Google "prom" and you'll get 36 million hits, the lion's share of them about dresses and those hair spray-assisted wonders called "updos." Not so much about prom night dinners. Partly this is because proms differ: Some have sit-down or buffet meals included in the evening's itinerary, others just offer beverages and snacks. For example, St. Petersburg's Gibbs High prom will be May 8 at the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach and the $80 ticket covers a full dinner. Another St. Petersburg high school, Lakewood, will prom-it at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg on April 23, and the $45 ticket includes finger foods, sweets and soft drinks. Not surprisingly, dining strategies differ.
Rachel Williams, a Gibbs senior, says her classmates do their real eating after prom, stopping in late at Applebee's (open until 2 a.m.), IHOP (24 hours) or Denny's (most are 24 hours on weekends) for post-dancing nourishment. Before prom, it's time for pictures, not food (after all, "you don't want to mess up your dress," Williams says).
Ellen Androlewicz, a freshman at Florida State, did something different for dinner before her King High School prom last year: She and friends had a potluck before heading to Tampa's Event Factory for the dance. That way, she says, parents got to participate and take pictures, latecomers didn't gum up the works and the evening's total price tag stayed sane.
St. Petersburg High senior Shannon Glenn, on the other hand, isn't sure where she's eating before prom this year, but last year she and friends went to the Columbia at the Pier in St. Petersburg before the dance. Why there?
"We tried to pick someplace that would be friendly to a whole bunch of teenagers and someplace that was a good compromise between being nice but also affordable."
Here are some tips for promgoers and the adults guiding them through the Biggest Night of Their Lives:
For dining in a large group, pick a place that isn't library-quiet, but one where being all dressed up won't seem out of place. It's also important to choose a restaurant that will accommodate the gastronomically timid and adventuresome alike: Sushi may not be right for everyone, but pasta will usually cover the gamut for both vegetarians and carnivores (but choose short noodles over long — less drip-prone).
Prom in these parts is often on Friday night, one of the busiest nights of the week for restaurants. Thus, make reservations three weeks to a month in advance (and then confirm the reservation several days before prom). When making a reservation, indicate that it is for prom, and ask if there are any prom-night specials or prix-fixe options (that just means a package deal that often includes appetizer, entree and dessert). If you have questions, try not to call during peak lunch or dinner hours. Many restaurants will ask the name of your school in addition to your name and the number in your party.
Russell Bond, general manager of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, suggests scheduling dinner early in the evening. Restaurants look favorably on this because, as Bond describes it, "Promgoers are usually looking for lower-priced alternatives. Early reservations allow restaurants to keep tables open at the prime hours for their regular patrons." Also, early-bird specials aren't just for retirees — for example, the Vinoy offers a good $19.25 three-course menu before 7 p.m.
There's a scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts is given a quick tutorial in table manners by the hotel manager. If you're sketchy on etiquette details, check out the film. The fundamentals, according to Marjabelle Young Stewart in Commonsense Etiquette: "When faced with a plate of food the basic goal of the considerate diner is to transport the food to the mouth as unobtrusively as possible."
That's broad brushstrokes, for sure. Here are some of the finer points. Bread on the left, beverage on the right. Confusing silverware? Start from the outside and work your way in. When you're done, bring your silverware together on your plate at roughly 4:30 as if your plate were a clock. Napkin goes on the lap when you sit down, gets removed from the lap just before you depart (also a good idea to protect the duds).
Keep it quiet. Restaurants and fellow diners expect promgoers to be exuberant and amped up. Just don't be a pain. And don't even think about trying to order cocktails. The corsage is a not-of-legal-age red flag.
Dollars and sense
Unless specially noted, menu prices do not include tax, tip or beverages. For many restaurants, the biggest aggravation in hosting prom groups is poor tipping. For large parties, designate someone in your group to be in charge of tallying the tip (bring those tip calculators or use your phone app) and indicating how much each person owes. If you hope to have separate checks, this must be discussed with a server before ordering has begun (many restaurants won't do it).
Remember, a gratuity may already be added to the total bill for large parties — eagle-eye that bill so you don't inadvertently overpay. If it hasn't already been included, a tip between 15 and 20 percent of the total is expected. Servers make the bulk of their money through tips. If you've made them work hard, be generous. Also, for couples, deciding who is paying before the day of prom alleviates any awkwardness on this special night.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Read her dining blog at tampabay.com/blogs/dining.