You have that one friend who makes a really big deal about her birthday. Last year, she asked you to go to Tulum for a week, and you’re not sure what her plan is this year, but you’ve heard rumblings about a booze cruise. Now your birthday is coming up, and you definitely don’t want to be like this friend. Not that you’d hate a trip to Mexico. Or some champagne on a yacht while the wind tousles your hair.
OK, so maybe you do want to do something great for your birthday. You want to celebrate with a bunch of friends at a fun restaurant with good food, and maybe drink cocktails out of fishbowls. You don’t want to rent out half the dancefloor at Bagatelle, but you still want a night that feels like a party. Below are some places that are good for groups, kind of special but not stuffy, and significantly cheaper than a flight to Mexico.
Dessert at The Loyal will make up for every birthday that’s ended with store-bought cupcakes or a few spoons and pint of Haagen-Dazs. The DIY sundae set looks like it came straight out of Augustus Gloop’s brain, with a silver platter carrying scoops of ice cream, saucers of Reese’s Pieces and gummy bears, and bowls of chocolates and syrup. The celebration will also be started long before dessert, with very good cocktails and a burger with duck fat tater tots.
Tell your friends you want to go to The Wythe Hotel for your birthday, and they might assume you want to get bottle service at a table on the roof. While you do want people passing bottles while singing happy birthday, you don’t need $400 worth of vodka and a room full of tourists speaking French. That’s why you’re instead going to Reynard, the restaurant on the ground floor of The Wythe that’s made up of two high-ceilinged dining rooms great for big groups. The wood-fired meats and vegetables are all good, and your version of bottle service will include some great options off the long French wine list.
A three-hour tasting menu in Bushwick sounds like a lot to ask of your friends. But for most of the night at Brooklyn Cider House, you’ll be taking videos of each other “catching” cider out of minivan-sized barrels in the tasting room of this brewery. After each of the four Basque-inspired food courses, which are served family-style at communal tables, you get up to catch more raw (a.k.a. not too sweet) cider. It may be a three-hour commitment, but each person will only drop $49 for good food and basically bottomless cider.
Wu’s Wonton King is a Chinese spot deep in the Lower East Side where you walk by open fishtanks and a seafood counter on your way into a bright space that looks like a banquet hall. Wu’s is also BYOB, and full of round tables - in other words, it’s ideal for big groups. Tell each of your friends to bring a bottle of wine, ask your server for an ice bucket, and your table’s Lazy Susan will instantly become a spinning wine-tasting to go with your very good Chinese food. If you want to mix it up with strangers afterwards, 169 Bar - a classic dive with $3 shot and beer combos - is basically next door.
You might start the night off with a low-key drink at the bar at Insa - a modern Korean barbecue spot in Gowanus - but it’s not hard for a casual drink here to turn into you singing Hit Me Baby One More Time in a karaoke room in the back. In between those two events, you and your group will share soju and grill some really good meats at big communal tables in the open, wood-covered dining room.
Modern Love is the fully-vegan restaurant that’s also a good place for slightly over-the-top birthday behavior. That probably has a lot to do with the food, which is comfort stuff like truffled poutine and mac and (cashew) cheese. There’s also an affordable wine list and large tables that are great for groups.
Birthday dinners can last for a while, and one friend may want something fried as soon as she sits down, while another may just want vegetables with her three drinks. Tapas are a good way to let people order whatever they want, whenever they want, so they can hang out for as long as they want. And Cata is an especially good place to get them. It’s a fun spot on the LES that looks like a converted fire station filled with groups ordering from the very big menu of small plates and the long list of gin and tonics.
After Medieval Times last year, you said you were going to play things cool at your birthday this year. And by “play things cool,” you mean seeing Disney On Ice at MSG or karaoke crawling in K-Town. But before you do either of those, you should eat at Her Name Is Han, one of our favorite group dinner spots in the city. The homestyle Korean food is all shareable and surprisingly light, and there are inexpensive pitchers of beer and bottles of grapefruit and blueberry-infused, house-brewed soju.
As far as steakhouses go, Quality Eats is one of your best options for when you want red meat on your birthday, but you don’t want to force your friends to eat at a steakhouse with white tablecloths and a crowd of banking VPs. You can get a great steak for under $30 along with more interesting things like slabs of bacon on peanut butter and “the birthday cake” - chocolate malt ice cream topped with confetti cake and vanilla icing.
Llama Inn is a Peruvian spot in Williamsburg that most people use for impressive dates, but this place is also pretty ideal for fun group dinners. Some of the best dishes here are large- format plates that are meant to be shared by a bunch of people - like the stir-fry beef you should use to make your own tacos with stir-fry beef, avocado, chiles, and french fries. If it’s nice outside, make a reservation on the roof. And if it’s not, the interior here feels like a vacation too.
Lots of research (many birthdays) have taught us that people would rather meet you at a bar for burgers than at a sit-down dinner. But you can find the ideal middle ground by reserving a booth at The Happiest Hour, a cocktail bar in the West Village that also happens to serve one of our favorite burgers. This place also gets a little clubby later in the night, which might be exactly what you’re looking for - and if not, you can head downstairs to their more low-key cocktail bar, Slowly Shirley.
Bombay Bread Bar is a casual Indian spot in Soho that specializes in different breads. If the floor-to-ceiling pop art and the oven painted like a giant tiger don’t put your friends in a festive mood, then the interesting cocktails, affordable share plates, and big, loud space should do the trick. Also, make sure to get the assortment of kulfi (Indian ice cream) for dessert.
If you want to keep your birthday casual, but you you also wouldn’t mind if your night got a little rowdy, start things off at Playa Betty’s. The communal tables, casual space (surfboards on the walls and palm trees in the corners), and affordable tabs are great for big groups. No one is going to complain about the solid guacamole and spicy margaritas, and most people will appreciate that this is a fun spot to make questionable decisions with a bunch of friends on the Upper West Side.
Miss Lily’s 7A is a low-key birthday move in the sense that it’s an affordable spot where you shouldn’t have much difficulty getting a reservation for a big group - but dinner here also always turns into a party. The colorful booths, cocktail pitchers, and shareable food make this a great place for big groups. It also gets darker and louder later in the night, when they have a DJ and the bar area gets packed with people who dance to the first 10 seconds of Rihanna songs before standing awkwardly and ordering another round of rum cocktails.