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The Main Course: Planning a Wedding Rehearsal Dinner

How to do a wedding rehearsal dinner without losing your mind.

A friend of mine’s son is getting married in a trendy art museum in a large urban city. “What am I going to do? I know nothing about that city!”

A feeling of dread rises up the spine of the mother of the groom. She realizes that she needs to pick out a place for the rehearsal dinner—in a city that she knows nothing about. Beyond the cost of the event (it could be a sizeable portion of your retirement portfolio) it is a high-pressure task because if the food is bad, or just average, that is what the wedding guests will remember. There are few tasks that fall upon the head of a mother that are more important, or carry a higher potential risk of failure.

After rolling a large-scale and rehearsal dinner in a “destination wedding” city I knew nothing about, I have learned a few things that were unexpected land mines.

Don’t rely completely on the list of recommended places given to you by the fiancé’s parents. Often it will omit some good places, for a myriad of reasons. Search for reviews online of at least five places, including restaurants, resorts, vineyards and hotels. Look at their photos on their websites initially, but realize that these are advertising photos, and what it actually looks like could be radically different. Plan a trip to inspect these places as soon as possible. One restaurant that had a beautiful photo on its website, when it was actually viewed, it had a lot of dirt and just looked trashy. There is no substitute for an onsite visit. Many looked more spacious than they actually were!

Find a good, long-time local florist who does weddings, and talk privately to the owner (she has seen it all and decorated most of the places, and she lives in that city). Tell her frankly what you are looking for, and note her recommendations for the size of your event. (She is an unbiased, on-the-scene, witness of the good, bad and just plain ugly at these venues.) Also ask a local photographer for these same recommendations, and find a food editor for the local newspaper. Between the three professionals, you will have a pretty refined list of where you need to make appointments. 

Get estimates up front, via emails, before you visit, for the same menu from each place, so you are always comparing apples-with-apples in cost. I sent the same introductory email to six places. I chose grilled filet mignon for the first estimates and four courses, including a soup, salad, entrée and dessert. Most places will email you with an approximate cost before you set foot in their place, so you have a vague idea of whether you can afford it or not before you schedule a visit. Collect notes in a folder for each place, including directions. (Remember to breathe.)

A visit is a requirement and you need to taste their food and ask to meet their banquet manager and cook when you visit. Many places will charge you for a tasting, which is entirely fair. Ask for cost estimates to include all costs, including room rental and all gratuities. View the actual rooms. Yes, standard gratuities can run 20 to 22 percent, plus a 5 to 10 percent sales tax. Also, if you are serving wines, understand that this is where most restaurants make their profit, so the cost of a bottle of wine is greatly inflated from what you could purchase at Total Beverage. Room rentals are drastically cheaper on weekdays, non-holidays, and Thursday or Friday evenings. 

Don’t forget to ask where the restrooms are. One highly-recommended place showed us a very steep, tiny spiral staircase, straight down, with a tiny railing, to get to the only bathroom.  With 60 guests drinking alcohol, this was a very scary discovery. Ask about other guests on that night and privacy, with noise from other parties on site. If they have an insurance convention with unlimited drinking next to your event, sharing a patio, alarm bells start going off in your mind.  Yes, privacy of the event is important. This is your evening with your children and their family. If your event shares a bar open to the public that could also be a deal breaker.

It is important to convey the mood in the invitations—whether it is business casual to cocktail attire requested. I went with printed invitations from Dandelion Patch, and if you order online, be sure to request samples before you place your order.

It will all come together once you find your perfect place. It just takes time and investigation. When you mail your invitations, be sure to record tiny numbers on the response cards. “If we had not put those numbers on them ahead of time, we never would have known who was responding,” said a good friend. Take a full-stuffed sealed envelope to the post office to have postage assigned before they are mailed. That way there will be no surprises if they actually are heavier than what you were told by the supplier. Enjoy!

David Rohr May 04, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Your insights and advice are spot on. But I do have one observation regarding finding qualified wedding professionals to not only handle local venues but destination weddings too. I suggest you check out Yelp! to help you in making some decisions about who to use, or better who to watch out for. As a professional Florist I have a good local network of like-minded professionals who really care about the wedding being a success. Also, not every Florist is a "she" as you put it. I am a third generation Florist and we are all "he's". I am sure it was an oversight on your part and you dont want your readers to only think a florist is a she. I enjoy keeping up with Herndon through the Patch because I used to co-own Herndon Florist for almost 25 years. Now I am a floral wedding specialist in the beautiful California desert. Check out The David Rohr Floral Studio. You can google me there and on Yelp! I am Desert Floral Importers. Good luck with your wedding plans! Dave Rohr.
Leslie Perales Loges May 04, 2012 at 05:07 PM
Thanks for your insights, David!
Carol Bruce May 04, 2012 at 05:29 PM
We miss you here in Herndon, Dave!
Nancy Loughin May 27, 2012 at 01:35 PM
The wedding rehearsal dinner for 58 persons in Charlottesville this past weekend was a spectacular success. It was at the Boar's Head Inn. I highly recommend that venue, because they have an English-country-patio that overlooks a picture-perfect lake for outdoor cocktails. Pat's Florals are the best for flowers, and J Nicole is the best photographer. Amanda Dickinson is their banquet coordinator at the Boar's Head and I have never worked with a more professional department!
Nancy Loughin May 27, 2012 at 01:41 PM
Sorry David, I didn't even think about the "he" or "she" observation. And be careful with Yelp advice. It is a frequent receptacle for trashing a vendor/place, and Yelp thinks that flamboyant praise/abuse/controversy will cause more readership---it works for them. Best advice: thoroughly vet your vendors before you hire them!

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