Sunday, May 1, 2011

Needed: Restaurants Hungry For Big Parties

Korean BBQ is perfect for large groups
What restaurant do you suggest for someone who has a big appetite?  I mean an appetite hungry enough for a dozen people.

Clayton -- like all local bloggers -- fills bank vaults with Krugerrands by running a blog about arts called Felis pushkini.  But on the side, Clayton has a job, and he runs a casual group for folks in the office that meets on a Saturday night for dinner every month of two.  He emailed looking for advice about how to get space for large groups --
We've enjoyed many different places: Aida Bistro, Red Pearl, Sushi Sono, Royal Taj, Bangkok Delight, Stanford Grill, Mango's Grill (in Laurel), to give you an idea of the kinds of places we've tried. (Stanford does not take reservations, but we took advantage of their call-in-advance arrangement and split the group between two booths.)  
I am noticing more and more, as I look for new prospects, that many places either don't take reservations or don't want to deal with a large dining group. I get anywhere from 10 to 16 people sign up each time. I've learned to make sure that a place takes reservations and is ready for a large group before I make plans for a specific destination, and I know better than to consider some of the smaller places that obviously can't take a larger group.  
So, my questions:  
1) Is it unreasonable to expect a restaurant that normally doesn't takes reservations to accept reservations from a larger group of about 12 to 16 people?  
2) Can anyone recommend any restaurants in the Columbia-Baltimore area that would be better suited for larger groups?

I have to leave the first question to professionals (update: like Lee Biars below).  My night at Portalli's tells me that I probably don't understand all the challenges that come with large groups, especially on a Saturday night.  Is "no reservations" disappointing?  Yes.  Is it unreasonable?  I would just spend my money somewhere else and not worry about it.

But for the second, I have seen big tables having fun at places across Howard County.  Off the top of my head:
Kloby's for a different BBQ feast
  • Shin Chon Garden in Ellicott City.  Korean BBQ is a natural for large groups.  I don't know if Shin Chon takes reservations, but I have definitely seen 10+ people at a long table snapping up bulgogi, pork belly and more.
  • Mango Grove or House of India in Columbia.  In both places, I have seen large groups fill the center tables.  Mango Grove's dosas might complement your trip to Royal Taj.
  • Grace Garden in Odenton is small, but I have read Chowhound posts where people describe calling ahead and scheduling large Chinese feasts.  I would happily give the chef a number of entrees, a few "likes" and a few "dislikes" and then have him pick all the dishes.  (Demand fish noodles.)
  • Portalli's in Ellicott City has a large upstairs room.  That is a classy option, and bigger places -- like  Cafe de Paris or Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia -- may welcome big groups.  Consider a summer beer dinner on Victoria's patio.
  • Facci Ristorante in SoCo is making itself bigger, and it will take reservations once it expands.  In the same shopping center, Kloby's Smokehouse does great barbecue, and it's expanding as well.  I imagine a similar "call ahead" to see if Steve has options where you would order an array of ribs, chicken, sausages, etc. for the table to share.
  • El Azteca in Clarksville or Johnny's Bistro in Ellicott City.  Honestly, they're just on my mind from Richard Gorelick's recent list and Ken Oh's comment to my post.  I have never been to Johnny's.  So check both for reservations.
Anyone else have advice for Clayton?  How to get reservations?  Where to make them?

(Update: I already have another idea.  Soretti's Ethiopian Cuisine is a small place in Burtonsville.  I doubt they take reservations normally, but the owner loves talking to people and is very good at suggestion options for veg/meat or spicy/not spicy.  I imagine calling ahead and having her plan large combos to feed the table.  Try all-teff injera.)

(Update:  Below is a detailed response from Lee Biars of Portalli's and Diamondback Tavern.  I emailed Lee about big parties, and he wrote back.  He joked that he started and just couldn't stop.  It was like being back in College Park with a term paper assignment.  Here are some thoughts from the other side of the check:
I am one of the owners of Portalli's and The Diamondabck Tavern, and HowChow invited me to comment on this topic so you all could get the point of view from the restaurant operator's perspective.
1st and foremost, I would say that there are two reasons a restaurant would not except reservations for large parties: 1) Not enough space, and 2) Laziness. Reason #1 is understandable- if you don't have enough space to accommodate a large group then there's not a whole lot you can do. This would also include places that are packed every night and booking a large group would mean they are turning many guests away. Reason #2 is one that always gets me. A large party is GUARANTEED MONEY, and for any business to turn down guaranteed money is unconscionable. There are underlying reasons for the laziness, the primary being that they don't feel they can effectively pull it off (too lazy to learn) and they are too lazy to implement a system that works for large groups while at the same time accommodating your a la carte tables. And some just don't feel like dealing with the hassle. 
There are definitely adjustments that need to be made when executing large parties, but as with any business model, making adjustments in order to increase revenue is paramount. 
1) You need to make adjustments in your kitchen's execution- this is a fault with many restaurants. Keep in mind that most restaurant kitchens are designed to churn out no more than 6 plates of food at any one time, and plating is a process that usually takes 3-5 minutes for each table once the food is cooked. So when you're talking about a group of 20, that's 3-4 'groups' of plates if you operate the parties the same way you execute your a la carte tables. If each group takes 5 minutes to plate, you're looking at a 20 minute or so lag-time between the 1st guest getting their food and the last, which is obviously unacceptable since the first 4 people in the party might be done their meal by the time the last 4 people get their food. So instead of doing it the way you normally would, the kitchen needs to be able to do a 'bulk plating' where everything is plated at once. Some places can pull this off and some cannot. Those that cannot should probably learn. 
2) You need to shrink the menu- This is the number one complaint we receive when booking large parties: 'Why can't we just order off the whole menu?' The explanation is two-fold: 1) Some menu items take longer to prepare and/or plate, which will hold the entire party's food back. This is why some items need to be removed as menu options. 2) When you're talking about a large group, the kitchen needs to have some idea of what's going to be ordered so they can order enough product from their purveyors. Ordering food is a juggling act; order too little and you run out quickly, order too much and it goes bad. 
3) You get more complaints from large parties- Not necessarily from all of the guests eating, but generally the one that's paying the bill. This is completely understandable as they are spending anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars, and they want everything to go perfectly. The restaurants that can pull off large parties without a hitch generally won't receive these complaints, but those that can't will hear them. 
4) You need a large party coordinator that is effective- After chef and general manager, this is the most important job in any restaurant. Shockingly, there are many restaurants that don't even have one, or have one that doesn't aggressively go after large party business. Our systems are set up so that person who books the large parties for us (big shout out to Ally Scherr) goes over the party in great detail with the host, then prints up a BEO (banquet event order) for our service staff and they will know every single thing about the party just by reading that one piece of paper. She's also actively going out and marketing our places and getting large party packets into the hands of people that are generally responsible for booking restaurant dinners. 
5) You need to make certain concessions- Some parties will want to bring in their own cake or special bottle of wine for a toast. And some restaurants will firmly stick to their policies regarding not bringing in any outside food and drink. Frankly, I can't understand costing myself a $1,500 because of a $50 cake, but that's just me. 
My piece of advice to anybody looking to book a large group somewhere is do as much listening as you do talking. If the large party coordinator has their stuff together, then most likely the restaurant does as well. Do they call you back promptly when you have questions? Do they clearly explain the restaurant's policies regarding large parties? Are they quick to accommodate your special requests ('Yes, we can certainly do that')? Do they have a good grasp of the restaurant's food, drinks and concept? If the answer to any of these questions is 'No' then you might want to consider another venue. Often times when a large party goes badly at a restaurant it's the fault of the coordinator, as he/she might not have properly put everything in place to set the wait and kitchen staff up for success. Remember, people are a product of their environment. If the large party coordinator sounds unreliable and disorganized, the restaurant is most likely the same way. 
I hope this info helps! Good luck Clayton and anybody booking large parties. It can definitely be overwhelming at times. 
Lee Biars, The Diamondback Tavern & Portalli's Ellicott City, MD


Ken Oh said...

Honey Pig

Hot pot at Hunan Taste

Marianne said...

I have nothing to add to this list, but I just thought it was funny that when I first read the title of this post, I read,

"Needed: Restaurants for Big, Hungry Pirates"

and thought to myself that I didn't know Hoco had pirates.

Anonymous said...

Asian Court in Ellicott City.

MirocJo will often put large parties into one of a handful of private rooms they have.

La Chapala in Burtonsville looks like it can accommodate large parties. BTW, the ceviche is awesome, HowChow!

Soo said...

In Baltimore - I recommend Tapas Adela. They have a lovely courtyard that can fit up to 25/30 ppl. They also have a private chef's room that can hold up to 15 ppl. Amazing Tapas food.
In Howard County - for large parties w/ good food... I default to Korean BBQ or Chinese. Clyde's isn't bad for a menu that you know everyone will be able to eat from. El Azteca and Zapata's are good options for Mexican.

Jess said...

Doesn't Ranazul have a semi-private room toward the back? I haven't been back there, but it seems like it could be an option.

Clayton said...

Thanks to HowChow and all the commenters here. This has been a very helpful post, and I'll be investigating some of the suggestions. FYI, I've already asked at El Azteca (and also La Palapa in EC) and was told that they don't take reservations (at least for Saturday nights).

Lovely Rita said...

A Saturday night would be tough since most restaurants already have an income stream those nights. I have taken groups of 20-40 on weeknights to the following places:

Coho's - for a buffet. Reasonable and accommodating.
King's Contrivance. Pricey, but they did enjoy it.
Clydes. Pricey. The management was a little pushy, when I asked to substitute the standard dessert (not wanting ice-cream in January), they said I'd have to pay twice for each dessert.
Chapala – nice back room.