Did Quarantine Kill the Birthday Dinner?

As a novel—and highly contagious—virus overtook every aspect of our lives for over a year, few industries have been harder hit than restaurants. At the outset, the CDC advised against large group gatherings. Many states issued restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining, and as a result, the way we celebrate has unconditionally changed. And in a time of so much uncertainty and devastation, losing something as traditional as a birthday party could feel like the last straw to some people (you know the type). We’ve been raised as a society to believe that birthdays are meant to be our special day—one during which all is right with the world and everyone must show you how much they love you—so to have it pass by unacknowledged wasn’t easy for everyone.

But we did find work-arounds: cocktails over Zoom, a responsible picnic, a road trip with your two closest friends, negative COVID tests in hand. It wasn’t always ideal, but it was something. But no, inviting 12 girlfriends to sit in a crowded, loud, overhyped restaurant was not happening. And for lots of us, it probably won’t for a long time—even when things start to get back to normal—given the arduous exercise of unlearning behaviors we’ve been forced to adopt this year, like social distancing. Adding to the confusion is the uneven restaurant restrictions that vary state by state: In Rhode Island, for example, no more than two households can be seated together indoors. And while some states (Texas, Arkansas) are operating at 100% capacity, others are limiting to no more than 25% or 50% (New York, Colorado). In certain regions of California, indoor dining is still restricted altogether.

Regardless of where your state stands, I vote we leave the big birthday dinner behind in a post-pandemic world. I promise I’m not against celebrating my wonderful friends or even toasting myself when my birthday rolls around. But we all deserve Oscars for the amount of times we’ve been unwell, physically or mentally, and managed to put on a happy face in the name of being a good friend. My husband said I was being a social Scrooge for putting this all down in words, then proceeded to recall a birthday dinner after which several attendees got food poisoning due to an unfortunate choice of restaurant. I rest my case.

Of course everyone deserves, at minimum, a day when they can expect to feel special and acknowledged. And yes, the option to not give in to the ritual of bill splitting is always there. Sonia, a former lawyer in Brooklyn, told me about one birthday dinner in which a guest cheerfully ordered a side of brussels sprouts, drank water all night, and calmly handed over $20 cash at the end of the meal. But the social pressure—this myth that you must always be having fun and that it’s cheap or weird to not chip in all the way—remained: “I was the one drinking wine, having a pit in my stomach the whole time about how big the bill would be, and wishing I had the fortitude to just be the brussels sprouts girl,” Sonia said.