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I have an etiquette question [moved from Manhattan]

So I want to throw a surprise birthday party for my girlfriend at a bar/restaurant somewhere in Manhattan. I've never done anything like this before. Is it common to pick up the entire check? Or can I get away with maybe just paying for the food? I'm not a rich man. I'm not a poor man, but I'm not a rich man. (The party is going to be pretty small, like 15 ppl tops) How does this work? And if anyone has any recommendations for venues.

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  1. Well, it's not uncommon for events to lack an 'open bar'... Is that what you mean by paying for a party but not the drinks?

    1. If you're "throwing a surprise birthday party", you should pay for the entire party. Only exception if you've spoken with all of your guests and everyone's agreed to pay their own way. Then you're not "throwing" a party, you're "arranging" a party. Maybe if cost is an issue, you should "throw" a smaller party to be within your financial comfort zone.

      1. It would help to know how you envisage this party... Is it going to be a sit-down dinner, at table? In that case, paying for everyone's dinner but not their drinks seems rather awkward. It might be better to 'arrange' a party, as Ellenost put it, and have everyone pay for themselves. Or, as she suggests, host a more intimate affair.

        1. One solution is to host the dinner at a restaurant that doesn't have a liquor license yet so your guests can bring their own drinks.

          Here's a BYOB list (fyi, I haven't been to most of these places). La Sirene is good but I'm not sure whether they can accommodate a party of 15.


          1. As others have said, if you are throwing the party and inviting guests, you should plan to pay for everything. One option to help limit your "exposure" is to arrange it at a restaurant with a private room and only provide wines in the room. You can usually limit cost that way, as compared to doing an open bar with liquor. Also, as a hint, people usually drink less on, say, a Sunday afternoon than they do on a Friday or Saturdday night. So you can also reduce the cost of the bar tab based on when you choose to have the party. Also, another way to limit your cost is to specify the time period of the party (for example, on Sunday from 5PM-7:30PM, or something like that). That way, guests don't feel they have an open invitation to drink all night at your expense. And all of these options/suggestions would be considered perfectly acceptable and "proper" in terms of hospitality and etiquette.

            1 Reply
            1. re: edwardspk

              also, perhaps having a brunch rather than lunch or dinner with one specific brunch beverage, i.e. mimosas; would be most cost effective?

            2. I've been to a number of celebrations of two types: (1) a host paid for all or (2) everyone paid their own share + sometimes a portion of the birthday celebrant's meal). I've only been to one where someone paid for all the food, but guests were responsible for drinks. I think the key is to be clear and communicate your intentions in advance. I don't think most people would be upset at you or think you a cheapskate for asking everyone to pay their own way, especially with a group that size. The only person I know who habitually treats groups of 15 at very nice restaurants is a near billionaire. As for separating out drinks, I didn't personally think that was awkward, either, but rather felt grateful to the host for picking up the tab for food. Whatever you end up doing, I'm sure your girlfriend will really appreciate your efforts to make her happy!

              If you DO choose to pick up the tab for the group, there are large format meals that are fairly inexpensive for large groups -- but perhaps not as large as fifteen -- including the Momofuku Ssam Bar bossam meal (ideal for 8 or so, with some dishes added) and Alta's one-of-everything deal, which I think a group of friends of mine ended up sharing six or seven ways.


              ETA :

              For parties at bars, many hosts of larger groups rent out a small space (group of tables or a roof deck), where guests congregate and bring presents. If guests want drinks, they purchase their own and pay after each round or open their own tabs. At these sorts of events, generally held later at night, I generally don't see food being served. Some bars will allow you to bring your own birthday cake, especially if you pay for a round of champagne for your guests.

              1 Reply
              1. re: michelleats

                If it is a sit-down dinner, as I have hosted at restaurants before, you can have several choices of wine at the tables (that I paid for). I have found that everyone just drank wine and the matter was tended to.

              2. I think this depends on a number of factors, age and formality not least among them. When we were younger and just coming out of college, hosting a party at a casual restaurant or bar meant everyone paid their own way. Occasionally you might find that the host arranged for an open bar so that there was a cover fee to get a wristband, but as we got older, we realized having guests whip out cash as they enter the door is rather inhospitable. Still, I just attended a surprise 28th birthday party for a friend in finance and we all paid our way through dinner and the bar without batting an eye. If you are not arranging dinner in a private room at Daniel, I don't think people expect these sorts of casual get-togethers to be free.

                2 Replies
                1. re: JungMann

                  Out of curiosity, was the surprise 28th b'day party arranged as a "Hey, let's get together at xxx..." sort of party, or was there a person who invited you and the others to celebrate this person's b'day?

                  1. re: huiray

                    His girlfriend invited his close friends to surprise him at dinner and planned for a larger group to join us for drinks at a lounge where she reserved us tables. She planned the event, but I would not call her the hostess so much as the party organizer. And accordingly I wouldn't have expected her to pay for our dinner.

                2. I've been to multiple occasions like this. Usually when its a sit down dinner for someone's bday and the check comes the host who is throwing the dinner for her bf will open it and say okay everyone owes $50...it's annoying bc some people drink alot more than others but its not like anyone is expecting to eat/drink for free. For other get togethers that are more drinking than dinner focused the host contacts the bar and gets a deal like $30 for 3 hours of open bar, then includes this detail in the invite so everyone knows they are paying when they got there. Of course the host always provided a cake. You're the host, you're in control and can get away without paying for the whole thing much it is much appreciated when you chip in!
                  However, personally, I think if people assume they are paying their own way they'll see that as the gift to your gf if you make it clear that you are hosting they will probably bring something for her.

                  1. I did something like this for my husbands birthday last year. Invited about 16 people for a surprise party. I stated it clearly in the invitation that we would all meet up in a bar before dinner and that all drinks and appetizers we had there would be on me, and that the dinner and wine we had later would be at everyones own cost.
                    For this reason, I picked a casual, inexpensive place for dinner, and also made it clear in the invitation that the gift for my husband was the time spent together, and no other birthday gifts were expected.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Klary

                      Yes, that would be one way if the OP wanted to dodge paying for drinks or other stuff.

                      Without any explicit caveats clearly spelled out right off the bat, if someone INVITED me to an occasion (like this birthday) at a restaurant where food and drinks is served I EXPECT the host - yes, the inviter - to pay for everything. I might bring a present, but I do not expect to pay my way.

                      How you word it will be important.

                      1. re: huiray

                        My expectations are the opposite, based on the events like this that I've been to. I have a few circles of friends and we're all in our 30s and 40s and when we're invited to a restaurant for a birthday, we're expected to pay our own way. If it's a single friend, we usually pay for his/her dinner, although not usually with married friends.

                        That being said, when I plan such a party, I pay for the entire thing, but that's not at all the norm in my circle.

                        1. re: Chris VR

                          Are these surprise parties? Or is it "Let's take John out for his birthday?" without a designated "host" as such?

                          We're invited to a surprise party this coming weekend at a restaurant and I fully expect the host who sent an email invitation of "I'm having Fred a surprise party" to pick up the tab.

                          1. re: Janet from Richmond

                            In both cases, surprise party or not, whenever it's happening at a restaurant, the custom within my various circles of friends is for people to pay their own way. In most cases, we usually pass the check around and calculate our own totals, rather than splitting it evenly, with the understanding that not everybody has the same budget for dining out, and the friend eating and drinking light shouldn't have to subsidize the friend eating steak and drinking multiple cocktails. Only when people seem to be eating and drinking around the same level do we sometimes divide the check evenly.

                            As I mentioned, the exception is when I'm hosting, but I'm the odd man out on this, and also more financially secure than my friends. I like to think that even if that wasn't the case, I'd still view hosting duties in the same light, but I really don't think negatively of my friends who see it otherwise.

                            One of my close friends has discussed this with me and the way she views it is that their house isn't large enough and they also don't want the hassle of entertaining at home for a birthday party. (She does throw lovely dinner parties for smaller groups on other occasions.) She couldn't afford to foot the restaurant bill for all the people that might like to celebrate with the birthday girl/boy, so she sees this as a way to include a bigger group of people and figures if people can't afford it, they don't come, so there's no harm done.

                            1. re: Chris VR

                              Your friend is the perfect example of why I find this tacky. You host the party your budget (both size and $) can afford. She wants to have her cake and eat it, too. If she can't foot the bill at a restaurant, she should change the venue or invite fewer people.

                              I can maybe see people in their 20s getting away with that move, but by the time you reach your 30s and 40s, it's just embarrassing. I know DH's birthday is October 24th. If I want to throw him an elaborate party, I'd start saving for it in the summer. Part of being an adult is fiscal responsibility. I'm not saying everyone can afford to throw fancy parties at will, but if you can't afford to pay for everyone, you need to scale back, plain and simple.

                              1. re: invinotheresverde

                                We see it the same. The party may be a surprise, but the birthday is not. You know it's coming. Have the gathering you can truly host or don't host one. If my daughter who was in college at the time (and had just gotten engaged) can do it, most people can.

                                IME people who expect guest to subsidize their party are cheap to begin with.

                                1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                  I understand your perspective and all I can say is my friend is a lovely, generous person in tough financial straits, and I'd rather spend time with her and that group of friends on those terms than to not see them at all. Since her way of things is the norm with a few of my circles, it doesn't feel out of the ordinary for me and I don't get offended by it at all when it happens.

                        2. re: huiray

                          Ditto, huiray. If I'm "invited" by a host to dinner or a party I expect the host to pay. When we host a dinner we say something like "you'll be our guests."

                          If someone is just "arranging" a get together I expect to split the bill evenly between the group or people I'm dining out with.

                          As michelleats said in an earlier post, alot of confusion can be avoided if the "host" or "arranger" communicates clearly upfront.

                      2. If you're holding it in a restaurant with a private room I'm sure you can arrange with them to only have drinks in your price-range available - you could pre-pay for X number of bottles of wine and when it's gone people have to order (and pay for) their own. Or you could make sure to tell the guests that you aren't paying for alcohol at all and just provide soda/juice (and they can buy their own booze.) Throwing a surprise party doesn't mean you have to host a bacchanal!

                        1. shared pay is not at all uncommon, and keeping the bar tab separate is not uncommon either. Just be up front with the other guests when they are invited (unless this social group has an established pattern, in which case you wouldn't have this posting up.) People don't appreciate that kind of surprise.

                          1. Now, I am from Mississippi, so things NYC are not in my normal sphere of knowledge, but with such celebrations, I plan on picking up the full tab, including drinks and wines.

                            Just me,


                            7 Replies
                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              I do also. At the risk of "going there" I think it's rude to host a party, especially a surprise party (as opposed to 'hey, lets all take John out for his birthday') and expect people to be in a position to pay.

                              One big question is who determines the food and drink.....my daughter (who was in college at the time) hosted my husband's surprise 60th birthday party. She saved up for it and invited about 15 people and arranged with the restaurant to provide heavy appetizers of her choosing, and beer, wine and sparkling she had chosen. No one paid for anything. If someone wanted a cocktail, they could have gone to the bar and gotten one on their own.

                              That is what a "host" does.

                              1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                I agree, it's rude to host a party and expect people to pay. Sometimes the word "host" is defined loosely. Many years ago I knew a woman whose daughter was the same age as my son. She was pregnant with her second baby and one of her friends (that I didn't know) left a message on my answering machine like this: "We are having a baby shower for Kathy on this date and time at this restaurant. Please RSVP to this phone number if you're coming." (This was waaay before email). RSVPd to the answering machine, never actually talked to the person before the shower date. Delighted to come, thanks for asking. Went with 2 moms from our kids playgroup and the lunch was a total of maybe 8 pp. At the end of the meal, 3 of the non-playgroup women huddled over the check and then one of them quietly said to me "Your share is XX amount." Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather, I thought you were hosting. Couldn't make a scene or even discuss it as the table was small. Playgroup moms and I exchanged glances but we all ponied up desired amount. Live and learn, I guess.

                                1. re: Janet from Richmond


                                  The drink list is a great question. It is one that I had not considered, until now.

                                  That might well tilt the table a bit.

                                  Thanks for making me think (or rethink).


                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                    Also, I hate surprise parties in general (which is why my daughter hosted my husband's.....we have a no surprise party agreement) and believe they are designed for she host to look like a great guy/gal and very little to do with the recipient.

                                    If you (general) want your girlfriend, boyfriend, SO, spouse, etc. to think you are a great person...then host the party. With hosting comes responsibility. If you don't want to host and all that entails, then don't.

                                    1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                      Well, there are "surprise parties," and then there are SURPRISE parties."

                                      I know that it paints me as dumb, but wife managed a SURPRISE 50th for me, some years ago. Now, she had help from our country club, and from all of our friends, plus a few relatives, who ran "interference" for her. Still, she managed, and I will never forget that.

                                      For hers, I managed to bring her to teas of joy, and "got" her twice, though she was actually part of the planning.

                                      At a recent b'day party (I was not part of the planning, but ended up hosting - long story), I treated everyone, including the b'day girl. Just seemed fitting.


                                2. re: Bill Hunt

                                  Agreed. The host pays. If money is tight, you simplify.

                                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                                    I agree completely. If I invite people to a party, I would expect everyone to think I was picking up the tab and would do so.

                                  2. As has been noted on this, and other boards, "it all depends". But, stating the intent clearly in the invitation is a good start. In my region, sit-down, casual, restaurants are willing to separate the food and alcohol bills, so that the "host" of the party can pay for the food only (or the wine, or whatever), and each guest is presented with their own bill at the end. The important aspects would be to advise your guests when the invitation is issued, and to check with the venue beforehand as to billing procedure.

                                    1. The terminology is what makes this tricky. If you send out invitations and say this is a surprise birthday party in celebration of my girlfriend would you like to attend? then you pay for the meals. BUT if you say, hey its my girlfriend's birthday I thought we could get together at X restaurant for dinner, I don't think you have to pay.
                                      Example: I held a surprise party for my husband to celebrate his successful bicycle trip from Vancouver to Halifax. I paid the shot -- invitations were sent out, rsvps, the whole nine yards.
                                      For his birthday, I asked some friends if they wanted to get together for dinner at a local restaurant. No invitations, no RSVPs, just "hey we don't get together much, wanna go for dinner Saturday night? Its Sam's birthday." 8 of us in total. I didn't pay the bill.
                                      Perhaps it depends on the formality?

                                        1. Now I'm actually afraid to ask people if they want to try a new restaurant with us...just by extending the invitation it seems that you are now designated "the host" and must pay for everything? Where do you draw the line? "Freia and I are going to try that new restaurant down the corner for Freia's birthday, want to join us" suddenly makes Sam a host and liable for the cost? As does "Freia and I are going to try that new restaurant down the corner, want to join us?" Where DOES someone draw the line between getting together for dinner at a restaurant with friends and becoming a host and footing the bill? It seems by general consensus here that if you ask ANYONE to join you at a restaurant, you gotta pay. I'll bet people aren't going out to dinner with friends very much, if that's the case. Very, very odd.
                                          In my circle of friends, regardless of the occasion, if we want to get together for dinner and it happens to be at a restaurant, we all pay our own way.

                                          24 Replies
                                          1. re: freia

                                            +1 - we always pay our own way - we are all in our 40's (some just hit 50) - I would never expect to have my dinner paid for except for at a wedding or very large event. Even if the host/coordinator said they were going to pay, we would at least make a grab to pay the tip or try to contribute in some way.

                                            I always find these posts somewhat surprising. But I guess that is what makes them interesting.

                                            1. re: thimes

                                              I wonder if it's simply a socioeconomic thing?

                                              1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                An interesting and presumptuous interpretation.

                                                For me - assuming that you are going to be paid for by friends carries the underlying context of "I wouldn't be here to help you celebrate your occasion otherwise, so I assume you'll be paying for me to be here and I'll try to enjoy myself."

                                                1. re: thimes

                                                  How is it presumptuous? I intentionally never said which group was more/less likely to pay.

                                                  For me- not paying for guests carries the underlying context of, "You wouldn't be here if you couldn't pay for yourself. Thanks for subsidizing my party".

                                                  1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                    I never said which way you intended the comment either. I think the mere fact of reducing the discussion to socioeconomic differences is in itself presumptuous.

                                                    I can see both sides of our "underlying context" comments but I certainly wouldn't attribute those differences to socioeconomic differences, especially on a relatively anonymous internet message board.

                                                    1. re: thimes

                                                      I only asked if it was possibly socioeconomic; never said that it was (or wasn't).

                                                      What kind of theory do you have, as there seem to be two definitive opinions on the matter.

                                                      1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                        I wish I knew. I think there is far to much unknown to really know "why" there are two theories.

                                                        If I try to be subjective about my own feelings on the matter and what I've read, i wonder if some people are responding to their expectations as a host versus as a guest.

                                                        As a host, I would be prepared and willing to pick up the tab or the wine or appetizers or something as a gesture to my guests. It just never happens that way with my friends (well the whole tab never happens, we routinely make the other smaller gestures).

                                                        As a guest, I would never expect someone to pay for me (except as discussed earlier for weddings, large catered parties, etc - and not that it is an expectation as much as a norm).

                                                        Typing that makes me think, another factor that may influence some expectation would be if at a restaurant we ordered off the menu or if the "host" had arranged a "pre-fix" meal situation. The former would lead me to expect to pay, the latter may bring up an expectation that I would not be paying but I would at least expect to pick up my drink tab.

                                                      2. re: thimes

                                                        I think that I can see where you are coming from.

                                                        I know several folk, way, way up the socio-ecomomic ladder, who always assume that someone else will pay for everything that they do. Regardless of the situation, the thought of them ever paying for anything is alien. Sometimes, it just comes with the territory. Some folk just assume a total sense of entitlement.


                                                  2. re: invinotheresverde

                                                    Perhaps - all my friends are working class to middle class. But I'm thinking it's also heavily influenced by region and generation.

                                                    1. re: Heatherb

                                                      I will start a new thread to try to gather that data (region and generation).

                                                      1. re: Heatherb

                                                        I do not know about "region," but might easily buy into "generation." Now, my parents lived through the Great Depression, and then both fought in WW II. Growing up, it was common for several families in the neighborhood to go out to dinner, usually on a Friday, or Saturday night. As I recall, there was never any presumption of payment, as each family expected to pay for their share of each meal. I took things a tad further, in that each meal would likely be split by the number of "couples" dining, with little regard to which dishes any couple actually had.

                                                        Now, the "region" was the Deep South, but I feel that had less to do with things, than the generations. Still, I could be wrong there.


                                                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                          Hm. I'm 35. My friends are all within a decade of me. We've never NOT split the bill that I can remember, though when we take someone out for their birthday, they never pay. But honestly, unless I've received a formal invitation or someone has rented a room with catering, I'm not assuming anyone's paying for my meal but me. It COULD just be socioeconomic class - if nobody could easily foot the bill for a 15-person table, should that prevent us from getting together somewhere to socialize for an evening for someone's birthday or any other occasion? My cousin and her friends operate a similar way - none of them could afford to foot the bill for an entire table, so when someone organizes something, everyone is just grateful for the effort they put in and never questions the idea of paying their own way.

                                                          1. re: Heatherb

                                                            I'm completely intrigued by this assumption that the difference is socio-economic class. (full disclosure, I'm a psychologist so these things interest me anyway).

                                                            And if you go through all the threads and posts about this topic you will find that all permutations of this topic result in people thinking "maybe it could be socioeconomic". So the rich people think poor people do or don't pay because of socio-economics, the poor people think rich people do or don't because . . . old people think young people do or don't because of finances, etc, etc. (and just so everyone doesn't get mad at me, socio-economics doesn't just mean finances). Educated people think the uneducated act a certain way because . . etc etc etc.

                                                            Our group of friends (who would fall into the invite for this discussion - small group of friends for birthday out at a restaurant) could all afford to pick up the check. It just wouldn't happen that way. If I were to meet one of them for lunch, say, we may do the whole "i'll get this one, you just get the next one" type of thing but not for larger groups.

                                                            So to me it doesn't seem to be highly correlated to socio-economics (though of course I haven't done a formal study - but the other off-shoot threads on this topic don't seem to support that either).

                                                            The social dynamics of it are very interesting to me. Wish I knew more.. . .

                                                            1. re: thimes

                                                              "And if you go through all the threads and posts about this topic you will find that all permutations of this topic result in people thinking "maybe it could be socioeconomic". "
                                                              If you look again there have been a few posts relating to people's carelessness with language or disregard for the meanings of words or phrases. "I'm inviting you to dinner" means a different thing from "Want to get together for dinner?"

                                                              and others which in effect deal with the meaning of words and phrases.

                                                              1. re: huiray

                                                                yup - I've been reading and following those too.

                                                          2. re: Bill Hunt

                                                            However, my two best friends and I generally have a rotating tab because we don't want to be bothered by divvying it up - it all evens out though in the end.

                                                            1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                              invinotheresverde, I meant it's an etiquette thing vs. huiray or ?'s post "maybe it could be socioeconomic."

                                                              For example, we have a friend who arranges a group dinner (all the diners have different budgets). They divide the check evenly. When you are dining out with a group you are also paying for the pleasure of the company.

                                                      2. re: freia

                                                        My friends are the same way. I've never been out to a birthday dinner at a restaurant where someone (the host or organizer) picked up the entire tab. We pay our own way, and usually insist on paying the birthday person's tab as well. Unless there's a formal mailed invitation or someone says specifically that they are hosting something (rare, if ever), we all go expecting to just have a dinner out with friends. If someone doesn't drink, we generally insist that they exclude themselves from the bar tab.

                                                        This whole idea that someone should pay for EVERYTHING if it's just adults getting together to acknowledge a friend's birthday seems so weird to me. It's my FRIENDS. Why wouldn't I be happy to pay for a meal and my drinks (and chip in on the honoree's meal) if it means I get to spend an evening having a blast with the people I love most in the world?

                                                        1. re: freia


                                                          I don't think it has anything to do with socioeconomic class. Changing ideas of politeness, certainly -- in both the "old rules" and the new, everyone is trying to be polite, maximize fun, and be fair about costs. They're just different rulebooks.

                                                          Also, perhaps the people who are "hosting" the entire thing go out with smaller groups/smaller invite lists? When I say "anyone want to try Blah Blah New Restaurant", I might be sending an email/electronic invite out to fifty people. I don't expect fifty to come -- but I have no idea whether it will be four or twelve, and hosting those are very different.

                                                          1. re: freia

                                                            I see dinner to try a new restaurant with friends in a completely different light than a "hosted" birthday dinner or surprise party.

                                                            We have friends we dine with regularly and split the cost......it starts with someone saying "How about dinner Friday night?"

                                                            It does not start with "I'm having a surprise party for John at Chez Paris 6:00 next Friday night, hope you can make it."

                                                            To me the difference is pretty simple.

                                                            1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                                              Agree completely. Can't imagine why this is even a question or cause for ambiguity.

                                                          2. If you are expecting people to pay their own way at a birthday dinner then why not say something like 'it'll probably be around $xx per head and I thought it might be nice if we pay for the birthday girl/boy so we'll just split the check evenly'. If there are concerns about some who drink and some who don't then tell them up ahead to arrange separate checks for alcohol.

                                                            If you are going to pay for the drinks only then why not just say so - 'i'll be providing the wine and beer but the food and cocktails/liquor will be separate checks.'

                                                            If it's going to be completely hosted and paid for by you the invitee then make it clear that you are picking up the tab by saying 'I am inviting you and your spouse to a birthday dinner for myself/Sue/John as my guest.'

                                                            it's ambiguity that causes these etiquette problems at the tables.