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.