Etiquette Q&A: Buffet-Style Entertaining

A picture of a buffet table for lessons in etiquette

For the last couple of weeks, our etiquette series has focused on various facets of proper table settings. This week, we introduce another topic related to dining and entertaining: the buffet.

In early autumn, outside entertaining and casual dining are prevalent. A common way of entertaining, both formally and informally, is the buffet. These simple guidelines will help us do the proper things whether attending or hosting a buffet.

By Phyllis Hoffman DePiano

Q: I want to entertain in my home, but I have a very small dining room that will seat only a few friends. Would a buffet be considered too casual for a dinner party?

A: When space is limited, a buffet is a wonderful way to entertain. The hostess can usually accommodate more guests with a buffet than at a seated dinner party.

A buffet is a way of serving rather than a definition of formality. Dating back to the 1700s, the word “buffet” refers to a sideboard or side table. Today, it describes a type of dinner or luncheon at which the food is placed on a side table and guests serve themselves.

The buffet typically is an informal event at which people are very comfortable. But a buffet can be anything from an outdoor luncheon with a few close friends to a black-tie dinner dance.

Q: When serving a buffet, is it appropriate to have guests stand while they eat? 

A: There are three options for a buffet. One is the standing buffet. Guests serve themselves and simply stand to eat. However, chairs should always be provided for elderly people.

The traditional buffet calls for guests to be served from the main table; then they move to other rooms to find places to sit. Each guest should have access to a table—or a portion of one—on which to place their drink and plate. It is also quite acceptable to sit on the floor if the occasion is casual. A thoughtful hostess provides small folding tables for guests—it makes them more comfortable and helps avoid accidental spills.

At a seated buffet, guests serve themselves from the buffet table and then sit at the dining-room table or at small tables that have been placed throughout the house. In this case, the hostess should ask guests to find their places first and then to be served by tables. This allows people to eat together while their food is still warm.

Q: Should ladies always be served first at a buffet?

A: No. In fact, I like to serve by couples or tables. If the group is composed of close friends, then serving order is not so important. If your guests are just meeting, however, keeping couples together makes things more comfortable. The hosts and hostesses, of course, always go last.

If you have etiquette questions, concerns, or success stories you would like to share, please send them to us using our contact page.

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