Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach. The translation from French, perhaps, could better be interpreted as “the poor sap who gets the job of planning a meal for an army-sized group will feel like his stomach has been marched on.”
No matter the season or reason, families, friends and business associates gather to break bread, and the age old question arises: Where can I take a group to eat out? Usually with some amount of panic. With family vacations in full swing (and a recent rash of urgent pleas for local restaurants able to accommodate parties of eight or more) it seemed an opportune time to survey the local landscape for large tables and crowd-friendly dining. Depending on the crowd you’re entertaining, here are some spots we found around Sonoma County…
– It goes without saying, of course, that showing up with a party of 18 and demanding a table on the spot is unlikely to be successful unless you’re there at 4pm on a Tuesday. And even then, your server will be scrambling. Call well in advance (at least 48 hours, and at higher-end restaurants several weeks ahead) for a reservation.
– Keep in mind that you’re obligated to show up if you make a large reservation. Some restaurants may ask for a deposit, which is standard, considering that extra staff may be needed to accommodate the group. If something happens and you have to break the reservation, call as soon as possible and let them know so they can release the spot.
– Tipping is customary. However, with large groups, restaurateurs sometimes automatically include a gratuity of between 15 and 20% with your bill. You’re welcome to add to that.
– Don’t ask for ten separate checks. Two checks is usually okay, but beyond that you’re causing a headache. Work out who’s paying in advance. Your poor planning isn’t your server’s problem.
– Be a group you’d like to sit next to. It’s understandable that a group of ten people might get a little louder than a table of four, but keep it reasonable. Shouting, loud laughing and joking around with your friends is okay in a private space, but in public, its just annoying to everyone else.
– If you make a mess, clean it up or give an extra tip. Big groups, especially with small children, are a nightmare to clean up after. Try to keep chaos under control. If things get a little out of hand, be sure to leave some extra gratuity for the poor souls left behind to pick up.
Wedding Guest Crowd: Ca’Bianca
Sweet Victorian ambiance, good food and cordial service keep Ca’Bianca at the top of wedding-related dining lists around Sonoma County. Pastel-colored private dining areas, a tasteful chapel and banquet room are mother-in-law approved. 835 2nd St., Santa Rosa, 542-5800.
Sit Outdoors and Drink Margaritas Crowd: La Rosa Tequileria
A large patio, endless chips and fire-roasted salsa, top-shelf margaritas and a central downtown location make this a hot-spot for gatherings. Mexican-American favorites are crowd pleasers, and the nearby fountain will entertain the kids for hours. 500 4th St., Santa Rosa, 523-3663.
Family Crowd: Healdsburg Bar and Grill, Kin Windsor
If pizza, burgers, ice cream plain noodles or chicken fingers aren’t on the menu, beware of bringing unseasoned diners under the age of 16. All of these restaurants are guaranteed child-friendly, with food (and beverages) for grown-ups. Plus easy-access to outdoor spaces for runnin’ around. Also good: Mary’s Pizza Shack, Union Hotel at various locations in Sonoma County. HBG, 245 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 433-3333; Kin Windsor, 740 McClelland Dr., Windsor, 837-7546.
The Big Birthday Crowd: Birthday: Stark’s Steakhouse Secret Cellar
You’re 40. You’re 50. Whatever. Grab your best friends and celebrate that you’ve made it through another year of life. Stark’s Steakhouse has a secret wine cellar dining room that accommodates you and 13 of your besties. You’ll get a special dessert with best wishes written in chocolate, and the best news: Whatever happens in the cellar stays in the cellar. 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa, 546-5100. Another secret spot: The upstairs room at Caffe Portofino 535 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 578-3096.
Star-Struck Crowd: Johnny Garlic’s
Your in-laws insist that they must go to a Guy Fieri restaurant before leaving Sonoma County, right? Indulge the Fieriness inside you, and head over to Johnny Garlic’s. The drinks are strong and there’s a large private back room for large groups. 1460 Farmers Lane, Santa Rosa and other locations. 571-1800.
Cinema-Fan Crowd: Rustic at Francis Ford Coppola winery
If the castle-like location, pool and Francis Ford Coppola’s personal collection of movie memorabilia doesn’t wow your guests, the food will. Rustic has top-drawer Italian-influenced Wine Country dining and million-dollar views. Prices reflect that luxury. 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville, 857-1400.
Lazy Susan Crowd: Kirin
Chinese dining is, by default, community dining. Plus, who can deny the thrill of whirling away grandma’s sweet-and-sour pork just as she reaches for the turntable? Zoom! Our grandma’s favorite spot for this kind of torture is the Bennet Valley Asian-American eatery that continues to pack in families. They’ve got several tables set up for 8-10 folks, depending on how much you like to squeeze. 2700 Yulupa, Santa Rosa, 525-1957.
Gastro-Crowd: Diavola, Estate
Housemade, well, everything brings chef cred to these eateries. Diavola gets extra nods for being in out-of-the-way Geyserville (food snobs love the hunt) while Estate brings historic charm and upscale class to the table. Artisan salumi? Yes. Hand-crafted cheeses? Yes. Unusual cuts of meat? Affirmative. Stellar wines from winemakers that won’t be written about in the mainstream press for another six months? But of course. Diavola, 21021 Geyserville Ave, Geyserville, 814-0111; Estate, 400 W. Spain, Sonoma, 933-3663.
At the funky h2hotel, the expansive dining room is a scene, especially on warm days and evenings when the glass doors open onto the sidewalk. Owners say they can usually accommodate groups with short notice and the bar is always a great spot for hanging with friends. 219 Healdsburg Avenue,. Healdsburg, CA, (707) 431-2202
Beer Crowd: Hopmonk
Beer. Food. Music. Patio. You’re the fraternity/Elks Group/soccer team hero, bro! Eminently dude-friendly. 230 Petaluma Ave., Sebastopol and 691 Broadway, Sonoma. 829-7300.
Breakfast Crowd: Sam’s for Play
Though there are plenty of great breakfast diners in Sonoma County, most just aren’t set up for big groups. If you’re getting your scrambled eggs for a crowd, Sam’s for Play is set up for big eaters and big groups. Plus, the thousand-or-so items on the menu are sure to please even picky eaters. 2630 Cleveland Ave. and 1024 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa.
Really Big Crowd: Sally Tomatoes
Most hotels offer banquet and event catering, but Sally Tomatoes is a favorite for bistro-casual dining for a big crowd. The Sonoma Mountain Village space can hold up to 500. 1100 Valley House Dr., Rohnert Park, 665-9472.