Deciding where to celebrate your birthday can cause more stress than turning a year older. Readers often ask us which restaurants are best for big groups and which have a festive atmosphere. So we compiled a list of our favorite places to turn a year older, with options for everyone from penny-pinching twentysomethings to nostalgic pizza-party lovers. Consider it our gift to you.
Looking for an-all out splurge? Here are places that have earned their price tags:
• Citronelle. One of the top restaurants in Washington, Citronelle is defined by chef Michel Richard’s whimsical take on classic French preparations. Large parties have the option of three private-dining spaces—for 10, 30, or 50 people. For each of these spaces, a three-course menu is $85 per person, four courses $105, and five courses $125. Any group with more than eight people is required to have a set menu, and menus with more than five courses will include only one choice per course. For more information, call Melanie Blonshine at 202-295-2004.
• CityZen. At former French Laundry chef Eric Ziebold’s luxe restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, groups of up to 11 can sit in the main dining room. Any bigger and you’ll have to use the semiprivate area—which can hold up to 22—that opens up to the kitchen. A group with more than six must order from a set menu, which costs $200 per person—$150 for food and a $50 beverage credit for bottles of water, wine, or cocktails. The price is the same regardless of the number of courses, and portions are adjusted accordingly. For a custom-made birthday cake, add $20 per person. For more information, call Jared Slipp at 202-787-6670.
• Kinkead’s. Bob Kinkead’s Foggy Bottom restaurant has long been considered the standard bearer for seafood in Washington. On the upper level, three private rooms (for up to 20 people, up to 34, and up to 55) are available for dinner Sunday through Thursday. If you’re thinking about a weekend-night celebration, your party can’t include more than ten. Larger groups require a three-course set menu ($65 per person): for 12 to 20 people, you can preselect three choices per course; 21 to 30 have two choices per course; and groups of more than 31 have one appetizer, two entrées, and one dessert choice. The banquet menu includes such dishes as New England seafood chowder; crabcakes; pepper-seared rare tuna; cornmeal-crusted flounder; almond cake; and vanilla crème brûlée. If your birthday money is burning a hole in your pocket, go for the $125-per-person six-course tasting menu. For more information, call Allison Haight at 202-747-8570.
• Volt. It doesn’t get much prettier than this 19th-century mansion in historic Frederick, chef/owner Bryan Voltaggio’s hometown. The former Charlie Palmer Steak chef’s modern, seasonal cooking draws fans from DC and beyond. There are a number of private-dining spaces, the largest of which can hold up to 80 people. The most intimate is the “conservatory,” a glassed-in, rounded room that can accommodate 12. Guests can order from an la carte or do a six-course chef's tasting menu ($95 a person; $50 for wine pairings). You can even bring your own cake at no extra cost. Call Julie South at 301-696-8658 to book.
Want to celebrate like the (Maryland) locals? Go for a crab feast:
• Cantler’s. There’s nothing fussy about this Annapolis institution, and that’s exactly why we love it. It’s a rare find: a restaurant right on the water with food that lives up to the view. Parties of ten or more can make reservations Monday through Thursday and reserve one of three party packages. The smallest ($31.95 per person) includes steamed hard-shell crabs along with corn on the cob, coleslaw, French fries, and soft drinks, while the middle package ($35.95 per person) includes steamed shrimp and onion rings in addition. Extra-hungry parties can go for the largest package ($45.95 per person), which adds in beer, wine, and dessert. There’s a two-hour time limit for large parties. For more information, call 410-757-1311.
• The Quarter Deck. Tucked away in a residential Arlington neighborhood, this no-frills restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat crab feast—with the smallest-size crabs—for $34.95 per person. Larger crabs are available by the dozen in four sizes: regular ($44 per dozen), medium ($54), large ($64), and jumbo ($76). And for anyone in your party who’s likely to grouse about the messy feast, there are crabcakes and soft-shells. On the sweet side, the kitchen serves six types of pie—including chocolate cream, Boston cream, and blueberry—all made in-house.
• Sea Side Crab House. Louisiana meets Hanoi at this Eden Center seafood restaurant, where crabs get an Asian-style marinade—garlic, ginger, scallions, lime and tangerine juices, fish sauce—and a Gulf Coast boil, which includes cayenne pepper. Crabs come by the dozen—which can feed three or four people—and in two sizes, depending on availability: large ($40 per dozen) and jumbo ($70). There’s no private-dining space here, but with the crab shells flying, you’ll be happy there’s an outdoor patio.
Where to go if you want to see and be seen:
• EatBar. This darkly lit, always crowded Arlington bar/lounge has a back room that can be reserved for cocktail parties and happy hours for groups of up to 50. The small-plates menu is available in hors-d’oeuvres-size portions and includes options both nostalgic—corn dogs ($2.75 each)—and refined, such as steak tartare ($3 each). The space is available starting at 4, but it must be open to the public by 9. Unlike most restaurants, this one doesn’t charge a room-rental fee. For more information, call Clare Parker at 703-447-1757.
• Mie N Yu. At this dolled-up pan-Asian restaurant in Georgetown, there’s tons of private-dining space, but the most unique is the wrought-iron birdcage, a seating area suspended from the ceiling. The space is available for up to eight guests, who can choose from four-, five-, or six-course dinners that range from $95 to $125 per person. Wine and Champagne pairings add $55 to $125 per person. You can also order a custom cake—there are six-, eight, and 10-inch options—for $30 to $60. For more information, call Emily Jarmuth or Michael Cherner at 202-222-0948.
Want to party big but spend small? Here’s where you’ll get the most bang for your buck:
• Four Sisters. Food this good rarely comes at a cost this cheap. This colorful dining room—one of the top Vietnamese restaurant in Washington—offers menus for both large groups (a menu for six is $98.90—that’s less than $17 per person; a ten-person menu is $168). Each menu contains nine dishes. Some of our favorites are the sweet-and-sour tamarind soup; grilled black-pepper beef; and caramelized fish or pork in a clay pot. There’s free parking next to the restaurant. For more information, call 703-539-8566.
• Lebanese Taverna. Each of these five handsomely decorated Middle Eastern restaurants have private-dining space, each a different size. But the guidelines are the same: Any party with more than 12 guests requires a set menu, which can be served either family style ($32.50 to $55 per person) or as a three-course plated dinner ($40 to $50 per person). The family-style options include a first course of mezze, three entrées, and a plate of baklava. The plated dinner includes a salad, a choice of one entrée, and a family-style plate of baklava. There’s a $3-per-person charge if you bring your own cake. For more information, call the individual locations.
• Oyamel/Jaleo/Zaytinya. A celebrity chef’s food at bargain prices? At three of José Andrés’s restaurants, a small-plates format makes that unlikely combination possible. The Mexican-themed Oyamel offers two different three-course menus ($35 and $42 per person), while Jaleo and Zaytinya offer three four-course menu options (Jaleo: $35, $40, $55; Zaytinya: $44, $49, $59) for large groups. Each course (except dessert) comes with three items served family-style and meant for sharing. Although dessert is included in the menus, customers can bring their own cake for a $2.50-per-person cutting fee. Large groups can reserve private-dining space only Sunday through Thursday evenings, except for Jaleo’s Crystal City location. For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call Tiffany Dunn at 202-638-0202.
If you want to celebrate with drinks, here are bars that have great cocktails and good, grazing-friendly snacks:
• Black’s Bar & Kitchen. Jeff and Barbara Black’s Zen-modern (but loud) bar and patio in Bethesda make an energetic spot for a party. They’re both first-come, first-served, says general manager Doug Doyle, “but there are exceptions to every rule.” While you usually can’t make reservations at the bar, Doyle says he’d let parties reserve the space, depending on the day and time requested—you’re more likely to secure a reservation on a Tuesday at 4 than, say, a Friday at 7. In terms of food and drinks, Black’s will work with customers to create menus, but Doyle recommends coming during happy hour (Monday through Friday 4 to 7), when there are food and drink specials galore (think half-price mussels, $6 martinis, and 50-cent spiced shrimp). To arrange for a birthday cake, you can work with the restaurant’s pastry chef, Catherine McArdle; no outside food is permitted. To make arrangements, call 301-652-5525.
• Bourbon Steak. At celebrity chef Michael Mina’s fish-heavy steakhouse in the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel, there are no reservations taken for the plush bar area, so be sure to get there early to scope out a spot for your party. While the restaurant can’t guarantee seats, you can make prior arrangements for a cake, flowers, Champagne service, and appetizers (prices start at $30 a person). There’s no set menu for parties at the bar, so the managers will work with you to create a food-and-drink menu that suits your group size and budget. Call 202-944-2026 to make arrangements.
• PX. This Old Town speakeasy is gilded with Victorian chandeliers and manned by one of the best bartenders in town, Todd Thrasher, who makes his own tonic and bitters and changes his cocktails with the seasons. Private parties are allowed to use the space for three hours at a time and must include at least 20 and no more than 40 guests. If you book Sunday through Tuesday, you’ll pay $70 per person for cocktails, $30 per person for charcuterie and cheeses, and $20 per person for hors d’oeuvres. Wednesday through Saturday, you can book from 6 to 9 or 7 to 10; the prices are the same, but there’s a $3,500 minimum. An individual birthday cake is $13, and a nine-inch round is $85. Let your guests know they’re expected to dress to impress, which means men needs jackets, and no flip-flops, shorts, tank tops, T-shirts, or hats are allowed. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who doesn’t love burgers and beer? They’re cheap, and everyone can get what they want.
• Good Stuff Eatery. It’s easy to love the casual dining atmosphere of this Capitol Hill burger joint. Former Top Chef contestant Spike Mendelsohn whips up creatively topped burgers and plenty of personality for birthday celebrants who—if they come with a party of ten or more—are invited to sit at the “family farm” table and will receive a slice of signature birthday cake, compliments of the kitchen. As for the burgers, we suggest the Vietnamese-influenced Blazin’ Barn, topped with pickled daikon and carrots, mint, cilantro, and Thai basil; for something more decadent, try the Colletti’s Smokehouse, with bacon, cheddar, fried onion rings, and chipotle barbecue sauce. The milkshakes, especially the toasted-marshmallow variety, are worth the trip alone, even if you’re old enough to order beer (there are two on draft and three by the bottle here). Call 202-543-8222 for reservations.
• Matchbox. There’s always a crowd at these two industrial-chic pizza bistros, which means two things: You’re guaranteed a festive atmosphere, and you should make reservations—available only Sunday through Thursday for groups of six or more. If it’s burgers you’re after, the miniature versions—or sliders—are a terrific appetizer for sharing. If you want one all to yourself, the entrée-size option is messy—it has Gorgonzola, bacon, and mushrooms on it—but tasty. Beers range from $3.50 cans (PBR anyone?) to $8 drafts (Chimay, Delirium Tremens). The birthday boy or girl gets a complimentary chocolate-chip bread pudding. To make reservations, call 202-289-4441 (Chinatown) or 202-548-0369 (Capitol Hill).
• Thirsty Bernie. If your idea of fun is more nosebleed bleachers than white-tablecloth dining, this is the place for you. There are 15 flat-screen TVs, a roster of linebacker-size meat options, and nearly 40 beers, which range from stadium-style (Coors Light) to esoteric (Lindemans Framboise). We think it’s okay that there’s no private-dining space—cheering on your team is a lot more fun when there are lots of people to cheer alongside you. For more information, call 703-248-9300.
When it comes to birthdays, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned pizza party. Here are some of our favorite pies:
• Mia’s Pizzas. Although this Bethesda favorite doesn’t normally take reservations, large groups (15 to 20 people) can make arrangements in advance with owner Melissa Ballinger to secure a table. Because the place does such brisk business, she accommodates big parties only during the day or Monday through Thursday for dinner. The cost varies depending on the menu, which can include starters, salads, and pizzas. A recent party was $23 per adult and $18 per child and featured antipasto (cured meats, Parmesan cheese, olives, vegetables), three types of salad, pizzas, and, for the kids, meatballs and cheese breadsticks. We like the basic Mia’s and Margherita pies and the Alsace with pancetta, Gruyère, and onion. At the back of the restaurant there’s a tower of house-made cupcakes ($2.50 each). If you bring your own cake, there’s a $1.25 per-person cutting fee. For more information, call Melissa Ballinger at 301-718-6427.
• Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza. For large groups, this Columbia Heights mom-and-pop—one of the best pizza joints in town—is better suited for takeout because it doesn’t take reservations. The pies—thin, mottled crusts with a good balance of sauce and cheese—come in one 18-inch size and start at $20.65. Toppings include roasted garlic, sliced meatball, and fried eggplant, and there are both dairy- and gluten-free options. We recommend some of the specialty “apizzas,” such as the New Haven ($25.25), a white pie with clams, garlic, and Pecorino, or Edge of the Woods ($27.50), piled with spinach, caramelized onions, ricotta, and fried eggplant. There’s also a selection of salads ($20 to $27 for five servings), panini ($8.25 to $9.25), and pasta ($8 to $12). Click here for the full menu, and call Joel at 202-322-7383 to place an order. Pete’s requires 24 hours’ advance notice.
• Rustico. At this upbeat Alexandria spot, you’ll get a grown-up pizza party with local ingredients and gourmet toppings (think house-made sausage, pickled peppers, and duck confit). There are more than 25 beers on tap and 300 by the bottle. If you don’t want pizza, there’s a full menu with soups, salads, house-made charcuterie, and entrées, almost all of which use beer as an ingredient. The restaurant doesn’t have a private-dining space, but custom-designed menus are available Monday through Thursday for about $25 to $40 per person. For more information, call Jason Asher at 703-224-5051.
• Vace. These two takeout-only delis are a rare find in Washington: a family-owned shop that’s survived for more than 30 years. The pizza is unlike anything else we’ve seen—the cheese is baked right into the crust, and the sauce is on top. The crust is crispy, and the price is right. A 16-inch pizza starts at $9.50 (toppings $1.10 extra) and a 14-inch starts at $8 (toppings $1 extra). There’s a standard lineup of veggie toppings, but meats include prosciutto and Italian sausage. For more information, call 202-363-1999 (Cleveland Park) or 301-654-6367 (Bethesda).
Celebrate under the stars:
• Poste. At this Penn Quarter brasserie, chef Rob Weland grows herbs on the restaurant’s back patio. Situated among the potted plants is a long, marble table that can seat 6 to 12. Every night except Thursday, the patio is available for one of Weland’s Poste Roasts: Customers choose one animal—duck, goat, pig, brisket, lamb, squab, salmon, or poussin—to be spit-roasted over hickory wood. Weland serves the meat—as well as seasonal sides—family style. The cost is $27 per person; alcohol is extra. Reservations are required at least seven days in advance. A cake-cutting fee is $9.50 per person. Call Stacy Nemeth at 202-449-7062 for more information.
• Surfside. This tribute to the beach shacks of Baja California dishes out high-quality tacos and quesadillas for the prices of, well, beach-shack food. On the roof deck, you’re more likely to hear honking cars than crashing waves, but it’s about as close as Washington gets to the West Coast. If you have a minimum of 50 people, you can have the roof to yourself on the bookends of dinner service: from 2 to 6 or 10 to midnight. Chef David Scribner will work with guests to custom-design a buffet. The cost depends on what you want (we suggest the fish tacos and lots of guacamole), but count on a minimum of $30 per person. Cupcakes or cakes can be ordered from the bakery Something Sweet, run by Surfside owner Bo Blair’s wife. For more information, e-mail Molly at email@example.com.
It’s dinner theater—sort of: These restaurants offer special tables right in front of the kitchen.
• Central Michel Richard. Up to 16 people can fit at the table with a view of the kitchen at Michel Richard’s bustling, casually hip bistro. Groups of fewer than ten can order off the regular menu, while larger parties will have to put together a set menu with four choices per course. Need help deciding? We’ve liked the “faux gras” terrine ($15), fish and chips ($18), bacon-and-onion tart ($11), and tagliatelle Bolognese ($21). In lieu of a cake, you can get a larger version of Richard’s signature “Kit Kat” bar ($9 per person), personalized by the pastry chef. For more information, call 202-626-0015 and ask for a manager.
• Inox. At this lavish McLean dining room, 2941 alums Jonathan Krinn and Jon Mathieson turn out some of the most intricate food around. Consider this: crispy skate wing with scallops, roasted beets, blood orange, capers, pickled green mango, and a malted-mustard emulsion. To watch them meticulously decorate their plates, ask for the private room that’s separated from the kitchen by a glass partition. For a maximum of eight guests, the duo will create a seven-course tasting menu for $125 per person, with the option of a $75-per-person wine pairing. Here’s a nice touch: If you let the restaurant know it’s your birthday, all the chefs will sign a card. For more information, call 703-790-4669 and ask for a manager.
Want to celebrate at home but don’t want to dirty the dishes? These places are great at making large quantities of takeout.
• Bobby’s Crabcakes. If you’re looking to throw an at-home Chesapeake-style bash without fishing for dinner yourself, this Rockville restaurant is a local favorite for its generously portioned crabcakes ($12 each), tart/sweet Key-lime pie ($4.50 per person), and three-cheese mac and cheese ($60 for 15 people). While the seafood’s the thing to get, other options include beef tenderloin ($295 for 15 people) and chicken Parmesan ($13.75 per person). For more information, call 301-217-0858. Orders require a minimum of 24 hours’ notice.
• El Pollo Rico. Of all the Peruvian rotisserie-chicken joints in Washington, it’s this one—which has locations in Arlington and Wheaton—that takes the prize for the juiciest, most flavorful birds. Count on a whole chicken ($14.20) for every three people, and round out your meal with sweet-corn tamales ($1.85 each) or fried plantains ($2.35). Head for the nearest picnic table, and prepare for some very sticky fingers. The restaurant will deliver orders of more than $100. For more information, call the Arlington location at 703-522-3220 or Wheaton at 301-942-4419.