Whether it’s to celebrate a season, a culture, an ingredient, a spirited pairing, or simply a family night out, theme dinners give culinary staffs a chance to exercise their creativity and members to delight in something different.
Each year, on the Saturday closest to January 25, members of the Westmoreland Club in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., become Scots for the evening as they pay homage, through food and music, to the famed 18th-century poet, Robert Burns.
“There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance around our annual Burns Birthday Supper,” says Executive Chef Frank Priore. The festivities start with a scotch tasting, followed by a bagpiper leading the guests into the dining room, then the traditional haggis—including a reading of Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis,’ followed by another shot of scotch—and a poetry-writing competition.
|SUMMING IT UP
• Get kitchen staff on board with theme dinners by asking them to contribute recipes or conduct research.
• Use social media to actively promote themed events.
• Include themes for all ages on the schedule.
• Celebrate seasons and their ingredients.
Even those who don’t view haggis as a delectable delicacy (although Burns glorified it as “the great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race”) will find plenty of Scottish-inspired dishes to enjoy at the dinner. On the menu is the traditional cock-a-leekie (chicken, leek and barley) soup, potatoes and turnips, and grilled Scottish salmon or herb-roasted beef tenderloin with a Dewar’s demi-glace.
Beyond the Burns bash, regular roundtable discussions among Westmoreland Club’s entertainment committee, General Manager Robert Williams (a former chef), Priore and other members of the club’s catering and F&B departments help to yield a wealth of theme ideas that are executed throughout the year.
Participation in Westmoreland’s theme dinners is strongly age-driven. An October Music Fest, featuring pizza, cheesesteaks and lobster rolls, appeals to the 20- to-40-year-old member demographic. Members with youngsters appreciate the “Carnival Night” in the summer and “Family Fun Night” in February, both of which offer kid- and adult-friendly buffet fare, including burgers, fish and chips, grab-and-go salads and seasoned fries, along with activities such as bouncy houses and make-and-take arts and crafts. And a New York Deli Night, serving oversized sandwiches, attracts older members.
Because winter in the Northeast is a time when people often need something exciting and fun to boost their spirits, Priore has also turned the club into a “Brazilian Steakhouse” for a night. For this event, the meat is presented tableside for carving on swords. “Parading from table to table is fun for the chefs, and it gives them a chance to get out and meet the members,” Priore notes.
In April, the club invited members to a “Great Escape: East Coast-West Coast Excursion.” The West was represented by a complimentary open bar on the patio, where themed and signature cocktails were accompanied by skewers of grilled lobster, Spanish tapas and sliders. To capture an East Coast vibe, the dining room was transformed into a Manhattan-style nightclub for a filet mignon entrée and dessert lounge.
Some of Priore’s themed events are one-of-a-kind, such as the “Titanic Dinner” that featured French service and courses from the menu of the ship’s last extravagant evening meal.
About once a month, Priore also works with the club’s wine, spirits and cigar aficionado group to create a pairing dinner. The usual attendance is around 20—but when one of the dinners is opened to the general membership, to pique wider interest in the group, as many as 80 sign up.
Priore even does special dinners for Westmoreland’s book club, drawing culinary inspiration from what the members are currently reading and discussing.
Theme Dinner Dos and Don’ts
Every Wednesday is “Old Forge Night,” named for the nearby town of Old Forge, Pa., that is known for its wildly popular style of “white pizza.” Priore puts his own spin on the signature pie, serving red and white versions by the slice or six-slice tray, along with an a la carte menu that includes Italian family classics such as house-made gnocchi and fettucine, sautéed veal and peppers, and veal Marsala.
Friday is either “Lobster Night” or “Stone Crab Claw Night,” depending on which is in season. To promote the seafood event, Priore Instagrams a photo of the main course upon its arrival in the kitchen.
“Word-of-mouth also brings a lot of members to the table,” Priore says. “The theme dinners get them talking.”
Between 10 to 25% of the Westmoreland Club’s membership usually attends theme dinners, Priore estimates. But for one annual event, “The Gemstone Ball,” that number jumps to 40 to 50%, or more than 300 people.
The Gemstone Ball takes six months to plan. “This year the theme is Onyx, which will be carried out in everything from a chilled appetizer of scallop and Maine lobster terrine studded with black truffles, to dessert of a dramatically presented dark chocolate dome with a peanut butter and fudge terrine,” Priore reports.
The club also allows non-members to attend “one theme dinner in their lifetime,” Priore notes, to get a first-hand experience of what Westmoreland has to offer. “We feel that it is a good way to attract new members,” he says.
Fun: The Overriding Theme
At Barrington Hills Country Club in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Ill., Executive Chef Matthew Southard presents between seven to ten theme dinners a year. Brainstorming sessions with the management team for the upcoming calendar year begin at the end of the summer, and continue through late October/early November.
One recent hit was a “Chicago Steakhouse Night” with a menu of dry-aged beef, seafood and salads made with specialty produce. The event’s timing gave members a reason to use up their food minimums before the end of the fiscal year, Southard explains. Many members also entertain guests by bringing them to the club’s theme dinners, he notes.
Because some menu components cost a premium, the steakhouse selections were priced at about 20% more than Barrington Hills’ typical a la carte menu. In general, though, Southard tries to keep theme dinners prices no more than 5% higher than the dining room’s regular menu.
“I will only raise the prices when I want to add specialty items such as truffles, squab, duck, or an expensive fish,” he says. “The main reason we do theme dinners is to add a little extra depth and excitement to our dining options, and to enhance member satisfaction.” About 60% of the Barrington Hills membership regularly attends the theme dinners, Southard estimates.
Whether it’s “Cabs and Cows” or “Pigs and Pinot” wine dinners, a “Shore to Door” seafood spectacular or a “Farm to Fairway” local-food extravaganza on the golf course, the one constant for Southard that must apply to Barrington Hills’ themed events is that members should have fun. To further ensure that’s the case, the dining room’s a la carte menu is usually not available when theme dinners are presented.
Spotlighting Staff Specialties
To showcase the diversity of his kitchen staff while also offering members a unique culinary adventure, Victor Alvarez, Executive Chef at L’Hirondelle Club of Ruxton (Md.), asks employees to share their cultures through special dinners that feature ingredients, family recipes and décor reflecting their heritage.
For a Laotian-themed event, for example, a L’Hirondelle staffer brought her own packets of spices to marinate chicken to be used in a native dish. She also prepared handmade ramen noodles that are indigenous to her country.
“I like to let [staff members] take the lead on the meal and make it as authentic as possible, plus they enjoy doing it very much,” Alvarez says. “They also make suggestions regarding the décor, and even bring in some items from home.”
In addition to Laos, the club has presented a Mexican-themed dinner, with one of the featured dishes being spicy diablo shrimp. Greek will be the next cuisine to be spotlighted.
At another club where Alvarez previously worked, “International Night” theme dinners took a different approach: They were created after members of the kitchen staff were assigned to research the cuisines of other cultures, and then contribute their findings to the menu planning and decor.
“I like to focus our energy and maximize the theme,” Southard explains. “And I don’t want to compete with myself.”
Once a month, a prix fixe “Elegant Dining Night,” with a menu that is “streamlined upscale,” is planned for the club’s upstairs banquet room overlooking the golf course. “We do this to show our members that we have numerous beautiful spaces for their events,” Southard explains.
Not a big fan of buffets, Barrington Hills’ chef prefers pass-the-plates, family-style service for less-formal theme dinners that don’t have prix fixe menus. One particularly popular theme employing this approach is the family-oriented annual “Octoberfest,” which features seasonal local ingredients.
Southard doesn’t just limit his special dinners to the club’s dining room, though. In winter, a “Howl at the Moon Dinner” takes members on a snowshoeing expedition of the torch-lit golf course. The event begins with warm cocktails and continues with a buffet of traditional winter comfort foods, such as pot roast, roasted chicken and warm apple-blueberry crisp. In summer, the golf course is the setting for “Jazz on the Green,” with a live band and a seasonal prix fixe menu.
For another well-attended summer event, “Ravinia” (inspired by the popular Chicago-area outdoor concert venue), Southard and company pack upscale boxed lunches for members to enjoy outside. This year’s menu included a cold soup, lavender panko-crusted chicken, a salad, a selection of artisanal cheeses with brioche, and cherry tomatoes on the vine. Sometimes the event also has outside food stations.
Changing Things Up
In the affluent Maryland suburb of Ruxton, many members of L’Hirondelle Club of Ruxton live in the surrounding community. That means Executive Chef Victor Alvarez sees many of the same people in his dining room five or six days a week.
“Theme dinners are a way to change things up and get the members involved and excited,” Alvarez says. “We do two or three a month.” Member participation in the theme dinners at L’Hirondelle Club of Ruxton has varied from 40 to as many as 100.
While he prefers the presentation of a plated meal, many of Alvarez’s theme dinners are buffet-style, because members like the social aspect of that format. Buffet service also saves labor costs, Alvarez notes. “For a la carte dinner service, I have eight people on my kitchen staff,” he says. “If I do a themed buffet, I can manage with four or five.”
As at Barrington Hills, usually the theme dinner takes the place of the a la carte menu in the dining room. “We want to put our best foot forward and make the theme something very special for our members,” Alvarez points out.
While Alvarez handles the back of the house, General Manager Mark Ross sources much of the corresponding décor, such as the firepits and bales of hay used for seating for the club’s recent annual Fall Festival.
Four to six times a year, L’Hirondelle Club prepares an “Oyster Roast” for its members. For this event, Alvarez hires oyster shuckers and puts out a spread of Old Bay-seasoned boil-and-peel shrimp, Clams Casino, fried oysters, Oysters Rockefeller (his secret is the champagne Hollandaise), tenderloin of beef, and fried chicken. The $30 price is all-inclusive.
Oyster shuckers are also on hand for the club’s annual “Summer Dinner Dance” at the end of June. The event begins in the closed-down pool and snack bar area with 10 to 12 passed hors d’oeuvres, chilled soup shooters and champagne. The entrees are served buffet-style in the dining room.
At the “Fall Festival,” Alvarez celebrates the season with soul-warming chili, soups, pulled pork from a smoked whole pig, smoked chicken, s’mores on sticks, and hard cider. The festival is so consistently successful that another one is on the drawing board for spring.
Wine dinners are popular at L’Hirondelle, not just for members of the wine club who work with Alvarez to plan their own dinners, but the general membership as well. He has served as many as 100 at some wine dinners, but prefers to keep the number smaller, “because the food is so elevated.”
Many of Alvarez’s themes come from members’ suggestions. “I’m very interactive with the membership,” he says. “I give them my card and they e-mail me to ask, ‘Hey chef, can we do this?’”
Alvarez has even turned cooking classes into theme dinners. “When I first started offering them, I made them hands-on,” he reports. “But I soon realized that the members wanted to enjoy their wine while they watched me make the food.”
Now, Alvarez hosts a “Cooking Demo Dinner”—limited to 20 people and usually consisting of four courses, from starter to dessert—once a year. Members get a recipe packet and a chef’s hat and apron to take home. Topics Alvarez has covered in the demo dinners have included soups and stocks, sushi, breads, pastas, and smoking meat and fish.
“At $45 per person, that just covers our cost,” he said. “But the members really like it, and it gives them another reason to speak highly of the club.”