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The dreaded birthday dinner

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I stumbled across this hilarious and all-too-true invective against large group, split-the-check restaurant dinners on Slate, where the poor protaganist pays $168.51 to celebrate the birthday of his brain surgeon friend.

I especially liked the part where the author referred to three strategic approaches--gourmet game theory, if you will--on how not to feel totally screwed at these sorts of even-check-split events:

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.

A few more thoughts I might add:
  • If you're too ashamed to pull a Jefferson-Davis, you'll have to assume you'll be saddled with an even-split check. If you think you can't afford it--or you're not close enough friends with the person that you want to afford it--your best bet is to decline the invitation and celebrate with your friend in another way.

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  • Always be the person who pipes up for the budget-minded--"Since Louise only ordered an appetizer, and all the rest of us drank wine and ate steaks, she should chip in less."--and thank any gracious soul who returns the favor.