Over summer and fall, I anonymously hired eight area caterers to prepare a supposed engagement dinner for eight in my home. The budget: $1,000, including linens and table settings but excluding flowers and alcohol. The stipulation: One guest was vegetarian. The results: all over the map.
Contact: 301-839-6900; susangage.com.
Actual cost: $1,205.36.
Menu: Tower of Cobb salad; fried chicken breast with corn pudding and mixed vegetables; caramel popcorn sundae with salted caramel ice cream.
Vegetarian option: Summer orzo salad with feta cheese and lemon vinaigrette.
Oops: The mountain of greens framing the Cobb salad could have used dressing; caterer prefers checks to credit cards (to save everyone money, it was explained).
Praise: Of all the caterers enlisted, Susan Gage proved the most detail-oriented; linen samples were previewed via e-mail; supervisor showed up — and stayed all night — with chef and server; caterer threw in a gratis bouquet of flowers from an event earlier in the day; staff was ready 30 minutes before party; server was gracious; chef stowed leftovers in freezer. Memorable bites included peppery fried chicken; custardlike corn pudding; lemony and perfectly cooked wax beans; fudgy heart-shaped brownies with the sundae.
Would I use them again? Gage can cook for me anytime.
Contact: 202-408-9700; federalcity.com.
Actual cost: $1,192.74.
Menu: Cucumber-yellow pepper soup with crab salad garnish; roasted sea bass with olives and tomatoes; bananas Foster ice cream torte.
Vegetarian option: Spinach and wild mushroom crepes.
Oops: Ice was added to glasses of sparkling water; server auctioned off the meatless food at the table (“Who’s the vegetarian?”) and waited for cues from the host to pour or remove drinks; unfinished bottles of wine were left in the refrigerator sans corks.
Praise: Representative suggested ways to trim expenses; server answered door, allowing host to focus on guests; chef thoughtfully placed leftovers in the freezer; food tasted like that of a talented home cook. Memorable bites included spicy cheese straws garnishing the crab-rich soup; delicious olive-oil mashed potatoes with the fish; fresh-tasting spinach crepes served with delicate goat cheese sauce; crowd-pleasing dessert topped with browned Italian meringue and finished with caramel sauce.
Would I use them again? Gladly.
Contact: 202-525-6455; spilledmilkcatering.com.
Actual cost: $1,022.40.
Menu: Passed bites (tomato bruschetta, spicy tuna cones, lamb lollipops); crab cake starter; duo of halibut with chipotle sauce and grilled skirt steak with chimichurri and onion straws; vanilla-poached pear with white chocolate mousse, caramel and toasted coconut.
Vegetarian option: Quinoa paella with tofu skewers and smoked paprika aioli.
Oops: Took the longest of any caterer to return initial call (staff was on vacation close to the Fourth of July, but still); wimpy tomato bruschetta.
Praise: Best at meeting my wishes by fitting passed hors d’ouevres and a signature drink into the plan while staying within budget; diligent waiters — there were two — had host preview the signature drink before it was served; the only caterer to send me a thank-you note after the event. Memorable bites included lamb lollipops, cilantro-lime jasmine rice with the entrees and the poached pear.
Would I use them again? Sign me up.
Contact: 703-979-9400; designcuisine.com.
Actual cost: $1,374.67.
Menu: Corn and crab soup; grilled asparagus salad; Chilean sea bass with lentils and citrus butter sauce; strawberry mille-feuille.
Vegetarian option: Spiced chickpea cake with coconut curry-squash sauce.
Oops: Server forgot to identify the vegetarian at the table before the meal.
Praise: Representative proposed a site visit ahead of the party, during which he previewed linen swatches and stemware samples; table linens were from President Obama’s inaugural luncheon; dinner was prepared out of view of the dining room. Lovely salad was accessorized with both green and white asparagus, toasted pinenuts, roasted baby beets and truffled goat cheese sabayon.
Would I use them again? Sure — if my top picks were busy.
Contact: 202-730-2507; email@example.com.
Actual cost: $1,181.63
Menu: Butternut squash soup laced with bourbon; braised lamb shank with spinach, chickpeas and pita; lemon lavender meringue pie with lemon verbena buttermilk ice cream.
Vegetarian option: Mushroom fettuccine.
More, please: Signature cocktail (a blend of applejack, calvados and cream sherry with mulled pumpkin, lemon and sage); busy as it was, the pasta with mushrooms, olives, figs, Parmesan and Madeira cream was terrific; divine dessert.
Oops: Crew arrived late, albeit on a rainy night; cocktails were slow to make their way from bar to guests; red wine was mistakenly poured for the first course; the main course was dull, with dry-tasting pita and undercooked chickpeas; host had to point out the vegetarian at the table.
Praise: Representative suggested using personal dessert plates so staff could depart on time; winning cocktail and meatless option; friendly staff.
Would I use them again? They deserve a second chance.
Grade: B -
Contact: 202-999-0881; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Actual cost: $1,220.50
Menu: Hors d’oeuvres of grilled halloumi with watermelon and eggplant rolled with snow peas; grilled chicory salad with orange wheels; pork roulade stuffed with Swiss chard and served with romesco; apricot tart.
Vegetarian option: Herbed linguine with English peas and sweet corn-tarragon broth.
Oops: Server was late; chef was unsure of whose plates to use; salad was too big — and too bitter. In general, the menu registered better on paper than in the mouth.
Praise: Caterer managed to fit into the budget two passed hors d’oeuvres. Genial chef. Padron peppers a welcome addition to the otherwise timid pork roulade.
Would I use them again? Unlikely.
Contact: 202-546-7400; occasionscaterers.com.
Actual cost: $1,287.60
Menu: Feta and watermelon salad; halibut filet with sea bean salad; peach crostata with raspberry ice cream.
Vegetarian option: Asparagus risotto with panko-fried asparagus spears and a crumb-paved casserole of white beans and eggplant.
Oops: Limp grissini (bread sticks); clumsy watermelon salad emphasized ginormous pieces of fruit; muted asparagus risotto was also dense in texture; overcooked fish; no one asked who the vegetarian was; raspberry ice cream smacked of frostbite.
Praise: Food deliveries were on time; bright salad alongside halibut; pleasing casserole of white beans and eggplant in light tomato sauce (paired with risotto for the vegetarian); staff was a delight to have in the house and eager to pitch in; quick and discreet cleanup.
Would I use them again? Nope.
Contact: 703-519-3500; catering.com.
Actual cost: $1,292.
Menu: Bistro salad with blackberries and chevre; duo of grilled snapper and lamb chops; chocolate royale (mousse) on raspberry coulis.
Vegetarian option: Stuffed portobello mushroom.
Oops: Unpleasant “Romeo and Juliet” cocktail based on tequila, Grand Marnier, raspberry liqueur and peach nectar; big, bitter berries in the dated salad; tomato-caper sauce overwhelmed fish; the stodgy meal looked and tasted as if the chef were cooking in the 1990s.
Praise: Helpful sales representative; showy dessert a hit.
Would I use them again? Does Popeyes deliver, hon?
Grade: C -
THE PROCESS: To create as much of a level playing field as possible, caterers were contacted anonymously, given the identical theme and $1,000 budget, and asked to stage a three-course dinner for eight in my home. Negotiations took place via e-mail and phone; The Post allowed for wiggle room of $300 per caterer. The prices listed above include food, table settings, labor, delivery and tax but not alcohol, flowers and gratuities.
Star-rated restaurant reviews are the result of multiple visits. Because catered events are one-time proposals, my reactions use letter grades.
Earlier versions of this story erred in saying Windows’ vegetarian offering was cheese-stuffed pasta roulade with tomato fondue. It was stuffed portobello mushrooms.
Tom Sietsema is The Washington Post’s food critic. To comment on this story, e-mail email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.