In the past when we did such things, I often went to various synagogues for Shabbat dinner and [usually] to hear a speaker. When my grandchildren were young, we had the custom of benching after the main course, and then saying a before and after blessing at dessert time, so that the children didn’t have to sit at the table for all that long time. I took this practice into my dinners out–benching early and by myself, so that I could leave immediately following the speaker [in most cases the talk would be during dessert with benching after], or even earlier if the evening got too late. When I did this I was sometimes there for zimmun and sometimes not, but often I had already recited birkhat hamazon.
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As we have learned, a woman who eats together with a zimmun of men is obligated in zimmun (Shulchan Aruch OC 199:7), and one obligated in zimmun should not split off before it happens, if that will mean forgoing zimmun (Shulchan Aruch 193:1).
Bach (OC 200:2) writes that separating before zimmun is permissible if the group does not finish eating together, and Rav Shmuel Ha-Levi Wosner (Shevet Ha-Levi 1:38) rules that that ruling may be relied upon with respect to women and zimmun. Mishna Berura (200:5) rules that that view has been widely rejected, but concedes that one may leave a meal before birkat ha-mazon if there is great necessity to do so. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe OC I:56) adds that if a man intentionally sit downs to eat with a group having in mind not to establish his eating with them, ie. intending from the start not to stay for zimmun, then he is permitted to leave early, though he should state this to others at the table at the outset of the meal. Other authorities disagree with Rav Feinstein’s ruling, but it is widely followed when necessary (for instance, at weddings where a guest knows he will not stay until the end of the meal and birkat ha-mazon).
Putting the pieces together, when eating a meal together with a large group such as you describe, one should try to stay for zimmun. If one has reason to leave early, and keeps that in mind (or states it) when sitting down to eat, then there is a strong halachic basis to reciting birkat ha-mazon alone, especially if there is a pressing reason to make an early exit.
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