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.
Generally speaking, going to a bar above a deli for your birthday is about as low-key of a move as you can make, short of staying in bed with a year’s worth of unread New Yorkers. But 2nd Floor Bar & Essen is cooler than whatever you’re probably picturing when we say “bar above a deli,” and there’s a decent chance your friends have never heard of it. It also happens to serve platters of 2nd Avenue Deli’s delicious smoked meats. If you’re looking to stay uptown, this is a great, somewhat downtown-feeling option.
You may or may not know that there are five TGI Fridays locations in Midtown alone. But if you’re reading this guide, you’ve probably already ruled them out for your birthday celebration. For an upgraded version of that kind of campy restaurant experience (complete with mozzarella sticks, big booths, and crayons on the tables), try Bernie’s. It’s a fun spot for a group, and no one has to take dinner too seriously - since at least one person’s meal will probably involve a cheeseburger deluxe and a brownie sundae.
Wu’s Wonton King is a Chinese spot deep in the Lower East Side that’s BYOB, and full of round tables - in other words, 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 a big communal table 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.
After Medieval Times last year, you said you were going to play things cool at your next birthday. And by “play things cool,” you meant 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 there are inexpensive pitchers of beer and bottles of grapefruit and blueberry-infused house-brewed soju.
There’s a reason pizza parties have been successful since the dawn of time (or whenever someone figured out that bread with sauce and cheese was an easy thing to feed large groups of ravenous children). The same principle applies to your calm-but-still-fun adult birthday party. Do it at Santa Panza in Bushwick and you’ll escape the drama and prices that normally come with big parties at restaurants, while still being able to split multiples carafes of wine and hang out in this comfortable spot for a few hours.
Quality Eats is one of your best options when you want red meat on your birthday, but 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 here 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.
Little-known fact: Huertas does a family-style prix fixe dinner on Sundays and Mondays for $48 per person (it’s normally $60 every other day). This gets you a selection of things from the Basque small plates menu, as well as off-menu dishes chosen by the chef. We always like coming here with friends, since the atmosphere is casual and the food is seriously good.
Llama Inn is a Peruvian spot in Williamsburg that works for lots of situations, including but not limited to fun group dinners. In fact, some of the best dishes here are large-format plates meant to be shared by a bunch of people - like the stir-fry beef that comes with avocado, chiles, and french fries. If it’s nice outside, make a reservation on the roof.
The Happiest Hour
Multiple peer-reviewed studies have concluded that people would rather meet at a bar for burgers than go to a sit-down dinner for your birthday. 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 in the city. This place 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.
If you want to keep your birthday casual, but you also wouldn’t mind the night getting slightly rowdy later on, 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 here are great for big groups. No one is going to complain about the solid guacamole and spicy margaritas, and everyone should appreciate that this is a fun spot to kick things off 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 - 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.