By Lindsay Moran
On the Friday before the black-tie wedding of Marc Biondi and Emily Tait in May, Biondi’s parents hosted a rehearsal dinner for more than 100 guests at Finemondo, a DC Italian restaurant. The restaurant was closed for the private party, which started with cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres.
“Before dinner, my father announced a special guest, which was a surprise to Emily and me,” says Biondi, 32. “The guest was a Bill Clinton impersonator. He did an improvisation for about 30 minutes, playing off of Emily, me, and the crowd.”
After, guests enjoyed appetizers followed by a “primi” course of ravioli and a “secondi” course of salmon, chicken, steak, or lamb. A trio of wandering musicians played Neapolitan ballads. At the end of the night, each guest left with a small bottle of Godiva chocolate liqueur.
Once upon a time, a rehearsal dinner suggested a small gathering of the wedding party, immediate family, and some out-of-town guests.
As the average cost of a Washington wedding approaches $50,000, rehearsal dinners are following suit—often with guest lists over 100. A modest prewedding party for 50 guests typically ranges from $5,000 to $8,000, but some rehearsal dinners look like mini weddings. For couples who have destination weddings, a rehearsal dinner often doubles as a welcome reception —which means everyone is invited.
Christy Humston of DC-based Odyssey Cruises, a venue for weddings and special events, organized a rehearsal dinner last fall for more than 200 people. Guests enjoyed a live band and open bar as they cruised the Potomac. Tables were decorated with chocolate centerpieces shaped like Washington monuments. The cost was nearly $36,000.
“The groom’s parents paid for the entire thing,” says Humston.
Gone are the days when parents with sons could rest easy. The groom’s side usually hosts the rehearsal dinner—a tradition that hasn’t changed—and may find itself financing large galas.
Some mothers-of-the-groom relish the opportunity to plan a special party. When Vicki Breman’s son, Matthew, was married in 2001, Breman and her husband hosted an African-themed dinner—complete with drummers, storytelling, and dancing. Matthew and his fiancée, Rachel, had met in Africa while she was serving in the Peace Corps and he was working with Catholic Relief Services.
Breman found a chef to prepare the couple’s favorite African dishes. “I hired a DC woman named Vera Oyé Yaa-anna, a master storyteller who helps plan African-style events,” says Breman, who lives on Capitol Hill. “We had an African ceremony where the bride was carried in atop a chair.”
All 170 wedding guests were invited to the Saturday-night dinner.
“Couples feel obligated to entertain out-of-towners for the entire weekend,” says Julie Raimondi, editor of Brides Washington. “It’s not just the rehearsal dinner —it’s the extra cocktail parties and the Sunday brunch. Weddings go on for days.”
Some experts worry about guests’ enjoying themselves too much at the prewedding events. “It becomes more fun than the actual wedding, especially when there’s live music and dancing,” says Raimondi. “When you’ve spent all this time, effort, and money planning a wedding, it’s a shame if that’s not the most memorable event.”
No bride wants her big day to be overshadowed. So who is pushing for these extravaganzas?
“Sometimes the groom’s family feels obligated to host an event as grand as the wedding,” says Raimondi. “It can be a way for them to impress their friends and business associates.”
Raimondi attended one wedding where the rehearsal dinner was in the same hotel as the reception, with the same guests and a live band—whereas on the wedding night, there was a DJ.
Trying to upstage the main event, she says, is “not a good way to start a new in-law relationship.”
Catherine Johns of Engaging Affairs in Alexandria, which offers rehearsal-dinner planning as part of its wedding packages, says brides who push for flashy rehearsals might be influenced by shows like Platinum Weddings on the Women’s Entertainment network and VH1’s The Fabulous Life of: Celebrity Weddings.
“They feel the pressure to entertain on a grand scale,” she says.
Still, Johns says, most brides let the groom’s parents plan the dinner. When the groom’s parents hail from another country, expectations can get lost in translation. In many parts of the world, the concept of a rehearsal dinner is unfamiliar.
“My parents are British, and the rehearsal dinner is not part of a traditional British wedding,” says Piers Bocock, who married his American wife, Katie, in 1997. “My mother was very concerned about the American way of doing things, and she took it as a chance to do something nice.”
The result was a dinner for 80 at the College of Preachers on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral. Bocock’s mother planned a feast that included passed hors d’oeuvres, an elegant buffet, vintage wine, and Champagne. She arranged for a performance by musicians from her English country-dance circuit. The dinner reached an emotional crescendo when Bocock’s sister, who is disabled, sang “The Rose.”
“In some ways it overshadowed the reception,” says Bocock.
Both he and his wife, Katie, liked the chocolate cake at the rehearsal dinner better than their tiered wedding cake.
Lavish rehearsals don’t have to take away from the main event. The key is to make them different. “If you’re having a very elegant wedding, you might opt for a rustic rehearsal dinner in a country setting,” says Raimondi. “If you’re having an afternoon barbecue wedding, you might want a fancy dinner the night before.”
Some couples host active rehearsal outings, such as bowling or ice skating. Others invite guests to a cooking class. “You have an amazing meal, and people are relaxed,” says Raimondi.
Vicki Breman wanted the African-themed party she and her husband hosted to be fun and casual, a contrast to the traditional Jewish ceremony and formal reception the next day.
“At the end of the rehearsal, the grandfather of the bride did say to me, ‘Now we don’t have to have a wedding!’ ” says Breman. “But I think he meant it as a compliment.”