For the couple who loves food, having a wedding in a restaurant makes sense: The food, the drinks, and the ambience are all right there, without having to roll the dice on an unknown caterer. Throw in a sense of sentimentality — maybe the restaurant from your first date, or the neighborhood spot you find yourself in every Wednesday when you don’t want to cook — and the restaurant becomes an even better venue option. That dish you crave so badly? Finally, all your loved ones will understand why.
The restaurant wedding, of course, isn’t for everyone. Though you can save money compared with more traditional venues, choosing a restaurant makes food immediately one of your biggest costs. Unless you’re in a city with huge restaurants, they tend to work better with more intimate gatherings. And the vibes, often more chill and low-key, might not be as traditional as you (or *coughs* your family) have in mind for the big day. But if you see food as a top priority and find none of those things a deal breaker, here’s what you need to know about having a restaurant wedding, with not a single sad chicken or fish option in sight.
Other than the food, what are the benefits of a restaurant wedding?
For one thing, value. With most venues, you’re paying the venue for the space and then you’re paying the caterer for food and drink, explains Kim Morrill, owner of the Portland, Oregon-based wedding planning company Your Perfect Bridesmaid. Since a restaurant’s business model relies on food and drink primarily, it functions like a venue with in-house catering. “Your budget does typically go further,” Morrill says. “Two businesses aren’t having to make a profit, just one is.”
Similarly, restaurants are already decorated, have ready-to-go kitchens, and have many of the things you might need to rent at other venues. “It’s not a straightforward rule, but they tend to be a little bit more cost-effective because food and beverage is already in-house, their flatware is typically all in-house, you don’t have to go outside and do too many rentals,” says Amy Shack Egan, founder of the nationally operating, “unconventional” wedding planning company Modern Rebel.
Private dining room or event space versus buyout: What’s the difference?
Some restaurants have dedicated spaces that are reserved as private dining rooms (or PDRs), where a group can celebrate while the restaurant continues operating. The restaurant and popular wedding venue Redbird in Los Angeles, for example, has six private event spaces, the largest of which can accommodate 108 seated guests.
Partial buyouts are a middle ground for weddings that might be too big for a private dining room, or restaurants that don’t have a formalized PDR. That would be an option like Frankies Spuntino, a Brooklyn restaurant that does about 40 to 50 weddings a year. Its backyard garden is connected to an old blacksmith stable, and those spaces can be rented out in sections depending on the size of the wedding (the stable alone accommodates 20 to 40 guests, while a buyout of the whole garden accommodates 95 to 130). This is considered different from a private dining room since these spaces are part of the restaurant’s regular service when there isn’t an event.
Larger guest lists, or couples looking for more privacy, might require a full buyout of the restaurant, in which case it will be closed to other guests. This gives couples more attention from the restaurant and more control over the space, but it comes at a higher cost. “The couple really should ask themselves: How private of a celebration are they wanting? What are some deal breakers there?” says Morrill.
How much does a restaurant wedding cost?
There are a lot of moving parts, and not every restaurant is the same, so the answer is really a big “It depends.”
Buyouts, whether partial or full, are generally charged in terms of a food and drink minimum. In general, the hotter the restaurant, the higher the price. “If you’re doing a buyout of a space that [the restaurant] would be seating with a regular dinner service, it’s not going to make sense for them to do it unless they’re making at least that amount of money in food and beverage sales or more,” says Isabelle Donovan, the director of events at Frankies Spuntino Group. Because a restaurant with a PDR isn’t otherwise seating that space for regular service, the pricing is often done on a per-head basis, Donovan says from past experience.
Whether a full buyout makes sense financially depends on the size of your group. For 10 people, “buying out a restaurant to have the private space might be a little crazy because that food and beverage minimum is going to be nearly impossible to meet with that number of people,” Donovan says. “But if you have that sweet spot where you’re 50 people or 70 people, and that food and beverage minimum is pretty easily within reach, then it can be a great deal.”
While it depends on the size and scope of the wedding, Sam Kanter, a Boston-based event planner who works primarily with restaurants, shared some ballpark numbers for what to expect for a restaurant wedding. “I think that people need to understand that they’re not going to be spending less than $100 a head on food and beverage, period,” Kanter says. On top of that will typically be an automatic gratuity of around 20 percent, an admin fee generally around 6 percent, and sales tax, which varies depending on your location, she explains.
What’s the best way to do a restaurant wedding on a tighter budget?
Scale back what you need. To do a ceremony, many restaurants will use two spaces: one for the ceremony, and then another one where guests will go for a cocktail hour while the former is being flipped for dinner. To lower costs, consider doing the ceremony elsewhere. “You can get married nearby — and there are so many public parks in New York City — and then you can have a beautiful dinner for a small group of under 25,” says Shack Egan.
Go small. “Regardless of location of wedding [and] type of wedding, the number one indicator and contributor of cost is guest count,” says Morrill. At Brooklyn’s River Cafe, which does about three weddings per week, the private space for up to 96 guests has a food and beverage minimum between $10,000 and $50,000, depending on the day. However, the restaurant also offers a tiny wedding option: up to eight guests in the main dining room, paid for a la carte, and perfect for a City Hall wedding.
Consider a nontraditional time, like a daytime instead of an evening or a weekday instead of a weekend. Food and beverage minimums are tied to how much revenue a restaurant would otherwise generate. “Obviously Saturday nights, Friday nights are going to be the biggest revenue generators,” says Donovan, who estimates that you could save up to $5,000 with a daytime wedding in Frankies’ larger space. The season can help: At River Cafe, January through March will have the lowest minimums, though those slow and busy periods differ in each city. With increased demand from South by Southwest, a restaurant wedding in Austin in March likely won’t be cheaper, notes wedding planner Adaobi Kanu of the Austin-based Events in a Crunch.
I’ve been told I can avoid the wedding tax by not telling the restaurant that it’s a wedding. Is this true?
The reality of the wedding tax also depends on the kind of wedding you’re looking to have. According to Donovan, Frankies doesn’t charge differently by event type, but a wedding, because of its additional setup needs, might need more time in the space. She notes that some restaurants might charge more for a wedding to account for the fact that weddings generally involve more meetings, like a florist, photographer, and parents needing walk-throughs of the space.
Like at Frankies, the only wedding upcharge at Redbird is event length, according to owner Amy Knoll Fraser. The menu and beverages, as well as the option to add on another room for dancing, would cost the same as any event. Regardless, Knoll Fraser says the transparency is helpful in a logistical sense: “Weddings are much more complex events and require a lot more attention and sometimes more staff.”
For similar reasons, Shack Egan advises against lying. Not only are the stakes higher for weddings, but in her experience, the situation is also more prone to change, even with a low-key couple. As the date nears, “money, emotions, family stakes are going to be raised,” she says. “You can be the chillest person in the world; your vendors are going to have to deliver on higher stakes than a birthday party.”
My partner and I love this restaurant. How do I know if it will be good for a wedding?
Ideally, the restaurant will have done weddings before — and weddings, not just events. “That at least gives people a sense of: Do they have a particular flow in mind? Do they have a very clear aisle that we walk down?” says Kanu. Smaller restaurants might have other limitations to keep in mind, like the number of bathroom stalls and the availability of parking.
Accordingly, a wedding planner can be especially helpful for nontraditional spaces, Kanu adds. “It’s having someone who’s been there, done that, who’s there in the corner helping you to think through the logistics,” she says. Some restaurants, including Redbird, will require a wedding planner, or at the very least a day-of coordinator. Frankies requires the latter for weddings with more than 50 guests. To allow the team to focus on food and beverage service, “we have found that it is much more successful and seamless when there is a day-of person managing vendors, getting folks down the aisle, managing the speeches and the run of show,” Donovan says.
It’s a good sign if a potential restaurant has an events (or better yet, weddings) page on its website. The amount of detail that’s immediately provided varies but can help indicate how open to or familiar with weddings a restaurant is; Rule of Thirds, a Brooklyn restaurant optimized for events, offers a full wedding deck with sample menus on its events page. More pared-down websites might include a form to fill in or an email address for the restaurant’s events coordinator. Not sure if a restaurant is open to private events? Call or email the general contact.
What else should couples keep in mind when considering a restaurant wedding?
Don’t let rentals catch you by surprise. Though restaurants should be well-equipped in most regards, Shack Egan recommends asking up front what additional rentals you might need. For example, “they may have all the tables for dining, but maybe they don’t have ceremony chairs,” she says. In New York City in particular, a ceremony in a restaurant’s outdoor space might call for tenting. “These are good questions to understand before you sign on,” she says.
Restaurants aren’t necessarily built as event venues. One way this might affect a wedding is ceiling height, Shack Egan explains. Low ceilings might contribute to the intimate vibe of a restaurant, but they might be too low to allow for a hora at a Jewish wedding. “This seems like a small thing, but that actually may take a restaurant out of the running for you if that’s a really important tradition,” she says. Similarly, a restaurant might not have room for a live band, or an in-house sound system, requiring speakers to be brought in.
At the end of the day, remember that you’re choosing a restaurant for a reason. Consider the menu, for example: Unlike a caterer who might be open to creating a completely custom menu, a restaurant menu will be custom only to a certain point, taking into account how its kitchen operates and what other food it needs to order (River Cafe offers a long list of options of every course from which couples can choose). In all, the restaurant wedding calls for a little trust in the space. “Embrace what is there. Don’t try to make it something that it’s not,” says Morrill.
How a New York City Restaurant Couple Is Planning Their Own Ultimate Restaurant Wedding
By Patricia Howard
A restaurant wedding was a given
Ed and I met in 2017 while working at the Beatrice Inn, a now-closed steakhouse in the West Village. For years, we spent Mondays (Ed’s day off) eating at restaurants, often having two or three dinners in one night. Our friendship and, later, our relationship was formed through the experience of eating together.
Over those meals, we wrote the business model for our first restaurant, Dame, and then a few years later, our second restaurant, Lord’s. We plan our travel around restaurants, we organize our weekends around where we’re going for dinner, we celebrate milestones with special reservations, and we recuperate after rough services with the city’s best pizza on our couch. So of course, when it came to getting married, it would be at a restaurant.
Most weddings have mediocre food because serving a huge group of people at once is very difficult to pull off, even for the best of cooks. But if we are spending a bunch of money on a party, the food has to be good. There’s also the added pressure of people expecting the food at our wedding to be good. Good food is what we do.
Picking the perfect restaurant for the party
We got engaged in April 2022 and opened Lord’s that October. Restaurant openings don’t leave much time for wedding planning, so it wasn’t until January 2023, over a long weekend in Mexico City, separated from work by thousands of miles, that we could finally focus. A few mezcals deep at Tlecan, Ed announced that the wedding should be in Austin (where I’m from) rather than New York (where we live) or London (where he’s from). Austin has great food, is close to a lot of my family, would be cheaper, and would be a fun city to visit for our friends who haven’t been there. We are also interested in opening a restaurant in Austin down the line, so hosting a wedding there would be a strategic way to continue forming relationships with the local restaurant community. Juggling the schedules of our families, my aversion to cold weather, and the existing time-off requests of our management teams, we settled on Memorial Day weekend — of this year, aka very soon!
We’ll start the weekend on Friday night with a simple courthouse ceremony officiated by a local judge with only our immediate families in attendance. Neither of us is religious, and after signing two 15-year commercial leases together, the performative nuptials of a wedding seem a bit anticlimactic. But the party aspect seems fun, so the bulk of our guests will arrive on Saturday for three days of food and festivities.
Every time we’re in Austin, we eat at Suerte, an unpretentious, flavor-forward Mexican restaurant with an in-house masa program and reverence for traditional Mexican cooking. Through a series of pop-ups (at Suerte and at Dame), we’ve grown close with chef Fermín Núñez and his team. If we were having a Texas wedding, the main event had to be at Suerte, so we built the guest list based on the restaurant’s 100-guest capacity, not the other way around. We also chose a date and time that would work best with the restaurant’s hours. We opted for a daytime event over evening, since a lunch buyout costs less than a dinner buyout (Suerte isn’t typically open for lunch on Mondays) and it allows our guests to be back at work on Tuesday. We also opted for a buffet rather than a seated meal, so that it’s easier for the restaurant to execute, cheaper for us, and more fun for guests to mingle and eat whenever and whatever they please.
What’s on the menu
Our only menu requests were that it should feel like lunch (not brunch), for there to be suadero tacos, and to avoid nuts (Ed is allergic). Suerte sent us a menu to approve, we made one edit to switch a chicken entree for a fish one, and that was it. There will be passed beef tartare tostadas, ceviche verde, mushroom sopecitos, a station of fresh masa chips and dips, suadero tacos (Suerte’s famous confit wagyu brisket with black magic oil, as requested), carrots with mole, morita chile refried lentils, rice with corn, the yet-to-be-decided fish entree, and a summer fruit dessert.
Even though we haven’t tasted all of the exact dishes that will be served at the reception, we trust everything will be delicious. After having been on the other side of event planning at our restaurants, being easy guests is our goal. Side note: It’s unreasonable to ask a regular restaurant to do a tasting for your wedding menu. Just go eat at the restaurant a few times and see if you like the flavors, sauces, and overall style of food. Wedding venues need your business, while popular restaurants likely prefer to open for regular service over dealing with the logistics of a wedding — so be thankful they’re willing to have you at all.
Suerte’s buyout package also includes an open bar with cocktails, beer, and wine. I have nightmares from my sister’s wedding of drinking all the unfinished glasses of wine because we were being charged for every glass poured, so knowing everything is included will help me relax and enjoy the day. Another perk of hosting at a restaurant is that the staff will be pros who are well-versed in the restaurant’s offerings. Often the staff at wedding venues are freelance, and their level of experience and knowledge of the food and drinks can vary widely. We’ve been to multiple weddings where we had to tell the bartender how to make a Negroni.
Down the street from Suerte is a wine bar called Lolo. It has a small indoor space and a large backyard filled with picnic tables. We reached out to ask if we could reserve the outdoor area for a low-key after-party. The staff gave us a few options, and we agreed to put a credit card down and tip at least 20 percent (duh!).
But we didn’t want to stop there
Birdie’s is another one of our favorite places in Austin — it’s a little Italian, a little French, with lots of seasonal produce and great wine. It opened around the same time as Dame and is run by a couple (like us!), so we’ve become friendly. Birdie’s is a much smaller operation than Suerte, so we decided on it for dinner with our immediate families after tying the knot Friday evening.
It has a counter-service model and doesn’t usually take reservations, so we wanted to be respectful and work within its confines, especially on a typically busy Friday night. We had a quick call to discuss a framework for the menu (our requirements: pasta and soft serve) and are leaving the rest up to chef and co-owner Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel. Arjav Ezekiel, the other half of the couple behind Birdie’s, has put together a wine list with a lot of overlap with the producers we carry at Dame and Lord’s, so Ed will pick out a few special bottles on the night of our dinner.
The next day, my aunts are organizing a breakfast for my close friends and the women from both of our families, since I didn’t have a traditional bridal shower. I requested breakfast tacos from Veracruz All Natural. We’ve also planned a meetup at snow cone spot Sno-Beach during the afternoon. Snow cones are necessary in the Texas heat, and this trailer has been around since I was a kid.
For guests who have arrived by Saturday night, we’re hosting a casual gathering at a wine bar called Flo’s that just opened in Tarrytown, with New York-style slices from Allday Pizza, right next door. A second full restaurant buyout is out of our price range, but by picking a location outside the “most hip” area of Austin and with lots of outdoor space (so the indoor bottle shop can stay open to the public), we made the financials work.
On Sunday, my parents are hosting a barbecue at their house on Lake Travis, about 45 minutes from downtown Austin. Another way to make sure the food is good without having to buy out a restaurant is to cater from good restaurants. Aaron Franklin makes the best barbecue in the country, and my mom took it upon herself to pull as many strings as necessary to secure his brisket for the party. Olamaie biscuits are another one of Austin’s crowning achievements, so they will be making an appearance as well, complete with honey butter. And although catering your own wedding is a hell I don’t wish on anyone, it wouldn’t be our wedding without Ed cooking a little; he’s on duty for grilled corn on the cob and a tomato salad because it seems ridiculous to outsource those. My siblings are on deck to help shuck. I will be running around making menu cards, setting the tables, arranging wildflowers we’ve picked from the yard, and likely stressing that it’s too hot outside.
Ed and I aren’t big cake fans, but we both love a pavlova, or Eton mess as it’s referred to at Dame. My dream is a tiered pavlova with flowers and berries and Sungolds a la New York City restaurant King, so my mom is currently tasting her way through Austin’s pavlova offerings with a cut-out picture of the King masterpiece in hand.
A bus will drive guests back into town for drinks at Kitty Cohen’s, a Palm Springs-inspired poolside bar. We made arrangements by email, and a large cabana will be set aside for our group, no minimum spend necessary. We can even bring in outside food if we want. We will likely have run out of money at this point, so guests can open their own tabs. Maybe we’ll order tacos from Nixta if the festivities are still going late into the night — though not too late because we won’t want to spoil anyone’s appetite for lunch at Suerte the next day.
Ed and I care only about our family and friends being present and the food being good. We don’t need a dance floor, live music, photo booth, grand ceremony, professional floral arrangements, save-the-date cards, or specific tablecloths, so the money we’re saving there gets allocated to multiple fun meals. For us, sharing our favorite restaurants with our nearest and dearest people is our most memorable way to celebrate — that and margaritas.
Patricia Howard and Ed Szymanski are the owners of Dame and Lord’s in New York City.
Ria Osborne is a Brooklyn-based food photographer by way of London.
Liberty Fennell is a London-born, New York City-based food stylist and recipe developer.
Sonny Ross is an illustrator based in Manchester, U.K. They love drawing food as much as cooking it but not as much as eating it. They work across editorial, publishing, textiles and packaging and in their downtime enjoys such hobbies as: sleeping.
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein