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What's Up Weddings

Kicking Off the Wedding Festivities

Mar 27, 2015 08:46PM ● By Anonymous
When Lauren Nicol was planning her wedding, she and her then-fiancé/now-husband Dan wanted the experience to reflect their interests and personalities. “We’re water people,” Lauren says, and with that in mind, the couple—now living in Edgewater—chose Herrington on the Bay in Rose Haven for their wedding site.

The beach-loving bride and groom didn't stop there, however, and decided to start their wedding weekend off with the same informal, relaxed feel, with a rehearsal dinner at the waterfront restaurant, Pirate’s Cove, in Galesville.

“It wasn’t a beachy theme per se,” Lauren recalls, “but the entire weekend had the same personal vibe. It was a great way to get the festivities started and have people connect with each other before the main event.” Rehearsal dinners are indeed an ideal way to kick off the wedding weekend, agrees Elizabeth Bailey, a Baltimore-based wedding planner. “This can also be a wonderful ice-breaker for sides of the two families who haven’t met yet,” Bailey says.

Rehearsal dinners typically take one of two directions, Bailey notes: Either they are kept on an intimate level where only the wedding party (and their significant others) and immediate families of the couple are invited or, they can become a mini-wedding.

“Many of our clients will invite all the out-of-town guests to the rehearsal dinner as well as the wedding party and immediate families,” Bailey says (remember to invite the clergy who is marrying you and the clergy’s spouse as well, she adds).

While the tradition of having a rehearsal dinner is still customary (though not mandatory), just what a rehearsal dinner should be has “morphed” into “anything goes,” according to Raquel Shutt, an Annapolis-based wedding consultant.

“Traditionally the groom’s family hosts this event,” Shutt says, “but it is not out of the ordinary for the couple to host or, if circumstances dictate, for the bride’s family to host.”

Shutt observes that rehearsal dinners come in all shapes and sizes, from an intimate, elegant dinner for the bridal party and family at a local restaurant that specializes in a cuisine differing from the wedding menu, to an all-inclusive out-of-towners crab feast on the Eastern Shore.

“Everything and anything goes for the evening before the wedding and it really is up to the couple and the hosting parties’ tastes. There is no right or wrong,” says Shutt, who recalls that one of the most memorable rehearsal dinners she helped plan was a barbecue held at a spacious home that the bride’s family had rented for the occasion. “It was held mid-day on Friday, before the rehearsal, and it was a very welcoming way to start the wedding weekend.”

Shutt also liked one couple’s rehearsal dinner that was held in a fire hall. “The groom was a fireman and that was a significant part of his life,” Shutt says. “Any time you can incorporate something that relates to the groom or the groom’s side of the family, that’s a particularly nice touch.”

To further include the groom, Elizabeth Bailey often recommends that the “groom’s cake” (usually a theme cake) is displayed and served at the rehearsal dinner. “Typically the groom’s parents are hosting the rehearsal dinner so it seems natural that the spotlight would be on the groom for this event,” she says.


If you want to simplify planning, many local restaurants are the perfect place for a rehearsal dinner because they are fully equipped with tables, chairs, linens, china, glassware, etc. “A rehearsal dinner held at a restaurant will need very little in the way of rental items,” Bailey notes.

Sarah Lancos and her husband Andy kicked off their wedding festivities with a backyard barbecue on the terrace of the Hyatt Chesapeake in Cambridge, where they also held their wedding. Hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, and strawberry shortcake were served to the 40–50 rehearsal dinner guests. “It was like a mini-reunion,” Sarah says, “and a good way to blend the families.”

The dinner was a welcoming prelude to the entire weekend (there was also post-wedding Sunday brunch) as most of the guests were staying at the Hyatt. “We had the entire weekend together,” she says. “It wasn’t just, ‘I’ll see you at the wedding.’”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that rehearsal dinners in Maryland, particularly those held in Annapolis or the Eastern Shore, often have a crab-related theme (though one couple whose groom hailed from Boston went for a lobster bake instead) suggests Shutt, who also likes the idea of a cocktail cruise for Annapolis and Shore weddings, to take advantage of the destination itself.


“Because we are in Maryland, many couples have chosen to have their rehearsal dinner be a crab feast, complete with newspaper on the tables, Natty Boh on draft, personalized crab mallets, and spiked sno-balls for dessert,” Bailey confirms, adding that one of her favorite stations at a rehearsal dinner is a Maryland Bar which, she explains, is a table set-up with appropriately themed linens and signage and display containers filled with Maryland favorites such as Otterbein cookies, Jeppi Baltimore Bar Mix, Berger Cookies, Popsations Old Bay popcorn, Goetze Cowtails, and Mouth Party caramels. “It’s always nice to have both savory and sweet options,” she suggests. “We add striped paper take-away bags and boxes to be filled with treats to take back to the hotel at the end of the night.”

Bailey adds that theme-type elements are usually best used at a rehearsal dinner versus at the wedding. “If you would like a Maryland theme or beach theme at your event, for example,” she says, “it doesn’t always translate well if you always wanted a blush pink, romantic, candlelit wedding reception. So our advice would be to use those ideas at the rehearsal dinner where décor and atmosphere is often more casual and relaxed than on the wedding day.”

Whatever route you choose to take for your rehearsal dinner, you want to be able to say, as Lauren Nicol still does, “It was so much fun having everyone together to get the festivities started.”


Tips from the Experts

• When there is a large percentage of out-of-town guests invited to a wedding, Elizabeth Bailey recommends that the invitations for the rehearsal dinner be sent out one week after the wedding invitations (seven weeks prior to the event).

• Rehearsal dinner invitations can be more informal than the wedding invitations, Raquel Shutt recommends, as can their responses. “Phone or email RSVPs for the dinner are acceptable.” When it comes to the invitations, provide as much information as possible: where to park or whether transportation will be provided, style of dress (formal, casual), etc.

• Allow plenty of time for guests to get from the rehearsal to the rehearsal dinner, advises Shutt. “People will be late, they’ll get lost...make sure there’s enough wiggle room so that nobody (least of all the wedding couple) is stressed. A good rule of thumb, according to Shutt, is to plan your dinner to begin two hours after the start of the rehearsal.

• Before calling a rehearsal dinner site you are considering, make sure to have the following information available, advises Bailey: the date of the rehearsal, the approximate starting time for the dinner, the approximate number of guests who will attend the dinner, and the type of event you wish to have (casual, formal, private, lively, etc.).

• During the phone conversation, you may want to ask the following: Is there a private room available for my group? If so, how many guests will it accommodate? Does the restaurant have a specialty (Italian, sushi, seafood, etc.)? What options (and pricing) are available for the bar? And finally, when may you visit the site and talk personally with the banquet manager? Many restaurants have written information they will offer to send.

• Most rehearsal dinners start with a “cocktail hour.” This should be held in a private or semi-private space at the restaurant and include drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The cocktail hour allows time for all guests to arrive at the dinner—those coming from the actual rehearsal, and those coming from other places. The cocktail hour is a great ice-breaker when two families plus the wedding party are getting to know each other, or getting reacquainted. The “cocktail hour” is usually 30–45 minutes.

• Another important element of a rehearsal dinner is toasts, says Bailey. The evening should be filled with toasts, and the expression of love and sentiment between this group of people that are the closest friends and relatives of the bride and groom. The host usually starts with a “welcome speech” followed by the first toast. After that, all guests are welcome to toast or address the bride and groom. Laughter and tears will soon ensue! In order that the toasts are plentiful, ask a few guests beforehand to prepare a toast. Others will take their cue from that and follow suit. Be sure to keep toasts short—those are the best ones. And it’s not necessary for the best man to give a toast at the rehearsal dinner, as it will be his responsibility to give the first toast at the wedding reception.

• One final tip, says Shutt, “Remember to enjoy this time of life—all of your friends and family coming to celebrate you and this momentous occasion!”