6 Ways to Dine Like a Restaurant Pro on New Year’s Eve

How to eat well, save money, and avoid "amateur night."

Look for restaurants offering their regular menus, like the delicious Korean barbecue at Kogiya. Photograph by Scott Suchman

New Year’s Eve is one of those occasions when everyone wants to dine out, but the restaurant landscape is a minefield of overpriced menus, stressed staff, rowdy diners, and packed rooms. Here’s how to navigate the scene from an insider’s perspective.

1) Don’t go out

There’s a reason why many in the restaurant industry call NYE “amateur night.” People are late, rushing to get to a party, worried about getting cabs, emotional, drunk, and often all of the above. Expectations are high—it’s the last meal of 2014—and restaurants try to meet them with fancy “special” menus made up of dishes they don’t serve on a regular night. That means the potential to underwhelm is also pretty high. Save yourself the headache and go out on any of the other 364 evenings in 2015—except Valentine’s Day, where it’s pretty much the same deal.

2) If you do, don’t go here.

An average restaurant offering a three-course prix-fixe for $55-ish, which includes a glass of “sparkling wine” (i.e., not Champagne, and likely not even a good Prosecco). Look at the regular menu, and if the NYE lineup is made up of similar dishes at a higher price, you’re just paying more for a holiday table. On the other hand, if it’s a place that never serves luxury items like scallops, sweetbreads, or foie, and is featuring those, chances are the kitchen won’t prepare these delicate ingredients well on a single night.

3) Look for regular menus.

If a restaurant is great on a normal night, chances are it’ll still be great on a holiday serving a regular menu. Many eateries who go this route offer high-end specials for regulars, so you can get your caviar or oyster fix from a kitchen you trust. Here’s a roundup of some tasty options around Washington.

4) Dine early.

Most restaurants, especially those offering prix-fixe menus, have two seatings: an 5-to-6:30 window for those wanting to be elsewhere at midnight, and a later, often more expensive option that can stretch to 12. Unless the menus are drastically different, diners in the second wave are paying for somewhere to be when the ball drops. Many eateries offer something extra—live music, a glass of bubbly, an extra course—but if you don’t need the midnight hoopla, save the money for a bottle of good Champagne and dine earlier.

5) Get takeout—or fancy platters—for a group.

No one wants to split a check 11 ways, especially with the friend who’s been downling Ketel martinis all night. A potluck-style dinner is a great way to go, and there are plenty of solid options if you don’t want to spend the 31st cooking. I’ve opted for an impressive sandwich platter for G by Mike Isabella—spit-roasted lamb and Italian subs, all halved and wrapped for easy eating—pizza from Vace (it’s delicious, even cold), a spread of shrimp cocktail, crab, and caviar from Blacksalt Fish Market for fancy parties, cheeseboards from Righteous Cheese, Red Apron’s many delicious meats, and fondue kits from Swiss Bakery. If none of these sound good/familiar, contact your favorite restaurant/shop/purveyor of tasty things and find out what you can order.

6) Splurge

This is the opposite of the first rule, but also holds true for NYE: Go big or stay home. Sure, you’ll have to pay more for Mintwood Place‘s tasting menu than the everyday à la carte, and Plume at the Jefferson Hotel is more luxurious (and expensive) than ever. But these are some of the best restaurants in Washington, and are likely worth the splurge. A few spots in the top 20 of our 100 Best Restaurants list offer their regular, wonderful à-la-carte menus for NYE, so you can still have a top-tier meal without emptying your wallet.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.