For many, New Year’s Eve 2021 was a bust thanks to the pandemic. Now, with a sense of cautious optimism going into 2022, there’s a sense that New Year’s Eve is back. For those who want a night out at a restaurant and those who’d rather celebrate at home with takeout, the expectations this year are running high.
If this is the first year your restaurant is trying out a special New Year’s dinner, the prospect of satisfying customers’ high hopes can be daunting. We spoke to some New Year’s Eve restaurant vets who have seen it all about what they’ve learned doing NYE service over the years, and how any restaurant can make its own version a success.
1. Take risks, but stay true to you
New Year’s Eve can be the right time for surprises and experiments, within limits. “We can be over the top, and our guests expect that,” says Todd Mitgang, chef of Crave Fishbar in New York. His strategy is always to stay true to the restaurant’s seafood concept, but elevate it for the occasion. “We want a menu that feels decadent,” he says. “We’ll dress a raw oyster with champagne and caviar as an amuse, we’ll include lobster, we’ll take risks. We really try to razzle-dazzle our guests with luxury.”
2. Build anticipation for the new year
For Mitgang, that means 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. If you’re offering your menu to-go, consider small extras like chocolates or noisemakers.
3. Treat your dinner service like a dinner party
When people come to a restaurant for New Year’s, they want 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 connections—people end up chatting and mingling like old friends by the end of the night,” Procino says.
4. Give guests options
While many guests come to a restaurant looking for their New Years’ to be an over-the-top night on the town, others want something festive but low-key. An easy way to cater to a variety of diners is to offer more than one seating, according to Laurent Tourondel, the Michelin-starred chef at L’Amico in New York City and at least a dozen other restaurants around the world. 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 incredible experiences for both, whether they come in at 5:30 pm or 9:00 pm.”
And for those who want to stay at home? Adapt your special menu to be takeout friendly without compromising on the elements that make it a fest experience. If diners will need to add any finishing touches, consider including instructions or a link to a demonstration video so you know it will look as good on their table as it does on yours.
5. Offer a prix fixe
Many spots offer their a la carte menu on New Year’s, but experts 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. You can easily turn your prix fixe menu into an experience, which can help more people find your event when they’re looking to make New Year’s Eve plans. It can also make it easy for diners to pay in advance, taking some degree of uncertainty out of the evening for you and minimizing no-shows.
6. Make a midnight toast
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.” And remember: A special non-alcoholic sipper of some kind should be on offer as well. (There are more options than you might think.) Even on New Year’s Eve, you’re bound to have expecting mothers, athletes in training, designated drivers, and people in recovery in your dining room.
7. Prep 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. Be realistic
Yes, New Year’s is a time to be ambitious, but seasoned chefs will caution you to know your limits. You want your restaurant 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 Tourondel.
9. Post your menu
These days, reviewing the menu before you decide on 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. 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 able to get an idea of what the menu looks like,” Mitgang says. “You want to make sure it’s something people will get excited about.”
10. Take care of your people
Above all, the key to a successful New Year’s is a happy and motivated team. Your food and drink may be out of this world, but ultimately your employees 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 adding a few extra cooks or servers to the schedule if at all possible, 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. Start traditions
Those extra special signature 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.
Helping people turn the page on New Year’s Eve means your restaurant will be part of their memories. Though it can be intimidating, hosting guests for the last night of the year can be well worth it both in terms of revenue and positive vibes. With this expert advice in mind, you’ll be set up for a successful NYE even if 2022 will be your first one.