Choosing Between a Buffet and a Served Dinner

Posted by rnewton on Aug 06, 2010

thomas preti caterers

The vast majority of my weddings are served sit-down dinners.  Sit-downs are classics, and there is a good reason for that.  So if you really want a buffet dinner, here are some things to consider:

On costs:

  • Do not assume that a buffet is less expensive.  Yes, the service costs can go down, but on the other hand giving up “portion control” may result in significantly higher food costs.  This is especially true if your menu includes expensive ingredients.
  • Equipment costs can also be a factor; in addition to needing buffet tables with linens and serving equipment, you will also need more china, silver and glasses.

On the guest experience:

  • A dish that is plated by a professional chef will invariably look more appealing than anything plated by your guests.
  • As touched on in a past post, your wedding reception will last 300 minutes.  Do you want your guests to spend a good portion of that time waiting in lines or at their tables chatting.  Note that hungry guests do not really engage in witty banter while waiting for food – reality is closer to checking in at the airport on a holiday weekend.   BTW, love your grandparents? Will they feel the love while waiting in line?
  • On a buffet it can be difficult to balance temperature and doneness of foods; in a chafing dish, perfectly done is only minutes away from being cafeteria grub.
  • Buffets take up a lot of space.  If you have it, great, but be careful.

On seating your guests:

Buffets are often linked with “partial seating” (tables and chairs for a fraction of your guests) and “open seating” (no assigned tables.)  Both are bad ideas:

  • There will be times for toasts and other kind words, all about you.  Unless your speakers are great speakers, it is VERY difficult to get everyone’s attention while half of your guests don’t have seats (and have probably had a few drinks.)
  • I’ve blogged about this before, open seating is plain awful; yes, some guests will be happy, but once the tables start filling up guests will be taking whatever seats they can find, and later, when only single seats are left, couples will be split.  Take the time to figure out who should sit with who (if you are ambitious, assign both tables and seats.)  Last but not least, open seating is just tacky.

So, if you decide that a buffet is still right for you, here are some ways to make it better.

  • Have the first course served.  This will enable your guests to visit the buffets in a somewhat staggered manner (it can also help if servers invite tables to visit the buffet in an organized way, a couple tables at a time.)
  • Work with your caterer to select foods that can retain their qualities (taste, temperature, texture) on a buffet.  For example, a salmon steak, which is rich and dense, will fare better then a delicate tilapia fillet.
  • Find out how foods will be presented.    There is an enormous variety of options, from cutting boards to multi-tiered plate stands.  Nothing is less appealing than a row of steel chafing dishes.
  • great performances

    Choose foods that are easy for your guests to serve; no utensils are going to make it easy to transfer haricots verts or asparagus spears from platter to plate.  Choose pommes dauphinoise over diced potatoes, and if you have a leafy salad have the vinaigrette on the dinner tables, not the buffet.  Make sure there are servers at the buffet to assist (and identify foods and sauces.)

  • Make sure there is adequate lighting on the buffet.
  • One of the benefits of buffets is the ability to present more choices than you could at a plated dinner.  Take advantage of that by offering more diversity.  Stations are a great way to do this.
  • Have servers assist the older tables; it’s perfectly reasonable for a server to ask your grandmother what she would like and then get it for her.
  • Make suitable plans for your vendors to be fed; you really don’t want the band in line with your guests.

As a general rule, buffets work better in informal settings with smaller crowds.  Recently, for a very small wedding in an apartment we left the living room seating as it was, and used smaller plates and foods that didn’t need a knife.  At another wedding, at which almost all of the 100 guests were friends of the bride and groom, we did margaritas and a few casual stations including guacamole and enchiladas, but we also made different seating accommodations for the handful of older guests.

The choice between a served meal and a buffet is clearly a complicated one.  Hopefully you are now a bit better prepared to pick what’s right for you.