Jeremy Eaton

Back to the Basic Party

The differences are glaring. As coruscating as the neon undercarriage of an El Dorado cruising Ocean Drive. As in-your-face as the high beam of a rotating spotlight outside a Washington Avenue nightclub. As shiny as a supermodel's nose, awaiting powder.

Last year, when the whole world looked forward to partying like it was 1999 -- because it was -- restaurants began planning their affairs to remember in February. Public-relations personnel sent out press releases in August. Wine distributors began hawking champagne in September. And the rumors percolated, circulating months ahead of time: You'd better make reservations in October, or you'll be excluded from the festivities. You'd do well to lay in a supply of caviar and bubbly ASAP, because major shortages are expected. You'd be wise to save your money, since the privilege of ringing in Y2K is going to cost you big bucks.

Except that it wasn't Y2K. It wasn't the start of the new millennium. It wasn't the launch of the next century. It really was just the beginning of the end of the old one.

This New Year's Eve, the transition between 2000 and 2001, is the actual turn of the-century, sticklers will tell you. But many restaurants and hotels, especially those that invested twelve months of time and money hosting and promoting their celebrations last year, are lying as low as the tide this year. In fact most of the press releases relaying info about this year's parties didn't even start arriving until mid-December.

Compare some more of the details. In 1999 the Hotel Astor promised that you could "command a chic, 40-room South Beach hotel, replete with a presidential suite for you and your significant other, a swimming pool and waterfall, a restaurant boasting award-winning chef Norman Van Aken, two full bars, and an expert staff of 130" for an entire week at the low, low price of one million dollars. For relative paupers dinner at Astor Place ran $500 per head.

This year? "Sometimes less is more," reads the press release. "Astor has opted for a simple, elegant New Year's Eve party -- sure to rival even the most outrageous of South Florida's year-end celebrations." It's a bargain, too: only $200 for an open bar, unlimited Laurent-Perrier champagne, and a Johnny V buffet.

Tantra also charged $500 per head for a one-hour open bar and a five-course prix-fixe dinner -- for the first seating at 7:00 p.m. The 10:00 p.m. seating cost $750 per person. Those just wanting to party at the place faced a $200 cover charge.

Contrast to 2000, when "Tantra Restaurant & Lounge Gets Personal." Owner Tim Hogle says in his press release that "the coming of 2001 means the coming of the real millennium. For that we wanted to do something special, something personal." That personal touch translates into an à la carte menu, with "packages of one appetizer and one entrée rang[ing] between $100 and $175." And barflies will only have to dish out $30 to hang at the bar.

The Raleigh planned one of the most elaborate fetes of 1999: The Sunrise Millennium party, held on the beach at dawn in honor of South Florida being the first place in the United States to witness Y2K light. Features of the soiree, which one could attend for $200, included oxygen bars and the release of 500 white doves. This year, no one gives a darn about the dawning of a new age. Only sand and pelicans are in sight, and those come free in South Florida.

Why such modest arrangements for meeting 2001? For one thing, backlash. Those monumentally expensive galas, for the most part, flopped. Whether fearful of Y2K noncompliance, Armageddon, or poverty, many diners chose to stay home or attend friends' parties. Rather than turning away the crowds that came begging, the restaurants went begging for crowds; before the big night, dining rooms were desperate for customers.

As a result Tuscan Steak and Red Square both canceled their $500-per-head dinners; the few ticket holders were shepherded instead to China Grill. Ten days before New Year's, 1220 at the Tides dropped its rates from $550 per plate to a $99 special served out on the terrace. Out of 500 tickets, the Raleigh sold about 60, leaving the doves to outnumber guests about 8-1.

Even parties that did moderately well, like the annual Suzanne Bartsch do at the Delano pool, only drew about a fifth of the people it did in 1998. Of course it grossed the same amount of money, if you consider that in 1998, 5000 people paid $100 each to party, and in 1999, 1000 people forked over $500. For 2000, tickets are going for $195 plus tax and $95 plus tax for guests of the hotel.

Then, too, the restaurants' costs last year were prohibitive. Steve Haas, general manager of Tuscan Steak, paid $25,000 for a band that normally charges $500 per night; has-been entertainers like Rosemary Clooney, it's rumored, were going for $400,000. Chefs were price-gouged, forced to pay three times what they normally spend for food items like filet mignon. Food and beverage managers laid in inordinate amounts of champagne and other spirits that they couldn't resell. Restaurateurs charged guests so much not out of greed -- though that clearly was the motivation in places such as the Grand Bay, where a single room for the millennial weekend went for $995 -- as it was simple necessity. In 2000, with out-of-pocket expenditures predictably normal, many restaurateurs have returned to the real world as well.

But once burned, twice shy. And for those eateries and hotels that lost large on the Y2K deal, we're talking painfully bashful indeed. Tuscan Steak and Red Square are serving à la carte menus, as are NOA, Suva (due to open this week), 1220 at the Tides, Bice, and Ortanique on the Mile. The only ways to distinguish this New Year's Eve from any ol' Saturday night will be the midnight party favors and champagne toasts -- and at some of the restaurants, the $50 entertainment fee to cover them.

All in all diners will probably do best at eateries like Bambú and Blue Door, where the latter's year 2000 prix-fixe menu promises, at $425, more bang for the buck than 1999's outrageous $2000 eight-course meal. Still, my money is on those restaurants that didn't give in to the hype and overcharge with zeal last year, like Norman's, whose philosophy was, "What if we don't charge every dime we could?" Indeed chef-owner Norman Van Aken was the first to send out his press info in June. In his letter he noted that since "Norman's has succeeded thus far due to the year-round support of [its] guests," he would "rather share the evening with those who enjoy our company throughout the year rather than a troupe of strangers regardless of the financial opportunities." The nonstrangers were charged $350 per diner.

This year Van Aken remarks, "I am relieved that the “fever' is down, and people can relax and mark the end of what I hope was a year filled with happiness and comfort for all." Amen to that, and to his 2000 prices. Van Aken's first seating is a bare $80 per guest, while the second seating is $180 and includes a bottle of Veuve Clicquot yellow label champagne.

I also like the attitudes of those eateries whose covers this year -- like Wish ($185), Baleen ($200), and the bargain of the century, Two Chefs ($80) -- are more reasonable than the competition and less pricey than they have the right to be. For the record, though, I'm staying home, because there's one New Year's Eve complication that remains the same regardless of the year: finding -- and paying -- a baby sitter.


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