Peter Bonventre reminds us that there’s no such thing as a free dinner.
Okay, so maybe it has taken me almost half a century of attending dinner parties to have this epiphany, but now that it’s lodged in my brain, I’d like to share. The other day, I happened to purchase How to Be a Man by Glenn O’Brien. It’s pitched as a guide to style and behavior for the modern gentleman, and it’s excellent. I expected nothing less from O’Brien, whose urbane and insightful column in GQ I’ve been reading for years.
Then, I saw it. Right there on page 198 of my hardcover edition: “Being a guest is not a free ride.” And I thought, why not? Yes, I know, it’s a common courtesy to gift the host of a dinner party with a bottle of wine. Every author, columnist, or blogger who purports to be a maven on socials skills and manners says so (though without O’Brien’s wit). Still, think about it: Why am I obligated to pay up with a bottle of wine to chow down at somebody’s house when I didn’t ask to be invited in the first place? And why shouldn’t I presume to enjoy the host’s generosity free of charge?
Anyone who knows me well knows I’ve picked up many a check in many a restaurant. Hell, if I had the money back that I spent over 35-odd years at Elaine’s up on Second Avenue in Manhattan, I could buy a condo on the ocean in Palm Beach. Which is to say, I like to think of myself as a generous guy. When I bring a bottle of wine to a dinner party, I don’t cheap out. I go for the price, anywhere from maybe $50 to $75. One more time: Why should it cost me money to accept an invitation to eat at someone’s house? And how am I supposed to feel when the wine I bring costs more than the meal I’m served? It’s happened. Oy!
Many so-called etiquette experts also suggest that in lieu of wine, you might want to ask the host if there’s anything you can bring to the dinner party. You know, to help out with the food. Don’t do it! In the past, my wife Donna and I have been asked to bring cheese. Well, you can’t show up with a log of Velveeta, and even a single wedge of an expensive brie looks chintzy. We didn’t feel comfortable unless we brought at least three wedges of choice cheese. You know what that costs? Hint: We live much of the year in Manhattan, i.e., in the heart of New York City. You get the picture.
Did we learn anything from our cheesy experiences? The truth? Not long ago, in response to Donna’s inquiry, the host wondered if we’d be so kind as to bring a little something for dessert. We shopped at the Dean & DeLuca in our neighborhood, where a six-inch Blackout cake is $55 and a nine-inch Carrot and Ginger cake is $98. Swear to God!
We went for the Pear and Almond tart. That cost “only” $35. I was relieved I avoided having to remortgage our apartment.
Look, when Donna and I throw a dinner party, we prefer to serve our own wine and cheese and dessert, and our guests are welcome to eat every morsel and drink every last drop on the house. Nobody has to bring anything. Admission is free. Now that’s what I consider a real common courtesy.