The holidays are here. Ready or not. As the calendar year acclerates head long towards its own oblivion, we find ourselves embracing-- or bracing for-- the inevitable season of parties.
Like caroling, office parties can be among the most dreaded-- or intriguing-- of holiday activites. All the atrocities these last and longest nights of the year compel us commit-- over-eating, binge-drinking, sleeping with intoxicated co-worker(s)-- can and often will be done in plain view of all your colleagues, their spouses and your boss.
Are you ready?
If you find yourself in charge of planning such a party, be of good cheer. Office parties can be fun. If you find the word "fun" a bit hard to swallow, then let's say informational-- you can find out a lot about your co-workers or employees by the way they eat, drink and talk to you under the influence of alcohol. I should know-- I work several of them every season. Adding up all my years as a professional waiter, I would estimate the number of office parties I've observed to be in the low hundreds. My offering to you this week is a practical guide of what to do and what not to do to make your festivities as festive and as low pressure as possible.
Find a good restaurant at which to host. By good I do not necessarily mean upscale. Find one that will suit your needs and your budget best. And do it early. If you haven't found one by now, it is most likely too late. Start looking next year around June or July to get the time slot you want. If you're still haven't found a place or looking for next year, you might to start by looking here.
If you plan on entertaining on a large scale, meaning any number of guests higher than 12 consider either renting a private dining room or part or all of the venue of your choice. Other diners won't want to share in your holiday cheer-- they have enough of their own to contend with. If the restaurant has a banquet manager, he or she will be your best friend and guide you through the process.
Select a banquet-style menu. This may be actually required of you. Off-the-menu ordering for a party of 20, 40 or 100 would cause many restaurant kitchens to break down and cry. Banquet menus allow a chef to plan ahead for your arrival. The benefits to you include:
The practicality of having food pre-selected, which allows your guests to concentrate
on each other rather than the menu and allows your servers to spend more time enabling you to have fun. And I do mean enable.
A pre-selected menu gives you better control over spending. $25.00 per person?
$100.00? It's your budget, you choose.
Decide what sort of alcohol will be served prior to the party date. Wine and beer only? Not uncommon. Full bar available? You decide. If offering cocktails and budget is a concern, be sure to instruct your servers as to what type of drinks your guests may have. Top Shelf liquor? I've seen greedy waiters and guests conspire to order $125.00 snifters of Louis XIII cognac and charge it to the host.
If you are the boss and a teatotaler, I strongly advise imposing the same sanctions on your employees. Even if it is a luncheon. I don't care if it's a work day, this is a holiday party. Let them live a little. They will like you more for it, if that is important to you.
If there is a food and beverage minimum to meet and you are concerned about exceeding it for budgetary reasons, tell your server of your concern. For example, if wine is to be served for a party of twenty people, ten bottles should be on hand-- half a bottle of wine per person is the general rule. Tell your waiter to inform you when the tenth bottle is opened and proceed from there.
Also, ask the waiter to let you know when you are nearing your minimum. A good waiter can be your closest ally in these party situations. Your welfare will be taken into account, not only because he or she is a professional, but because you are the one paying the bill. One thing I must add here is that, as a salesperson living off an often arbitrary percentage of his or her commission, it is counter-intuitive for a server to actuall find ways of saving you money. If your server has helped you keep your bill from reaching budget-busting heights--sometimes hundreds of dollars-- you should take into account that he or she has saved you a lot of money and show your appreciation financially. An additional $50.00 or $100.00 tacked onto the tip is a nice touch and a show of good will. If your server is apathetic, you could be in trouble.
Again, if money is a concern, skip the bottled water. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir is one of the best sources of drinking water in country. The bill for mineral water can reach $100.00 or more. As a server, I'd rather see my host spend his or her money on a better wine. Speaking of...
Everybody seems to want Pinot Noirs these days. I, like everyone else I know, blame the film Sideways for this. I take that back. I blame people who don't know anything about wine who saw the film. Not in on the little joke, they drove the Merlot market into the ground and Pinot Noir prices through the roof with their demands. I happen to love Pinot Noir, but guess what? People drink A LOT of it. Since it is higher in acid than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, people will keep drinking and drinking and drinking, which can be fun...and expensive.
Chardonnay? I have nothing against this grape either. It's just that it seems to be the go-to grape for people wanting white wine. Always. It is not a boring grape by nature, but its omnipresence sadly makes it so. If you think the demand is so high for Chardonnay and insist upon having it, fine. But please let me fill you in on a little secret. Many people ask for Chardonnay because, chances are, they couldn't tell you the name of any other white grape. Show some originality. Exhibit a little flair. Ask the beverage director which wines will best serve both your menu and your budget. Often, European wines-- especially whites-- are a better choice for party drinking than California Chardonnay. Serve something with an approachable nose and an unpronouncable name. Moschofilero, Gruner Veltiner. It will give your guests something to talk about other than pipelines and quarterly reports.
Should you be the type of person who likes to decorate, at least see the space in which you are planning to entertain before hauling out the holly. Many restaurants will most likely have their own carefully chosen holiday decor and take offense to your need to tart it up a bit. Flowers are a nice touch, but keep them low key. Last week, I was in charge of a party of 41 people who agreed to pack into a private space designed to hold 30 comfortably. They had been warned. They were good people, I enjoyed them. But when the hostess asked if we could cram yet another small table in to showcase the gingerbread mega-mansion some of her co-workers had made, my confidence in her decision-making ablilities was badly shaken. The holidays seem to fill some people with unreasonable expectations. Keep it simple. Keep your reality in check, please.
Another important decorating tip-- You may think confetti strewn about your holiday tables is fun, but the person who pierces the roof of his or her mouth on the edge of a tiny Christmas star or snowflake might disagree with you. If you find cute a necessary component of Christmas, please confine your seasonal decorating to your own holiday theme sweater.
I leave the rest up to you.
Best of luck.