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Planning a Restaurant Wedding? Read This First

When your love of food is almost as great as your love of each other

If you Google “restaurant wedding” with your location settings turned on, you’ll probably see an endless list of local restaurants vying for your business. It seems to suggest that every restaurant is interested in hosting your wedding! That may or may not be true, but regardless, it’s not particularly helpful in narrowing down the one(s) that will actually work for you.

For my fiancx and I, the restaurant wedding was appealing because we didn’t want anyone to spend the night before our wedding setting up decorations at a bare rented hall. We love food and have eclectic taste in décor. We liked the idea of a venue that came with built-in catering and decorations… And we crossed our fingers that it would be a budget-friendly option.

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Is a Restaurant Right for You?

I work in a library, and I make most of my important decisions—as well as many unimportant ones—by turning to research. How do you figure out if a restaurant wedding is right for you? To help with this question, I chatted with event planners Jess Rutherford, Owner and Creative Director at Sentimental Fools Events, and Renée Scotti Dalo, Owner and Lead Planner at Moxie Bright Events. Jess and Renée agree that the biggest challenge for most restaurants is the space: size, floor plan, and sight-lines. In a space of limited size, any add-ons like a dance floor, DJ, photo-booth, or even space for a bridal party to stand, will take room away from the guest seating area, and indirectly increase cost. All these things can take up a sizable footprint, so measure carefully. Renée adds, “something almost no one ever thinks about [is] the size of the tables! Restaurant tables are almost comically small—most two seat restaurant tables are 24″ x 24.” If show-stopping centerpieces or layered table settings are on your must-have list, be sure to take this into account, whether that means budgeting for rentals or seating your guests accordingly.  

Restaurant capacities vary greatly, but Jess has some guidelines about the guest list: “I would say that the ideal size for most restaurant weddings is between 35 and 70 with an absolute ceiling of 100 guests depending on the size of the space.” Though this might seem like a downside, she says that it could be an unexpected bonus: “a restaurant wedding immediately makes things intimate and allows you to really connect with everyone there.” If you’ve got a small-ish guest list, or if you’re looking for an excuse to trim the invites, this could be the solution for you.  

Space may seem daunting, but remember that the meal is where restaurants truly shine. As Renée summarizes, “the biggest pros are that you know the food is going to be delicious! You can rest assured that if you like the standards of service at the restaurant on normal dinner service, you’ll likely get just as good (if not better) service for your wedding reception.” Jess agrees: “The food will taste exactly like it did at your tasting and you can even order seconds if you want. Also two words: craft cocktails.”

Working in their own kitchen, restaurant staff really can do what they do best. And hosting an event at a restaurant means so many more options for exciting local fare, and a chance to highlight your all-time favorites to guests. Another big reason why we chose a restaurant wedding is my fiancx’s celiac disease, in addition to myriad overlapping food allergies plaguing our guests. We picked a place that makes everything in house, including sauces and charcuterie. They promised that they could manage food allergies without prior notice—in fact, they do it everyday. The potential for customization really sold us.  

Jess mentions another unexpected perk: “At a restaurant you can go back to sit at ‘your table’ and relive the magic over and over again. You can have food you loved on your wedding day in the space where you shared your first moments as a married couple whenever you want!”

For us, the pros outweigh the cons. We’re okay with passing on several things at our wedding, because we’ve chosen a small-ish restaurant venue. But we’re not exactly “giving up” anything: we have no interest in centerpieces, bridal parties, or a DJ. Instead, we want a simple event with minimal setup and tear-down.

The Bottom Line

So… do restaurant weddings automatically translate to cost savings? Not necessarily.

Working in expensive Los Angeles, Renée has not seen any significant savings in restaurant weddings when compared to more traditional settings like a hotel or banquet hall. Jess, based in the Maryland/D.C. area, observes that overall per-guest savings are small, and though there is potential for savings on décor; she concludes that “the main reasons these weddings are viewed as cheaper is because they are smaller in size and tend to happen at off-peak times.”

To break it down, for a restaurant to be booked for an event, there are two main routes: a full buy-out, or a private section. Your choice will depend on the number of guests, and it could significantly affect your costs. Is it important for you to have an exclusive space for you and your guests? For a smaller party, you may consider reserving a room or a partitioned section at the restaurant you’ve selected. Size and availability will vary from restaurant to restaurant. If you want a bigger party, a restaurant buy-out is often the only option. This means that a restaurant will agree to close the place to all other potential customers, in exchange for a guaranteed minimum spend from your private party. The dollar figure will depend on location, day of the week, time of the year, and the restaurant’s own policies. Peak times, such as Friday and Saturday nights, can be costly. And popular months for corporate events can also inflate that number. For example, if you’re looking at closing a busy expensive restaurant at a peak time, Renée warns that “it’s not unusual to have a full buy-out be $70K+” in Los Angeles. 

That being said, if a restaurant can meet the staffing needs, some will agree to open up for a private party on a day when they’re usually closed, for a much smaller price tag. This is how we ended up with a weekend brunch wedding in the spring, when they normally only open for dinner. At that same restaurant, a December Saturday dinner would cost about three times more than what we expect to spend.

Start with the Basics

Like any wedding venue, there are a lot of factors to consider. For a while, we considered restaurants alongside more traditional venues, using a must/want/nope list. A good meal that our allergy-having guests feel safe eating is a “must.” A microphone for the ceremony is a “want.” And we decided against hiring a DJ, so that’s a “nope.” Start the search with a spreadsheet like this, and you’ll find it much easier to avoid decision fatigue.

It’s never too early to start contacting restaurants to gather information. You don’t have to love the space, or even have eaten there. You’ll very likely be able to find photos of the space online, along with reviews. Pay attention to their specialties, and don’t be afraid to veer away from the “chicken or beef” set choices. This is also a great chance to explore the neighborhood and support a local business! In turn, Jess has found that the local restaurants “feel incredibly honored when you choose to celebrate in their space and tend to go above and beyond for their couples.”

Begin by compiling a list of potential restaurants, starting very broadly. Our list included favorite haunts, places we’d always wanted to try, and random places we walked by in the neighborhood.  Once my fiancx and I determined a rough budget, we started contacting restaurants. Occasionally, we popped into the restaurant and gathered some information in person, but we mostly used a generic email, so it wasn’t a very big time investment. It was not uncommon to get zero response. If the restaurant didn’t attempt to return my call or email after two tries, I crossed them off the list. We interpreted this as a bad sign for interactions to come.

As you initiate contact, you’ll want to have a spreadsheet to gather preliminary information (with wedding planning, spreadsheets are always vital). For this project, you’ll likely want the following sections:

  • Name & Contact: Many restaurants do special events all the time. And there is usually one person who specializes in this service. This could be an owner, an event coordinator, or a front-of-house manager. Servers and front-of-house staff will often have lots of knowledge about how events typically run, but ask for one main contact person, and coordinate your correspondence through them. They should have the authority to quote prices and sign contracts. From here on, be careful to label all your notes and photos with the restaurant’s name—you’d be surprised at how quickly details can blur!
  • Location: Pay attention to parking and transportation. If you’re having a ceremony elsewhere, it’s courteous to keep the guests’ commute as short and convenient as possible. Don’t assume that everyone will shell out for a taxi, and provide information about public transit if it’s available. Likewise, if valet services are offered, be sure to mention it to your guests.
  • Business History: Unfortunately, many businesses close within the first year of starting up. Restaurants, especially smaller operations, are some of the riskiest business ventures. Consider how far in advance you’re planning, and try to seek established businesses unless you’re very close to the wedding date.
  • Capacity: How many guests do you expect? Are you flexible enough to let your venue space dictate the size of your guest list? Don’t assume that you can guess the maximum capacity of a space without asking. Tables can often be reconfigured to fit more people, depending on your preferred style of service. But your maximum number will be limited by the building’s health and fire code, so be sure to double check with the restaurant, and please, believe them and do not try to fit more people than they can hold.
  • Date and Time: Especially if you require a full restaurant buy-out, there will be a minimum spend, calculated around what revenue the restaurant would be making if they were open. As mentioned earlier, the date and time could have a significant impact on your costs, so be sure to communicate whether or not your timing is flexible.
  • Budget: Look at your budget, and do some calculations. Have a ballpark figure for what you can realistically spend, so that you can quickly eliminate potential candidates too far outside your price range. At the same time, be prepared to adjust your expectations—a restaurant too expensive for a 100 guest dinner may be the perfect spot for a rehearsal dinner for 20.

Follow up with a Walk-through

Once you narrow down some restaurants that are definite maybes, schedule a walk-through. Ask your venue coordinator to pick a time that’s not very busy, when you can ask questions without feeling like you’re stealing their attention from the dinner crowd. During the walk through, you should confirm and clarify all the information you’ve gathered so far. These are some additional details that you should cover:

  • Schedule: How long can you have the space? Consider that if there is any set up or tear down, you will need to budget for that time. Work with your venue coordinator to come up with a draft schedule, if you can.
  • Floor Plan: A restaurant’s regular dinner service layout is probably quite different from what you’ll end up with for your event, especially if you’re choosing a buy-out. Things might be reconfigured. For us, we lost several seats at the bar, but gained a few more by turning individual tables into long ones. Restaurants know their space best, so ask for them to propose a floor plan, and see if it works for you. Jess adds that asking for proposed floor plans “will seriously decrease your stress.” 
  • Cake/Dessert: Do you dream of an incredible four-tiered engineering marvel in confection? If so, ask if the restaurant charges an extra cake-cutting service fee. And ask about refrigerator space, or any other logistical concerns, including space for the cake to be displayed. If you’re ambivalent about wedding cake, what other dessert options are there?
  • Alcohol: If you decide to have alcohol at your wedding, there will likely be multiple alcohol and bar options, ranging from open bar to table wine to individual tabs. Whatever you decide, make sure you let people know in advance if they’re expected to bring cash or pay for their drinks. This is must-have information for your wedding website, if you’ve decided to build one. Please note that in most cases, you won’t be able to bring your own liquor. Depending on where you are in the world, restaurants typically have to apply for highly regulated liquor licenses in order to serve alcohol. The establishment must protect themselves by following the law to the letter. Your restaurant contact should be knowledgeable about their license, including its limitations, so be sure to ask. For example, licenses in some regions can restrict restaurants from serving hard liquors, limit them to sourcing from a single distributor, or prohibit the serving of alcohol within certain hours.
  • Music / Sound: Many restaurants have simple sound systems in place, and can accommodate everyone’s favorite DJ, the iPod. Also remember to ask about neighborhood noise restrictions, especially if you plan to party late into the night.
  • Menu: Have a quick chat about the menu. You may need to come back for more details, but this first meeting is a time to get some ideas about options. If the kitchen is open, this visit is also a great opportunity to sample some specialty dishes. As a food lover, there are few things more nourishing to me than enjoying delicious plates that someone has taken a lot of pride in preparing. Keep your mind open, and savor the experience.  
  • Styles of Service: You may have a few options of how food is served, depending on layout, such as plated service or buffet. But Renée warns about plated service: “the way the kitchen flows on a regular dinner service is almost the exact opposite of making the same plate 200 times, all at once,” so you may encounter delays. If space is a concern, a buffet line might turn into a hectic game of human Tetris. A good in-between is family-style service, which was highly recommended by our restaurant. Guests can try a bit of everything, avoid waiting around for their food, and socialize while they eat. Like buffets, it’s easier to mitigate food waste by gathering what is uneaten at the end. Consider offering containers to your guests, or arranging for food donation.
  • Bathrooms: Check out the bathrooms. There should be at least one stall for every 25-50 people. Will your guests come with babies? If so, make sure there is room to change. If the bathrooms are not already, ask if you can bring signs that make bathrooms all-gender. Not only is this considerate to non-binary guests, it will also prevent long lines.
  • Hard Costs: After considering your budget, you should have determined some ballpark figures. Next, you need to discuss costs in more detail. We’ve mentioned a lot of options, and they come with price tags. You might get an everything-included fee, but the restaurant should also be able to provide you with a breakdown of costs. There might be optional add-ons that you can negotiate. Don’t forget taxes and gratuity. In tipping cultures, there is usually a set percentage of gratuity automatically applied to large groups. This can be a considerable amount of the overall price, so budget for it.
  • Ask, Ask, Ask: Restaurants host events all the time. They might already have experience with weddings; even if they don’t, they’ve probably done corporate parties, anniversaries, or birthday celebrations. Your restaurant coordinator will likely have lots more details to share with you. Front-of-house staff may be able to chime in with more information. Pick their brains!

What Next?

You’ve done it! After a few meetings with several local restaurants, you selected one that fit your budget and style. So what next? Get the contract in writing. Then, book a follow-up appointment to discuss your menu options and meal customization. You can also discuss the liquor options: you may be able to order table wine in bulk, potentially with a discount. Signature drinks could also be concocted.

In the meantime, go to that restaurant and take friends there! You won’t be inconveniencing anyone; in fact, they’ll encourage it. If you’re like me, and you’ve always wanted to become a “regular” like one of your favorite 90’s sitcom characters—now is your chance! Make notes of anything that you’d iron out before your wedding day. Most of all, enjoy being in the space, share your favorite dishes, and start imagining your loved ones inhabiting the room.

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