents sort of mandatory etc. if jane is my friend and i am more than
                          happy to shell out $30 for a hosted dinner, that doesnt mean i want to pay $60 for the
                          party-of-jane, when she shows up with her friend visiting from NYC or the new boy
                          she is evaluating but has not advanced to boyfriend candidacy.

                          5. again there are people who "work" that convention and try to schedule their
                          birthdays at unreasonably expensive places ... i consider that incredibly tacky.
                          i think you need to pick food or people ... do you want to spend your bday
                          with 20 friends, close and not close ... then pick a reasonably priced place. if you
                          want to prioritize food and go to a nice place, go with 2-4 close foodie friends ...
                          and the norms about who pays can reflect the relationship history ...

                          anyway, my main point was "people who order a fair amount of food and
                          are able to do math are doing yeoman's work looking out for the people
                          in awkward situations."
                          [somewhat amusingly, in a slightly different splitting the bill context, re:
                          "being a mensch" see:


                          i leave off my stories about getting stiffed.

                          ok tnx.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: psb

                            Well said, psb. I'm with you 100 percent.

                            At least in my circle of friends, we just split the thing equally. If I've been a pig about the scotch, I'll offer up some extra cash. But I think any of us would be appalled if someone pulled out a calculator. Just our custom, I suppose....

                            1. re: wittlejosh

                              >At least in my circle of friends
                              i think the problems arise when the circle involves friends of friends ...
                              --some people are more reticent to speak up among strangers
                              --or with friends, they dont care about subsidizing them for $10-$20 ...
                              that's the equivalent of buying somebody a cocktail or three ... or in this
                              era, bridge toll and gas. and the feeling is "it all works out in the end" ...
                              and if it doesnt, you can tailor your relationship accordingly.

                              i always liked this line about "can i invite friends" [to a (campus) party]:
                              you are welcome, your friends are welcome, but their friends are not welcome.

                            2. re: psb

                              I'd quibble only with the ability to do math part :) I couldn't possibly agree more with point 4 and count myself lucky that I don't know anyone who would fall under point 5 (at least not that would invite me anywhere for a birthday).

                              I've also developed the reputation as the "fairness" guy in the groups of people with whom we end up out at stuff like this. We all start from the idea that we're just splitting it equally and most of our friends wait for me to take a glance at the bill and make some suggestions about who probably shouldn't be putting in so much and who needs to add a bit. I don't think its has to do with my innate sense of justice; rather, I think its because I worked waiting tables for years and managed a restaurant for a couple of years and (as does pretty much everyone who has done those jobs...and many who haven't really) pretty automatically notice and remember what everyone ordered. As you note, barring some one trying to game the system, its usually just an outlier of a thing...the one after dinner drink, the very expensive special cocktail, the lobster entree vs. the chicken most everyone else got, that sort of thing. So it often ends up being an extra $10 on the part of one person or something like that. The thing I find funny is that unless someone is in a cash strapped situation (in which case, honestly, we tend to move the whole thing to someone's house) most everyone will refuse to pull money back out of the pot. So, the tips usually end up being quite good. We have no problem with that.

                            3. I just realized agian how lucky I am. With the exception of one scrooge, we all tend to overpay and over tip. Those who drink add extra for their share - voluntarily. Never had a need to bring out the calculator, hope we never do - and we have pity on the folk who have a need for one among friends. To each his own I guess, but we all figure that over the course of a year or so it will all even itself out. (we rarely invite scrooge out any more).

                              1. This has become a pretty interesting thread. Since I don't have a single group of friends, I have seen situations that fall under all of the above, and I generally try to go with the flow even though internally it really annoys me when people are either super nitpicky (not splitting dinner because it was a $1 different) OR really unfair (splitting dinner with one person had 3 martinis and the other had a diet coke... this especially annoys me with alcohol).

                                But really I came on to tell a funny story:

                                On my 20th birthday, a bunch of friends took me out for dinner at a local Indian restaurant. A lot of argument had taken place about where we could go out; I was the only foodie and the only one who liked all types of ethnic food, but this particular Indian restaurant was deemed acceptable. Anyway, one of the diners ordered something he didn't like. So when the bill came, he told the group he wouldn't be throwing in as much money. *He offered something like 80% the cost of his entree.* I was absolutely horrified to have to sit there listening to my "friends" argue about how they would be covering the cost of dinner.

                                I have never let a group of friends take me out to dinner since then. It upset me that much.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Adrienne

                                  at least your associate was obviously an ass and ostensibly paid some social cost ...
                                  although with the rap against being "judgemental", maybe he didnt pay much cost.

                                  much more insidious is the person who orders item X which ends up sucking and then
                                  eats half of delectable item Y, leaving a large mound of gloopy item X at the end of
                                  the meal. [of course, this is unfair when you really are doing things family style and
                                  somebody "owning" a particular entree is only notional or for counting purposes].

                                  re: go with the flow ...
                                  yeah, sometimes rather than "be a mensch" i just ask "what should i put in"
                                  and wait for somebody to tell me ... and then just add $$$ if i think it is appropriate,
                                  but if i feel i've put in my fair share but there is a problem, i'll let it be somebody elses
                                  issue. i was trying to remember if there were any occasions where i didnt "be a mensch"
                                  and speak up for somebody getting shortchanged because the particular individual
                                  was lame in some way.

                                  since we're sharing super-lamo stories, here is a favorite from college era:
                                  this guy's parents were visiting and he asked a friend to come with them to dinner.
                                  at the end of the dinner he told his parents that he *and* the friend would split the
                                  bill! ... without discussing with the friend! so the friend not only had to pay her share
                                  of a "hosted" dinner, but had to subsidize the the hosts parents!

                                2. On my daughter's birthdays we have often meet up with her friends and some of their parents which we know for dinner after their day of fun. I usually end up picking up the tab for the group.