Expert advice on how to relax, enjoy and plan your stress-free rehearsal dinner.
Christy Curtin and Bryce Monson, married April 24, 2012, at St. Joseph Cathedral, hosted a rehearsal dinner for family and friends the night before their wedding at Martini Modern Italian.
James Decamp Photography
“They did a fantastic job; they always do,” says Kristi (Hicks) Fink about her rehearsal dinner at Schmidt’s Restaurant und Sausage Haus. For Fink, it’s the “always” part that made the night before her wedding even more special. Schmidt’s is a favorite restaurant for Kristi and her now-husband, Steve, and was the site of one of the couple’s first dates.
Finding a place where she knew she would be pleased with the experience was important. “Weddings are crazy enough. You don’t want a lot of extra guesswork. You want to be able to relax,” she explains.
Aim for a relaxed atmosphere, advises Bryan Fiebig, co-owner of La Scala. “The rehearsal dinner is a time for the two families to get together … and just be able to relax before the big day and get to know each other more.”
Plotting a Plan
In planning a rehearsal dinner, the first decision to be made is this: Who will be organizing, and how involved will the bride and/or her family be? These days, anything goes—even friends of the couple can step in to help.
Typically, the groom’s family or the engaged couple is responsible for the planning. The bride’s family is also increasingly included. Sarah Stout, private dining coordinator at McCormick and Schmick’s, suggests keeping communication lines open to counteract the “too many chefs in the kitchen” effect. For example, copy all the involved parties on emails pertaining to planning. It’s also worth gathering questions and concerns from everyone before checking out venues, Stout advises. (Helpful tip: Snap a few pictures of the venue to share with the others.)
But no matter who is doing the planning, the responsible party must go through a list of tasks similar to those for the wedding itself: Compile a guest list, set a budget, pick a date, find a location, select a menu, hire entertainment if desired and send out invitations.
Gather the guests
Both families need to compile a guest list for the rehearsal. Customarily, the bride and groom invite their parents and grandparents, as well the wedding party and their significant others. Any stepparents or siblings not already in the wedding party also should be included. If the bride or groom has children, they are added to the guest list. (However, for certain ages, a good night’s sleep before the big event is more important than attendance.) Lastly, the officiant and his or her spouse always receive an invitation.
Rehearsal dinners typically average 30 to 40 guests—a good number for a relatively small, intimate affair. (The numbers add up quickly, cautions bride Kristi Fink, who had about 40 guests.)
Some couples choose to also include out-of-town guests or extended family, in which case the numbers—and the budget—zoom up even more quickly. Larger rehearsal dinners might include as many as 100 guests, a decided increase in the budgetary bottom line. Rehearsal dinner planners, therefore, should not feel obligated to entertain every visiting friend and family member.
Build the budget
Traditionally, payment is the responsibility of the groom’s side. While that is still typically the case, local venue coordinators see a variety of people stepping in: the groom’s family, the bride’s family, the engaged couple or some mix thereof. Sometimes, each entity will agree to contribute a certain amount, and the budget is built from there.
Often—but not always—the person doing the planning pays. But no matter who is paying, the budget needs to be determined early because so many other decisions hinge upon the question of money. Once the budget is set and the head count is determined, important decisions about location and menu can be made.
With so many options for rehearsal dinners, costs vary widely. A simple backyard barbecue with the groom’s dad working the grill can be inexpensive (and delightful). On the other end, a multi-course dinner at an upscale restaurant can start at $50 per person and rise as high as the party-givers want to go.
The average cost in Columbus restaurants runs about $23 per person. Less pricy (but still delicious) entrees, such as pasta, can make restaurants more budget-friendly. And if your wedding reception is at a restaurant, Laura Catalogna, sales manager at Buca di Beppo, advises you ask about a discount for hosting your rehearsal dinner there as well. Also don’t hesitate to ask about other ways restaurants might be able to modify prices or trim costs.
When estimating the final price tag, planners should ask venues about any added fees, such as costs for cutting the cake or for setting up the room. “There are people who nickel-and-dime all over the place,” cautions Catalogna. Ask about possible food and beverage minimums and be sure to factor in costs such as tax and gratuity. “Every place is different,” notes Fiebig, so don’t assume that just because one venue includes something in its package that all venues will, too.
The extra that adds the most to the bottom line? Alcohol. “The biggest struggle I see with the budget is how much goes to alcohol,” Stout says. There are several ways to offer alcohol at the party—from a complete open bar to a limited open bar to a purely cash bar. The hosts must settle on what type of beverage service best suits their budget. For example, some party planners might decide to limit the open bar to the cocktail hour and then switch to pouring wine during dinner. Given the tight economy, Catalogna has seen a slight trend toward cash bars.
Alcoholic beverages can dramatically affect cost and can be tricky to estimate. For this reason, Catalogna strongly recommends going with a package deal, which charges a concrete per-person price and offers “a little more control on what [you’re] spending.” (For example, Buca di Beppo offers one package of $20 per person, which includes three drinks per guest. The planners can then factor in this set cost and avoid any nasty surprises.) Generally speaking, two drinks per guest is a good estimate; however, if the guest list skews heavily to a younger crowd or to those who tend to drink more, be sure to increase the estimate.
One popular option for tight budgets is to offer a hosted bar for beer and wine selections and a cash bar for hard alcohol. Catalogna also notes that handing out drink tickets can be a practical choice for controlling the bottom line.
Taking a Tone
All of the involved parties need to decide what type of rehearsal dinner they are interested in (factoring in budgetary considerations). Start with some simple questions: What kind of event do you want? Do you want it at a restaurant or at home? Do you want it formal or casual? Do you want it intimate or boisterous?
Restaurants can offer more casual events, too. Family-style dinners, popular at restaurants such as Buca di Beppo, La Scala and Brio Tuscan Grille, can provide a fun alternative to plated dinners. “Everybody is sharing—just like you’re doing Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner,” Catalogna says. “It promotes more of a family atmosphere.” This, she adds, can offer a welcoming environment if meeting people you don’t know.
Locate the locale
To begin narrowing down possible locations, planners should evaluate the budget and take an honest head count. “Sometimes brides need to really sit and think, ‘What is most important to me?’ ” says Stout of McCormick & Schmick’s. She advises looking at whether those expectations realistically fit into the budget. If they don’t, start determining what is important and factor in a give-and-take on the smaller things. (For example, if an open bar is important, then perhaps hors d’oeuvres could be served rather than hosting a sit-down dinner.)
Once an evaluation has been made, start searching out location suggestions from friends and family. This is where the Internet and social media can really come into play, Stout says. Put out a call for suggestions on Facebook and start researching online the venue options. Catalogna of Buca di Beppo reminds that your vendors can be an invaluable resource for recommendations. Keep in mind that stress levels might be riding high that night, so the bride, groom and their families should find someplace that feels comfortable.
Rehearsal dinners typically take place the night before the wedding. Due to the popularity of Friday night rehearsal dinners (and the increasing popularity of Friday night weddings), the bride and groom should start looking at locations as soon as they’ve settled on a wedding date. No final decisions need to be made right away, but securing a spot on the calendar is the first order of business. Six to eight months out is ideal, and for popular months such as May, June, September and October, even more advanced preparation is recommended. Autumn weekends when the Buckeyes are on the road tend to book up especially quickly.
Ideally, the facility hosting the rehearsal dinner shouldn’t be too far from the rehearsal location or the hotel where guests are staying. If the dinner location isn’t nearby, the bride and groom need to make sure their guests have adequate directions.
Many restaurants have attractive private and semi-private rooms perfect for rehearsal dinners. At McCormick & Schmick’s, the private dining room boasts cherry paneling and stained glass chandeliers. DeepWood offers an innovative menu in a rich, warm atmosphere. La Scala, Brio and Buca di Beppo offer delicious Italian food in an upscale casual environment. Other couples prefer a more laid-back setting and might choose Schmidt’s, with its long history of hospitality and fun.
For an even more relaxed atmosphere, party planners can hire a caterer to dish up dinner poolside at a club, in the groom’s backyard or in an apartment clubhouse such as the comfy Lodge at Tuttle’s Grove, with its oversized couches, vaulted ceiling, exposed beams and fireplace.
Make the menu
Rehearsal dinners can take on many delicious forms—a more casual buffet, for example, or an elegant, multiple-course dinner. A classic plated dinner fits well for couples seeking a more formal atmosphere. For plated (or sit-down) dinners, party guests usually receive a limited menu of two to six entrees preselected by the hosts. Most often, the menu will present a varied selection, including chicken, beef, fish and pasta. Another option is the combination dinner, where diners enjoy two separate dishes on one plate.
Buffets and family-style service are two good ways to offer variety in a more casual environment. Fiebig points out that family-style menus—with their array of options—can alleviate planning stress. It removes guessing what guests might enjoy eating, he says. Food stations can also offer several choices.
Most couples prefer a menu that contrasts with the next day’s fete. If the reception menu includes prime rib, for instance, the rehearsal dinner might feature chicken and fish. Or if chicken is served both days, the dishes could be prepared in different ways.
Some couples choose to avoid a dinner entirely, opting instead to throw an extended cocktail-style event. Typically, these parties feature one or two heavy appetizers, such as beef tenderloin sliced by a chef, as well as several trays of delicacies and a selection of butlered hors d’oeuvres. As an added bonus, an appetizer-based menu will cost less than a sit-down dinner or full buffet.
Dinners should start about an hour and a half after the beginning of the rehearsal. If the hosts are concerned about the rehearsal potentially running late (which rehearsals often do), offering hors d’oeuvres and cocktails for 30 minutes or so can provide a cushion of time to appease a crowd of hungry partygoers who may be coming straight from work.
Entertain the event-goers
Hosts can expect the evening to last from two to four hours. Eating and socializing consumes most of the time, but sometimes entertainment honoring the bride and groom is also included.
Photo collages, slide shows and videos remain popular. This pictorial history of the couple (complete with childhood photos) is a charming way to entertain family and friends once the dinner order has been placed. Many facilities have screens and projection equipment available if necessary (be sure to inquire about possible fees).
Stout says more couples are now bringing in an iPod loaded with a pitch-perfect playlist to round out the festivities. Even better, she adds, a CD with a photo of the happy couple and some songs from the dinner’s playlist is a great little favor for guests.
Quite often, the bride and groom also take advantage of the time together to give attendants gifts. Fittingly, attendants also often take the opportunity to make toasts in honor of the couple. If desired, the best man or a family member can act as an emcee to introduce the speeches. (If the group is large, hosts might consider supplying a microphone to ensure everyone can hear speeches clearly.)
Remember to rejoice
No matter what style it is, the rehearsal dinner remains an excellent time for the bride and groom and their friends and family to enjoy a smaller celebration of the upcoming main event. Take a page from bride Kristi’s playbook: “I tried not to be a part of it because I had so much going on with the wedding . . . I had enough on my plate!” Catalogna agrees, “Don’t be afraid to delegate. That way you can get your nails done … and enjoy your rehearsal dinner.”