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etiquette scholar / dining etiquette / table manners / serving techniques / dinner service from a buffet

Dinner Service from a Buffet

table manners

Service from a buffet is an informal meal. The food is prepared in advance and guests serve themselves.

Any flat surface is appropriate for a buffet meal: a desk, a coffee table, a piano top, a card table, a kitchen counter, or a patio table, to name a few. However, to accommodate the tableware and serveware, a minimum of 5 feet is needed. When the requisite space is unavailable, three or four smaller tables are used: one for tableware, another to hold the main course, a third to present the dessert and dessert plates, and a fourth for beverages, such as water, wine, coffee, or tea.

The placement of the buffet table is determined by the dimensions of the room. In a spacious room, the buffet table is positioned in the center. This placement accommodates service from both sides or both ends of the table, accelerates service, and reduces congestion in the room. In a small room, to allow space for the flow of traffic, a buffet table is placed against the wall.

To expedite traffic around the serving area, dining chairs are positioned against the wall. Dinner plates and the main dish are placed nearest the entrance to the dining area, a location that allows the guests to circle around the table and exit the serving area without doubling back.

The key to successful buffet entertaining is to serve a one-dish meal that requires one utensil to eat, namely a fork. However, for a large group, as a gesture of hospitality two main courses are served, such as turkey and ham.

Here are some tips for successful buffet service.

  • Allow enough room beside each dish for guests to rest their dinner plate while they help themselves to food that requires two utensils to serve, for example, a tossed salad.
  • Provide space to lay the serving utensils by the serve ware they are meant to accompany, along with the lids of covered serving bowls.
  • Arrange the flow of the tableware and the serving dishes in logical order, a sequence that proceeds from left to right.
  • Stack dinner plates in groups of eight. A stack of plates higher than eight resembles a cafeteria or the service station in a restaurant.
  • Arrange food in groups of related temperatures, such as hot foods together.
  • Place salads near a cheese board (if one is provided).
  • Set sauces and condiments next to the dishes they accompany.
  • Place a basket of pre-buttered rolls or sliced bread near the salt and pepper shakers.
  • Because a pepper mill requires both hands to manipulate, it is not placed on a buffet table.
  • At the exit end of the table, lay the flatware in a row on the table, if space permits. When flatware is placed in a stacked position, the top utensil is difficult to remove.
  • Place napkins last. To conserve space, present napkins overlapped, beneath each plate, wrapped around the flatware, or on each tray.
  • Station a side table to hold beverages and glassware. To avoid trying to balance a plate while lifting a heavy water pitcher, lighten the load and partially fill several pitchers or carafes with water.
  • Place coffee and dessert on a side table, along with the cups, saucers, dessert plates, and flatware.

Guests serve themselves in the order in which they arrive at the buffet, and eat seated wherever they are comfortable: on chairs, floor, or stairs. When possible, supply a small folding table for each chair, and provide lap trays for guests who sit on stairs. To make room for used dinner plates, clear end tables of unneeded accessories. Protect the furniture and flooring with strategically placed coasters and ashtrays.

service of a buffet supper

Buffet service is provided unassisted or with the aid of professional help, a friend, or a relative.

Unassisted Buffet Service

Guests serve themselves entirely and sit or stand to eat, a method that accommodates a large group of people with ease. The guests help themselves at the buffet. Glasses for water and wine are placed on a sideboard or a side table near the buffet. Dessert and coffee are served from the buffet table or from a separate side table. At a small party, soiled plates are placed on a side table provided for this purpose. But when space is at a premium, such as a one-room apartment, to relieve the space for enjoyment of the gathering, soiled plates are taken to the kitchen counter. At a large gathering when there is no side table for soiled plates, they are placed wherever space is found, such as on an end table.

Professional Assistance with Guests Seated at Preset Tables

This method reduces the risk of spilled food and drink. When a buffet menu consists of two courses-namely, main course and dessert - the salad is considered part of the main course and the guests help themselves at the buffet. Dessert and coffee are served at the tables by a helper. If a buffet menu has three courses - namely, appetizer, main course, and desserts - the first and third courses are served at the tables by a helper. The appetizer is placed on the tables before the guests are seated. The guests help themselves to the main course at the buffet and return for second portions as they wish. Dessert and coffee are served to them.

A typical preset table includes a small centerpiece, tableware, sets of salt and pepper, place cards, and a basket of pre-buttered rolls (optional). Space limitations prohibit the use of bread-and-butter plates. Ashtrays are also optional.

At a small seated affair, the host pours the wine. But at a large party, to expedite service a wine bottle is placed on each table and the guests pour for themselves.

Plates are cleared two at a time. The tables are not crumbed unless unusually messy. Dessert is pre-served on dessert plates in the kitchen and carried to the tables two at a time. Or a pre-apportioned dessert is served from a tray.

After-dinner coffee is served at the table, poured and passed from a tray. Cream and sugar are placed on the tables or are served from a tray. As an alternative, the guests help themselves to coffee served at a side table. At a small party the hostess may pour coffee in the living room.

Professional Assistance with Guests Sitting Randomly Throughout the House

This method is more relaxed than service at preset tables. Although professional assistance is given at the buffet table, the guests sit on chairs, the floor, and stairs.

When two people are engaged to assist, one serves the main course and the second serves the salad. The guests help themselves to rolls and condiments. If the buffet is presented in duplicate on both sides of the table, each helper serves a main course, and the guests help themselves to the rest of the meal. The maids set up folding trays, replenish platters, clear plates, and serve dessert and coffee.

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- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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