Traditionally, the rehearsal dinner is paid for by the groom's family. Guests include the wedding party and their spouses (or significant others), immediate family members and the officiant. It is a thoughtful gesture to include any out of town guests who have arrived early. Beyond that, this party is about two families getting to know each other in a more relaxed, less ritualized setting than the actual wedding.
Rehearsal dinners are all about fun and conversation. This is where your brother will get a chance to talk to your fiance's cousin about fly fishing. Your mom will get better acquainted with the clan you are marrying into and your fiance's dad will spend an hour talking with your grandfather about the railroad. Plan these dinners in a restaurant, a family member's home, or the church conference room. Location is not as important as the overall blending of two families. If this is your family's first time in Washington, think about highlighting the town's best features. Make the ocean part of the party if you are getting married in a coastal town such as Port Angeles. Reservations for Seattle's best Japanese restaurant might be exciting for out-of-town guests. Think about what you love about your wedding location and showcase it for your guests.
Rehearsal dinners can follow the theme of the wedding, such as a western barbecue for a cowboy wedding, or can be something totally different like a potluck gathering at the church. Some couples prefer a formal or semi-formal theme involving elegant cocktails in an upscale restaurant. The key to this type of dinner is to let people gather as they would for any other party. Matching colors don't matter, lengthy toasts aren't necessary and laughter should be abundant. Make sure to intersperse members of each family and allow plenty of time for mingling. A buffet with open seating is a great way to get everyone comfortable with meeting the new relatives.
Don't worry about planning a formal sit down affair. Any backyard or house large enough to handle everyone is fine. Keep the menu simple or consider catering the event. You don't want your family members stuck in the kitchen trying to make the perfect impression. Provide lots of comfortable seating and fun things to do. Think of this as your first family reunion. Set up the horseshoe pit, surround the pool deck with Tiki lights, finger foods and exotic cocktails, or have everyone bring their favorite dish with the recipe, to create a useful marriage cookbook. A backyard or home-based rehearsal dinner is a better option if your invited guests have children who could be unwelcome in a swanky restaurant or a nightclub.
The rehearsal dinner is the place for everyone to take a collective deep breath and have fun before the big wedding day. Think about your guests and plan your party as a way to say thanks for all their support and hard work for your special day. Keep the rules and rituals to a minimum and you will find your guests remembering your rehearsal dinner for years to come.