Lazy Bear Chef David Barzelay's Entertaining Tips

All December long, we're bringing you the recipes, tips and tricks you need to Feast your way through the holidays, no matter how you celebrate the season.

David Barzelay knows a thing or two about entertaining. With no formal training, this chef turned a hit supper club into a two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Dining at San Francisco hot spot Lazy Bear isn't like eating out at most other places. In fact, it isn't like eating out at all. A self-described "communal dining experience," Lazy Bear is akin to attending the best dinner party you've ever been to.

As you gear up for the holiday season, take a page from Barzelay's book. Between his restaurant and a new bar in the works, this chef knows how not to sweat the small stuff—and so will you if you follow his lead. Here are nine essential tips from Barzelay's kitchen to yours.

① Set Expectations

Barzelay isn't a fan of uncertainty. "Is it dinner, or is it just a party? Should we bring wine, or should we not bring wine? Is it OK to arrive anytime?" the chef rattles off, going over the long list of potential questions that come with a party invitation. To quell any anxiety, Barzelay overcommunicates to his guests, telling them exactly what to expect of the evening, from the duration of the dinner to the location of the bathrooms.

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② Turn On the Booze Control

"From the start, it's really important to get a drink in their hands as soon as possible," the chef says. At Barzelay's restaurant, guests get a cocktail from the communal punch bowl as they check in. "It's complimentary and unexpected, but immediately gets their night going." They can then order cocktails à la carte throughout the night. Switching gears after dinner, they have the option to choose between a California-grown tea or the special cold-brew coffee with brown sugar whipped cream. If they want to keep the party going, they can also choose a nightcap.  

③ Work the Room

"We literally introduce people," Barzelay says of the communal vibe at Lazy Bear. And to foster discussion, the staff approach disparate groups at the same time. "Whenever possible, we explain [dishes] to multiple groups at once, so they are already in the mind-set that they're in it together."

④ Stir the Pot

Since the meal Barzelay serves is 17 courses, he likes to switch it up, aiming for a breadth of flavors and channeling a diverse range of influences, from nostalgic American to Japanese. He also switches up portion size and presentation along the way. At the start of the night, snacks might include crudités served with his elevated take on a classic onion dip (see the recipe). It's made with five kinds of onions—some fresh, some dehydrated and others confited—which gives the dip a robust flavor. Then, channeling the cult favorite, French onion soup, he folds in dried porcini powder for depth and earthiness. As Barzelay explains it, they're "trying to reverse-engineer the Lipton onion soup package."

⑤ Get Cozy

One of Lazy Bear's hallmarks is the long communal table where guests eat once finished mingling over snacks in a separate space. The shared space breaks all the rules of fine dining, which is just what Barzelay wants. "Don't sequester people," he advises.

⑥ Open Up Your Kitchen

Lazy Bear's open kitchen isn't just a window for guests to observe the chefs; it contains no barriers, so diners can walk right into the kitchen and talk to the chefs. Barzelay encourages people to get up out of their chairs and get in on the cooking action. It creates a dynamic environment, stokes curiosity, and forges bonds between cook and diner that ultimately bestow more meaning onto the meal.

⑦ Give 'Em Something to Talk About

Don't be afraid to start a conversation between two groups, and you can also let the food do the talking. "Having people eating the same thing at the same time naturally facilitates conversation," Barzelay says about serving everyone the same dish at the same time.

⑧ Everyone Loves a Party Favor

Barzelay is a fan of leaving props out on the table. Each guest gets a notebook, for example, to jot down thoughts as they're tasting dishes. The notebook also comes with a custom mini pencil that has its own unique quote.

⑨ Keep Them Wanting More

"I deliberately avoid shooting for that perfect bite," Barzelay says. "I want to make a dish where every bite is different. I think it's worth not having every bite be the perfect bite, in order to have every bite be fresh and a little different." So instead of serving a squash bisque, where every spoonful is the same, he'll serve a grilled duck with roast quince and collard green-wrapped duck sausage. "I always say, 'Variety keeps the palates fresh.'"