Wedding rehearsal dinner parties in my Midwestern rust belt town tend to be simple affairs, held at the Polish Falcons lodge with a serve-yourself buffet of Mr. Kowalski’s freshly-made kielbasa, a side of kapusta and plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon. If the bill goes north of five hundred bucks we exclaim, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” and complain about the rising price of sausage for the next few hours.
We would have none of that for this spectacular event. My son had the good sense to stay in California, and San Francisco doesn’t have a Falcon’s lodge.
The minute my son told me he was engaged, I went into Dad mode – and I knew that this would be my chance to throw the biggest, best, most spectacular party I had ever thrown. The wedding rehearsal dinner is the father-of-the-groom’s privilege – a once-in-a-lifetime honor that would give me a chance to give my son and his new bride a gift to remember. And maybe, to show off just a little.
Since the wedding would be in San Francisco, restaurant options for the dinner were abundant, but expensive. Being a Midwesterner, I first thought, “Fifty dollars a head oughta cover it.” Here in Indiana, that would buy me a pretty spectacular dinner.
I soon discovered that I would have to push that budget up quite a bit to get what I had in mind. Now don’t get me wrong, San Francisco has some wonderful and affordable restaurants, but dinner for 19 people at a burrito joint in the Mission District isn’t exactly what I had in mind. This would be a spare-no-expense event and I would have to put aside my sense of Midwestern frugality.
This party would be done right. I started with formal invitations. It wasn’t really necessary, I could have just sent out an email blast, but I admit I’m a little old-school, and there’s just something that seems impersonal to me about an email invitation. I ordered some nice printed invitations in script lettering from Vistaprint along with printed envelopes, and that set the tone for the entire event.
The guest list included the usual – bridesmaids and groomsmen, parents and their spouses and ex-spouses, and of course, my own ex, who I haven’t seen in over 20 years. I decided to give her a plus-one on her invitation, mainly for selfish reasons so she wouldn’t try to spend the whole time chatting up my wife. As a general rule, it’s always wise to keep ex-wife and present wife as far away from each other as possible. Have you ever seen the TV show Modern Family? Like the character Jay from the show, my ex-wife is an old hippie and my present wife is a younger foreign lady. The show exaggerates the potential for hilarious disaster at such occasions, but not by much.
Her boyfriend RSVP’d on her behalf, and frankly I was prepared to dislike him, but he was a friendly chap who made it a point to talk with me amiably and compare our Jerry Garcia neckties. I thought he was quite interesting, and very San Francisco in his appearance. If you live there, you know what I’m talking about. I used to look that way too, way back when I lived in the Haight-Ashbury and really did, on occasion, wear a flower in my hair. I’m glad I made the invitation, and in general it’s best not to leave somebody hanging solo when planning a party if at all possible. We had no Modern Family disasters.
Choosing the restaurant was a difficult process – not because it was hard to find a good place, but because in San Francisco there are so many of them. I decided that since my new daughter-in-law’s family is Italian, I would look in the city’s North Beach neighborhood and find a great Italian restaurant. Requirements included the availability of a private room, a good wine list and a fabulous menu, and I settled on Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana. The events coordinator Laura worked with me every step of the way and I was able to have the room set exactly as I wanted, and the final bill, after a 20 percent gratuity, sales tax and restaurant tax, didn’t bust my budget too badly.
I had the option of a single long table, or multiple rounds, and I went with the rounds, which I felt would allow for more conversation and mingling. They set up a separate table for the antipasti, another as a wine station and a third at my request just for photographs – I had the idea of setting up photographs of the bride and groom’s grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ wedding pictures, and it was a big hit! I ordered floral place settings to be delivered to the restaurant and placed at the center of each table, just for a little extra flourish.
Sometimes these big restaurant dinners have an uncomfortable period before dinner when everyone is waiting and doesn’t know what to do, so I made it more social – the round tables encouraged mingling, people stopped by to look at the pictures, and I set the schedule so that we would have serve-yourself antipasti and wine first for about 45 minutes before dinner. Setting up the antipasti at a separate table encouraged people to get up and move around a bit, and the conversation got pretty lively right away. The antipasti was great by the way. I chose three plates: charcuterie and cheese, crab cakes, and bruschetta.
By the time dinner was served, everyone had already enjoyed a few glasses of wine, the conversation was rolling and everyone was smiling. It was a success!
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Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.