A thousand dollars can buy plenty of extravagances around Washington: a weekend at the Four Seasons, a couple of tickets to the Kennedy Center Honors, a round-trip plane ticket from Dulles to Paris. What $1,000 can’t get you is a three-course dinner for eight in your home prepared by some of the city’s leading caterers.
That’s what I discovered when I looked into outsourcing dinner parties with the goal of reviewing them for readers. Consider a conversation I had, using a name other than my own, with an account executive of one catering company in June:
Caterer: “We have a minimum of $1,500 during the week.”
Me: “For eight people? How about the weekend?”
Caterer: “It’s more.”
Me: (Just in case the representative didn’t hear) “This is for eight people.”
Caterer: “I know, kind of pricey.”
Me: “Okay, thank you!”
In her heyday, model Linda Evangelista bragged that she didn’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day. Inquiries to Well Dunn Catering, Ridgewells and Main Event made me feel as if I were trying to book a supermodel rather than an intimate dinner Chez Moi. My conversation with the caterers politely ended when Well Dunn wanted 50 percent more than my budget, Ridgewells couldn’t entertain my idea for less than double what I hoped to spend, and Main Event quoted me a minimum of $1,000 for food alone — but nobody to cook or serve it, let alone anything to serve it on.
Eight of their competitors — Design Cuisine, Federal City, 42°, Occasions, Ris Catering, Spilled Milk, Susan Gage and Windows — agreed to work closer to a stranger’s budget and produce what they were told was an engagement dinner, with the host providing the wine.
Except no one was really getting engaged. Chosen to reflect brand names and new party planners alike, the caterers also didn’t know the true identity of the voice on the other end of the line. Beginning in July and ending in October, I brought my work home with me on eight occasions to give their efforts a taste-test.
Why enlist a caterer? Because you work hard and don’t have time to entertain. Because you can’t cook. Or maybe you can, but you’re looking for perfection and you’re not Martha Stewart or even Rachael Ray. Now and then, it’s good to spoil yourself. Hiring a caterer has a calming effect on the host — yoga with wine.
Anyone who has ever thrown even a modest dinner party knows that it can take a full day or two to organize and set up, easier when there are two or more sets of hands to pitch in. How cool for someone else to come up with a menu, haul out the linens, set the table, whip up the food, pour the wine, clear the dishes and take out the trash. A caterer makes sure the flowers a guest brings get put in a vase and coats are stowed in a closet.
A good caterer lets a host enjoy his own dinner party. A lesser one resembles the significant other who wants to help out — he really does — but needs supervision.
Among the challenges of reviewing caterers is that no two parties tend to be alike. Menus vary, budgets vary, venues vary. To create as level a playing field as possible, I made my home the scene of all the action and followed a script inviting caterers to create a meal designed for eight people with open-minded palates. For interest, I tossed in challenges: Could the caterers whip up a cocktail to match the festive theme and make one meal meatless?
Caterers, an industry insider shared, “abhor the vegetarians. They’re relegated to second-class status.” Based on a few samplings of the vegetarian options I got, I tend to agree. Pasta in some form, most of it uninspired, was trotted out at the majority of my events, although several caterers made an extra effort with spinach and mushroom crepes (Federal City) and quinoa paella with tofu skewers and smoked paprika aioli (Spilled Milk).
Most caterers responded with three-menu options and a roster of passed hors d’oeuvres, a fillip that tended to be cut to meet my budget, which allowed for $300 or so of bargaining room.
Money can be a delicate subject. Caterers prefer you be honest about what you can spend and realistic about what that amount can buy. Early on in my experiment, I learned that votive candles, not flowers, were about the dressiest decoration I could expect from the caterers, and if I wanted to quench my guests’ thirst with a cocktail, it would be cheaper for me to provide the spirits for the drink. Only two hires, 42° and Spilled Milk, could deliver passed bites before the meal. (Other nights, I set out house-made cheese straws or mixed nuts.)
Labor is typically the biggest cost; most caterers have a four-hour service minimum. Better to trim the eats than the staff, however. An easy way to make the most of the budget is to reduce the duration of the dinner; more than once, I invited my guests into the living room after dessert so the caterer could clean the dining room and pack up.
Details endeared me to some hired hands. Design Cuisine flagged linens that the White House had featured: “This is what the Obamas used for their inauguration,” an account executive said of the luxe table cover. Susan Gage thoughtfully donated a centerpiece from an event earlier in the day, making an already attractive table more fetching. Spilled Milk was the lone caterer to send me a thank-you note afterward.
Some of the competition, however, took me by surprise. After introducing himself, one server crowed about the famous clients he had served, a clear violation of the VIPs’ privacy. The cater-waiter from another company congratulated me on my (fake) engagement and handed me his business card. Turns out he has a side gig: his own catering company. A third catering crew left behind a bunch of fancy wine glasses, saying their employer wouldn’t miss them. I found that hard to swallow.
Caterers are more or less creating a restaurant in your home for a few hours. As such, they bring a lot of equipment: racks of dishes and stemware, coolers, warmers, ice and more. The supplies don’t always come from one source (some caterers rely on rental companies for other than food), necessitating that someone be home to receive them.
Several caterers used areas other than my kitchen, which opens into my dining room, to prepare dinner. Design Cuisine set up in my library. (“Chefs like to hide,” the rep from the company explained.) Susan Gage’s team whipped up dinner in my basement. Some hosts might welcome having the chef within sight; I wanted privacy for my guests and me. Plus, I worried that some of the support staff might be moonlighting restaurant workers who could compromise my anonymity when dining out, a fear confirmed when I paused to talk to the chef sent by 42°. “I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Do you eat at The Source a lot?”
Throughout my experiment, I used a pseudonym for my phone and e-mail exchanges with the caterers. On the day of the dinners, I cleared the rooms they would use of things that might give away my identity, including mail, magazines and dry-cleaning tickets. Ahead of the parties, I encouraged my friends to call me by a name other than my own in the presence of the servers and chefs. As some nights wore on, and the wine flowed, a few guests forgot. “Why do they keep calling him Tom?” a server was overheard to ask a colleague of the man who had introduced himself otherwise.
Following every dinner party, I asked myself a question I frequently throw out to dining companions on restaurant reviews: Would you pay for this experience yourself? Of the eight caterers I tried, I would welcome three back with open arms and be willing to give a fourth a second chance. No matter who made the meal, however, one thing became crystal clear: When the last guest says good night, it’s nice to be left with no more of a chore than turning off the lights.
Tom Sietsema is The Washington Post’s food critic. To comment on this story,e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.