I can't lay all the blame at the feet of our conniving server, however. As is often the case at birthday dinners, several different tax brackets were represented at the table, with humble grad students and servants of the Fourth Estate alongside deep-pocketed bankers and lawyers. Members of the latter group, accustomed to large, expense-account-financed lunches and dinners, were not going to let a few uneaten crustaceans slow them down. When our waiter returned to take our entrée orders, one of their number reached for the wine list—round of bubbly for the birthday boy! Ouch. It was time to think strategy.
There are three approaches to ordering at a birthday dinner. I actually didn't know that the first approach was possible until this particular outing. Early in the evening, I noticed Simon's friend Justin, a legendarily frugal graduate student, engage our waiter in an extended colloquy. After dinner, I sidled up to Justin to complain about the exorbitant bill, knowing my outrage would fall on sympathetic ears. Instead, he flashed a wicked grin and revealed that he had "seceded from the check, Jefferson Davis-style." That is, having realized things were getting out of hand, he had worked out an understanding with the waiter whereby he would order on a separate tab that would include only his appetizer, entrée, and beverages. It was a brilliant stroke, though it required Justin's unabashed cheapskatedness, which, like his taste in metaphor, is rare indeed.
On to the more subtle approaches. The first is to order as inexpensively as possible, in an attempt to foster a norm of fiscal conservatism at the table. This strategy is rarely successful. You order a house salad and the chicken and roll the dice that the guy next to you will feel too embarrassed to order an entrée called "steak for two." Such restraint cannot be counted on in a large, salary-diverse group.
The other approach, the one I favor, is to order offensively. Your typical birthday dinner is around 10 guests strong. Given a group of this size, you can safely assume there will not be an itemized accounting of who ordered what come bill-paying time—it requires too much math and is usually adjudged to be not in keeping with the celebratory nature of the event. Armed with this knowledge, the only way to order is with abandon. If I'm going to be subsidizing the sybaritic corporate lawyer at the end of the table (who, I happen to know, wouldn't think of ordering a beer unless it was brewed by a Trappist monk), you'd better believe he's going to be paying for a tract of my baked Alaska.
I developed this system after too many birthday dinners where I went home poor and hungry. This way, at least, you get the food you want. But the victory is pyrrhic. Tradition holds that the birthday boy make a perfunctory swipe at the check before it's whisked from his grasp. In the case of Simon's party, not only was the man of honor off the hook for his portion of the bill, but at the suggestion of a chivalrous spendthrift who I'd have kicked in the shin had the table not been so vast, the group exempted Simon's girlfriend as well, since she'd undertaken the arduous task of sending out the Evite. A check that would have been a hardship split 12 ways now was to be split by 10.
Simon is one of my oldest and dearest friends; I like to think I'd do just about anything for him. But sitting here looking at a charge for $168.51, I find myself wondering how good a friend he really is. $168.51! Do you know how many Uno's individual deep-dish Spinoccolis that would buy? Seventeen. That's two-plus weeks of dinner.
In a way, though, it is I who owe Simon. The piles of jumbo shrimp floating on seas of melted ice; the untouched beds of creamed spinach; the endless rounds of marked-up Beck's Dark—they flash before me now whenever a birthday dinner invitation comes my way, and I can't bring myself to RSVP yes. The excesses of Simon's dinner were what I needed to find the social gumption to swear off such affairs entirely. Throwing a party for your birthday? I'll gladly attend the festivities. Point me to the bowling shoes and buy me a few frames. Cook me dinner—I'll bring the Taboo. Otherwise, see you next year, pal.