As a kid, you probably thought birthday parties were awesome. Your mom would invite all your friends and find the least-creepy magician in town, and you just had to show up and eat your ice cream cake before it melted. Too bad we all had to grow up and start planning our own parties because somehow, the default go-to plan has become the dreaded birthday dinner. And I know it’s a cliché to say “the dreaded X,” but it’s not an exaggeration. People seriously dread these things. Last week I invited a friend of mine to an event, and he was like “Uggh, I can’t. I have to go to [person’s] fucking birthday dinner.” I understood immediately and was oddly relieved that [person] didn’t think of me as good enough of a friend to make the invite cut.
The fact that birthday dinners suck shouldn’t be anything new. Take a moment and try to remember a single time you left a BDD and thought, “Man, that was incredible. I’ve got to do something like that for my birthday.” NEVER. Yet when your own big day starts approaching a little too rapidly, and the idea of coordinating some epic camping weekend seems really stressful, but the idea of doing nothing seems really sad, you forget everything you know and think, “Wait, what about DINNER. With everyone! WHAT A GREAT IDEA!” It’s not a great idea. It’s the worst idea. Please don’t. But no, you’ve already given birth to what will become a heinous group-email thread, so here we go.
There are so many reasons why these things are the worst for hosts and guests alike. Here are a few. Bookmark them. Read them bimonthly and send them to your friends preemptively. I’d love to be done with the whole concept for good, and here’s why:
1. People are flaky.
Hi. Have you met your friends? Planning something that relies on more than five people arriving at the same place at a precise time is, at best, optimistic – at worst, stupid. Tardiness aside, people straight-up BAIL. I’m more often begrudgingly attending these things out of sympathy because I’ve gotten wind of how many people are dropping out, and the idea is just depressing. I once went to a surprise birthday dinner where a private room was rented out, table set for 11, but when the birthday girl walked in, there were just four of us sitting around one end of the huge, empty table. It was like, “Surprise! You don’t have any friends.”
2. They are always exceedingly expensive.
As soon as you overhear some fancy pants ask the server what kind of scotches they have, you can go ahead and mentally double what you expected to spend that night. By now you should know that this is inevitable, and so you’re left with two options when it comes to an ordering strategy: A) order a modest entrée and a beer in the hopes that at least the others around you will be peer pressured into a reasonably conservative meal (not likely); or B) embrace the fact that you will be subsidizing a few $60 bottles of wine that, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a whiff of on the breath of someone in a goodbye hug, and order like it’s your goddamn last meal on Earth. Neither is ideal, but while option A usually leaves you poor, hungry, and resentful, with option B you’ll leave slightly more poor but at least a little drunk.
And don’t be fooled by a prix fixe menu; they’re actually worse because they offer an illusory glimmer of affordability. A couple of years ago, I was one of 16 people invited to a birthday dinner. The host had ordered a prix fixe menu and said it would be $35, which included the tax, the tip, and cake cutting. OK, cool. I tried my best to fill up on my “share” of the small plates and got one $9 cocktail, and when the bill came, I pitched in $50. The host looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Uh, it’s gonna be at least $100 a person.” Turns out all those bottles of wine and rogue apps we’d seen bouncing around the other tables had gotten lost in the 18-inch-long bill. Oh, and multiple people left early, throwing down $35 and blissfully forgetting about the four drinks they’d ordered. This was pre-Venmo, and there was a pissy mass hunt for ATMs all down the block. Paying the bill took about 40 minutes, with the host screaming at people anytime someone tried to sneak away. Really fond memories of that one.
3. Stagnant seating arrangements feel like an eternity.
Theoretically, the point of these things is to celebrate with the person whose birthday it is, and sitting around a huge table (or multiple tables) makes that impossible for 80% of the guests. If your birthday wish is to watch me chew things from afar, I could have saved the $110 and sent you a really beautifully produced Snapchat.
Most of the time, I end up sitting at a distance, where I could MAYBE hit the birthday boy/girl if I fashioned the menu into a festive paper airplane, but that’s not my idea of “quality time,” and I sadly really suck at throwing things. Since these dinners are a worlds-colliding experience by nature, there’s a moment of light panic when you first approach the table. You’ve got about four seconds to analyze who’s planting themselves where and make a quick decision that has long-lasting consequences. It’s not that I don’t want to make small talk with someone’s random work friend for two hours; I can handle that, possibly even enjoy it. The real risk is getting stuck between two separate worlds of friends and never being fully included in either conversation. Or worse, being just out of reach of all the shared plates of food. Seeing someone enjoy their third stuffed mushroom when you haven’t had your first breeds a really ugly, potent brand of anger that makes you hate yourself as much as that greedy, mushroom-hogging bitch.
4. Figuring out the bill is a fucking nightmare.
Let’s say all went perfectly until now; everyone showed up five minutes early, beautiful new friendships were budding between work friends and college friends, and everyone got exactly the same number of spring rolls. Truly, a night to remember! Nope. Get ready to hate everything, ’cause OH SHIT, here comes the bill.
Hopefully, the host picked a restaurant that has mints at the door, because every guest, regardless of how extravagantly they indulged or how little they consumed, will leave a birthday dinner with a bad taste in their mouth. Every single person will think they paid WAY too much for what just happened, and it’s pointless to try to avoid it. A mere 19 hours after my above-mentioned 16-person BDFH (birthday dinner from hell), I went to ANOTHER birthday dinner and very deliberately (albeit, stupidly) split a $14 entrée, drank water, and avoided the appetizers like they were poisoned. Really thought it was a foolproof plan, so openly depriving myself. THINK AGAIN! That one cost me just under $70. For half an order of pad thai and water.
I get it. In a group of 10 or more, the “Oh but I only had…” people are almost as annoying as the ones who order the surf and turf and four cocktails. Even on the extremely rare occasion when the bill is painstakingly divided by item, there are always a few people who have, apparently, never been to a restaurant before and aren’t familiar with the concept of tax and tip, turning the end of the night into a totally not-fun game of “find the stingy ass.”
More often, the take-charge person in the group gets out their phone calculator and divides the bill evenly, sans birthday person (who, at this point, is doing their best to awkwardly ignore the irritated, shocked faces of their friends). The calculation still weirdly takes forever, and the announcement of how much each person owes is decreed curtly, and without room for arguing.
Finally, of course, you have to pay. As any server can confirm, it is a true joy to watch a large group of people attempt to pay a restaurant bill. Really, the more the better, what with the six or more credit cards and multiple requests for change. By the end of the whole ordeal, everyone is salty, hungry again, and anxious to leave.
Look, I don’t think I’m a cheap ass, but I typically spend under $100 on a birthday gift for my own mother. And this is San Francisco; your friends are going to range from hella rich to hella poor, and the whole premise of these group dinners makes things uncomfortable for everyone. It’s not that I think birthdays need to be extravagant exercises in theme and creativity; I’m just saying there are lots of things you could do on your birthday, and a huge dinner is one of the worst. For less money and less hassle, everyone could pitch in and rent a suite at a fancy hotel with a pool. Do that. Do anything else.
Hero image by Sierra Hartman