New Year’s Eve is likely the most hyped night of the entire year. For those spending their NYE at a restaurant, the expectations for the entire experience — not just the food — are very high.
“For a diner, let’s face it: New Year’s Eve dinner is not a cheap endeavor,” notes Nicolay Adinaguev, Executive Chef of Diplomat Prime in Hollywood, Florida. “Plain and simple, it needs to be perfect.”
That means if you’re a restaurant trying out a special New Year’s dinner for the first time, the prospect of satisfying customers’ high hopes can be daunting. We spoke to some of our favorite New Year’s Eve restaurant vets on what they’ve learned doing NYE service over the years, and how any restaurant can make its version a success.
1. New Year’s Eve is a time to go big and take risks — while still being true to your concept. “This is a special night for most of our guests, so we want to blow them away,” says Adinaguev. “We can be over the top, and our guests expect that.” Todd Mitgang, chef of Crave Fishbar in New York, says that his strategy is always to take the restaurant’s seafood concept and elevate it. “We want to curate a menu that feels decadent,” he says. “We will dress a raw oyster with champagne and caviar as an amuse, we will include lobster, we take risks. What’s fun about New Year’s Eve is that nothing is familiar. We really try to razzle dazzle our guests with luxury.”
2. Incorporate elements that build anticipation for the new year throughout the night. For Mitgang, that’s a live projection of the ball drop at Times Square. “Everyone quiets down, everyone wants to see the countdown — it really creates energy to have that on the whole night,” he says. There are plenty of other ways to generate excitement, like doing specifically timed beverage pairings or a special dessert that’s served right at midnight — something that will ensure your guests stay amped up all the way until the clock strikes.
3. Treat your dinner service like a dinner party. When people come to a restaurant for New Year’s, especially if they’re coming on the later side, they want to be a part of a super festive environment. “People aren’t just looking for great food,” says Rosario Procino, co-owner of Ribalta in New York. “They want that atmosphere of being around old friends, where everyone seems to know each other and wants to have fun together.” At Ribalta, Procino has live music the entire night and encourages guests to stand up and socialize. Mitgang fills the room with confetti and party hats and hires a DJ every year. “These elements are what create friendships — people end up chatting and mingling like old friends by the end of the night.” Procino says.
4. Don’t forget to hold an early and a late seating. While many guests come to a restaurant looking for their New Years’ to be an over-the-top night out on the town, others want something festive but low key. An easy way to cater to both is to offer more than one seating, as Tourondel does at most of his restaurants. He says: “For the early seating, it is more appropriate to dine with the whole family, and the next is more intimate, more adult — yet just as fun. We do two very different seatings, but we provide incredibly experiences for both, whether they come in at 5:30pm or 9:00pm.”
5. Offer a prix fixe. Many spots offer their a la carte menu on New Year’s, but among the individuals interviewed, everyone overwhelmingly encouraged first timers to offer a special prix fixe for the occasion — either in addition to the a la carte menu, or in lieu of it entirely. “For many guests, this is one of the few times a year they go out, so we like to make the decision making process simple for them,” Adinaguev says. He adds that New Year’s is one of the busiest nights of the year, so “doing a limited menu makes it a lot easier for our kitchen to execute the large volume of diners we will be serving.”
6. A midnight toast is a must. Out of all the New Year’s traditions, Mitgang says bubbly is the most essential — Crave offers an expanded Champagne list the night of New Year’s Eve, “to make sure there is a bubble for everybody.”
7. Prep your food (and your staff) well in advance… “You must get your logistics in order,” Procino says. “On New Year’s people are willing to spend more, but there is less room for forgiveness.” If you are preparing a special menu, triple check your ingredient orders, make sure your back-of-house staff knows how to execute every element of the food, and go through the details of each dish with your front-of-house staff. The farther in advance you can prepare your restaurant for New Year’s service, the better off you’ll be when the big night comes around.
8. …But don’t bite off more than you can chew. Yes, New Year’s is a time to be ambitious, but Adinaguev cautions, “Know your limits. Your restaurant wants to make money, but remember: for many guests, this is their first time at the restaurant. You don’t want it to be their last.” It’s important to strike the right balance between being innovative and not putting too much strain on your staff. “If [the menu is] overly complicated, it’s going to make it too difficult on the kitchen and front of house,” says Laurent Tourondel, chef of a number of restaurants across the globe.
9. Post your New Year’s menu several weeks before the big day. These days, glancing the menu before you go to a restaurant is practically a must. Even your most loyal of regulars will want to take a look at your New Year’s menu before committing to the evening. Posting in advance is a great way to draw in folks who might not be regulars but are enticed by your special offerings. “There are so many restaurants in Manhattan — diners need to be available to get an idea of what the menu looks like,” Mitgang says. “You want to make sure it’s something people are going to get excited about.”
10. Take care of your staff (and hire extra, if you can!). Above all, the key to a successful New Year’s is a happy and motivated staff. As Adinaguev says, “They need to be charged up! We want them to be oozing with excitement. This is what makes the guest excited and leads to a memorable evening.” Your food and drink offerings may be out of this world, but ultimately your staffers will be the ones making sure guests’ drinks are full, food is served promptly, and that the entire experience stands out, Tourondel says. Mitgang suggests even going a step further and hiring a few extra cooks or servers, just to be doubly sure that the entire service runs super smoothly. “Your first time New Year’s service is always going to be challenging and stressful,” he says. “Extra staff can help alleviate that.”
11. Build your own unique New Year’s traditions. Those extra special proprietary touches are what keep customers coming back to the same place year after year — find one that speaks to your concept,and will resonate with New Year’s revelers. Procino brings Italian holiday customs to Ribalta’s New Year’s celebration, including a particularly memorable one in which every guest gets a spoonful of lentils right before midnight, “because it’s a good wish for the next year,” he says.