What’s Your Serving Style?

Deciphering the differences to find what works best for you

When having friends over for dinner, it's the décor — candles, music, flowers — that sets the stage for the evening. Yet, how you serve the food also matters. Whether you’re looking to host a formal, sit-down meal during the holidays, or a casual get-together on a rainy weekend, the style of service influences your guests' dining experience. Just as you wouldn’t imagine hosting a Texas-style barbecue on fine, white bone china (Or would you? ), be sure to define your serving style — how you want the meal to be presented to guests — when planning your menu and décor to bring all of the elements of your party together in a cohesive way. 

From the relaxed, buffet-style dinner where the food you serve — and how you serve it — is simple, to those more formal, restaurant-style meals with every detail meticulously considered, like you might find in a fine-dining establishment, there is a style of service to fit every host, anticipated dining experience, and location. When planning your next get-together, before you send out the invitations, consider the following serving styles.

 

1. Formal, Restaurant-Style Service

This style is often saved for festive holiday dinner parties, special celebratory occasions, or when the host is looking for an excuse to dress up and dine with one pinkie in the air. It’s time to bring out your best china, polish the silver, and to make friends with your butcher for a magnificent roast to anchor the meal. This is not the time for experimenting with new culinary masterpieces or taking shortcuts with inexpensive cocktails. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jaimew)

A formal service should be well-rehearsed and is often paired with formal place settings, elegant centerpieces, and a carefully planned seating arrangement in the dining room. Plate each course in the kitchen and present each guest with their plate when the timing is right to make guests feel valued and pampered. (Whether you want to have the first course already plated and waiting on the table, or just a decorative charger and napkin at each place, is up to you.) With this serving style, your hosting skills and food are the focal point of the evening and play a large part in how the evening unfolds. Worried that your hosting or culinary skills are still young? Brush up on your hosting do’s and don’ts with these tips, and then be sure to have plenty of signature cocktails on hand to make up for any mishaps that may arise. 

2. Family-Style Service

If it’s your first time having friends over for dinner, this is the style that is easiest for inexperienced hosts, and also allows room for the host or chef to experiment. Unlike a formal dinner party, where often guests will be dressed up and the meal is about the food, when you’re entertaining friends and family, it’s the conversation, rather than what is served, that is on everyone’s mind. Whether it’s a weekend get-together for families, or a kid-friendly Sunday family dinner, this is a time where testing out new dishes is OK, and adding decorative and eclectic items to the table (whether it’s a toy, fortune, or paper and crayons for kids) is encouraged. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Binary Ape)

By presenting the meal on large serving platters that are passed around the table, guests are allowed to catch up and not miss out on the conversation. Opt for dishes like lasagna, roasted chicken, a hearty casserole, or chili, which can be made in advance and will easily serve a crowd. Jazz up the meal with sides like salads, roasted vegetables, or even something you’ve never made before. Do away with the tablecloth and extra glasses for wine and water, if you want, too.

 

3. Buffet-Style Service

For any affair where socializing is the priority, then cocktails (or vice versa!), and the food almost a mere afterthought, a buffet spread is the way to go. The casual, help-yourself-whenever-you-want (with however much you want) nature of a buffet ensures that your guests can linger over conversations as long as they wish, without you having to worry about holding up the meal, or letting hot food go cold. It also allows the host to let their hair down and enjoy the party as well, instead of fretting over plating dinner and warming up pies for dessert. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/wyscan)

Offer a free-standing bar service where everyone can play bartender, and a spread of food that is best at room temperature that guests can help themselves to at their leisure. Arranging an assortment of chairs in clusters, and allowing guests to sit where they please and enjoy the evening at their own pace, makes this the most relaxed of the serving styles.

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