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An intimate sit-down supper at a fancy restaurant is no longer de rigueur – not when you can invite 100 of your family and friends to a barbecue, clambake, wine-tasting…or teach them to dance. By Laura Wexler

On Saturday, Dec. 4, Rodgers Forge residents Tony Storck and Holly Collins were the guests of honor at their elegant wedding reception at the Walters Art Museum. The night before, they and 60 wedding guests gobbled firehouse chili with all the fixings at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville.

“Our wedding was very formal so we wanted to have something casual, different from the wedding and different in general,” says Storck, director of air service development for Baltimore-Washington International Airport. “My father was a Baltimore City firefighter for 25 years and it seemed like the perfect place because of that.”

On the night before their wedding in August 2002, Mount Washington residents Jennifer Mendelsohn and Greg Abel rented a tent and moon bounce and invited 100 people – including nearly 40 kids – to a backyard barbecue featuring grilled chicken, hamburgers, corn on the cob and strawberry shortcake.

“Since we didn’t have any children at our wedding, we wanted to have an event where they’d be welcome,” says Mendelsohn. Besides being kid-friendly, the barbecue allowed the couple to accommodate all of their out-of-town guests. “I think there’s something very gracious about inviting all the people who’ve traveled,” she says. “You feel like you’re taking care of them.”

Federal Hill residents Kate and Richard Ellis wanted to do the same for guests flying in for their September wedding. So they decided to rent out the Belmont Conference Center in Elkridge, where they were having their wedding reception, for the evening before the wedding, as well. “They could come as early as 4 and bring their whole family,” says Kate Ellis. “They could swim, play tennis, volleyball and croquet until 7, and then dinner was at 7:30.”

Tables were set up by the pool, so kids could continue swimming while adults ate and drank. There were tiki torches and traditional barbecue food and beer, wine and a margarita punch. “It was a beautiful night,” says Kate Ellis. “And it was a laid-back, casual party.”

Locust Point residents Caitlin Mulloney and Simon Moroney (yes, they’ve heard the jokes about their last names) are tying the knot in April, and they plan to mostly sidestep the dinner aspect of the rehearsal dinner altogether, opting instead for a cocktail reception. Mulloney estimates that half of their wedding guests will be coming from out of town – and many more from out of the country, since Moroney is from Ireland. “We decided to do cocktails at the [Radisson Plaza] Lord Baltimore Hotel, where most of the guests will be staying. It will cot down costs – you can’t get a decent dinner for under $45 per person, and that’s the cost of another wedding – and it will be easier for people who have jet lag and don’t know the city,” say Mulloney.

Besides taking care of the out-of-towners and controlling costs, Mulloney and Moroney’s goal was to introduce their families and friends to each other. “We want people to mingle and get acquainted before the wedding,” she says. “There’s more mobility with a cocktail reception than a seated dinner.”

Come August, Chef’s Expressions will cater a rehearsal dinner at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. “They’re doing Southern barbecue and after dinner, they’re planning on bringing a dance instructor in to teach ballroom dancing,” says Paul Kountz, vice president of operations for Chef’s Expressions.

Kountz says the most important thing is to create a rehearsal dinner that’s different from the wedding itself. If your wedding reception will be outside by the water, consider a more urban setting for your rehearsal dinner. If your reception features an elegant seated dinner, go with an informal buffet. He adds that while some couples are turning away from the traditional restaurant dinner in lieu of something more casual, others are going upscale.

Chef’s Expressions, for instance, will be catering a wine-tasting and tapas rehearsal dinner for 140 people at the Walters in May. “Guests will go up to the tapas stations and be handed a tapa arranged on a plate,” says Kountz. “At each station there will be two samplings of wine. By the end of the evening, they will have gotten to sample 10 to 12 wines and learned something about each. This will cost what a good wedding costs.”

Given all this, perhaps we should dispense with the term “rehearsal dinner” altogether, and rename the event the “Wedding Weekend Kickoff” or “Out-of-Town Guests Dinner” or “Chance for the Wedding Couple to Do Something Different Dinner.” Nowadays, the event is often all three.

Partly this is due to a cultural sea change: brides and grooms are, in general, getting married at an older age and are likely to have friends in several different cities. That means out-of-towners are likely to comprise a healthy portion of their guest lit.

“Welcoming out-of-town guests is key for the rehearsal dinner these days,” says Kathleen Murray, weddings editor at TheKnot.com. “Couples want to show guests what their city is like.”

In this vein, Murray notes that some couples chose to “go regional” with the rehearsal dinner. “We’ve seen people in San Antonio take their guests to a rodeo. Or, if your wedding is in Maine, maybe you’ll have a clambake,” she says. If in Baltimore, a crab feast or a family-style dinner with Maryland fried chicken, Eastern shore tomatoes and corn and Berger cookies offer guests the chance to get acquainted with local specialties.

Along with the desire to include out-of-towners in an event that used to include just the immediate family and wedding party, there’s parallel interest at work. And that is couple’s desire to create an event that can incorporate their personalities more fully than perhaps the wedding itself. Many want to be casual and quirky, setting a celebratory tone for the entire wedding weekend.

“You could do a Mexican fiesta with margaritas or a Moroccan theme, with couscous and a belly dancer,” says Murray. “One couple invited their guests to a cooking class and had an Iron Chef cook-off. Going to baseball games is on the rise, too.

Often budget is an issue, and there are ways couples can save. Opt for just beer and wine instead of a full bar. Lessen the hours of the event, which will reduce per person alcohol prices. Bypass dinner and do dessert and champagne. Or ask a friend or family member to host the party.

Murray cautions couples not to think they have to reduce their guest list in order to save money. “If you’re having a small number of people for dinner at a fancy restaurant, it could cost as much as a backyard barbecue for a lot more people,” she says.

So go ahead. Reinvent your rehearsal dinner.

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