Informal Dinner Service
An informal menu is planned to save the hostess steps; the meal has two to four courses, not more. To create a relaxed ambience, the hostess is up from the table no more than two to three times. To achieve a non-disruptive atmosphere when a three-course menu is served, the first course, such as soup or salad, is placed on the table before the guests are seated. The hostess rises once to clear the first course and serve the main course; a second time to offer extra helpings; and a third time to clear the plates and serve dessert. For a four-course menu, steps are saved when a first course is served away from the table, for example, cocktails with substantial hors d’oeuvres, such as caviar with toast rounds and garniture or jumbo shrimp with sauce. Dessert and coffee may be taken in another room.
To make the occasion appear effortless, the hosts should discuss each one's responsibilities in advance of the occasion. Ideally, one or the other is with the guests at all times (this is not always possible, but make it a goal).
Generally, the host pours cocktails, passes hors d'oeuvres once, pours the dinner wine, carves the meat, assists the hostess at the buffet, offers after - dinner libations, and helps guests with their wraps. The hostess cooks, sets the table, serves the meal, clears the table, and pours after-dinner coffee. If assistance is needed during the meal, in advance of the meal the hostess may ask a friend or a relative to help. This will help to prevent all the guests from rising at one time.
The following techniques are presented only as guidelines and are open to individual interpretation.
The salad or first course is pre-served and on the table before the meal begins. To save steps in clearance of the first course, salad is served as a side dish with the main course.
A plate is filled and then served to a guest. To avoid a table cluttered with serving dishes, the hostess fills each dinner plate in the kitchen and serves it to the guest. Or the host and hostess prepare the dinner plates from a buffet.
Two dinner plated are served at one time.
The host pours the wine. The host walks around the table and fills the glasses. He places a second bottle near a gentleman seated at the opposite end of the table and asks him to refill glasses for those seated nearby. Alternatively, after the first glass is poured, the host tells the guests to help themselves to wine bottles strategically placed. Or the host fills the glasses closest to him and passes them down the table, exchanging them for unfilled glasses (not recommended for a long table), a method that also makes refills awkward.
Unless the menu is quite salty or spicy, at an informal meal water is not served. But a
glass of water is provided for guests who do not drink wine. To make sure everyone who wants water has a glass, a pitcher of water and a few goblets are placed on a nearby table.
The guests pass rolls, sauce, and condiments at the table.
Second helpings are offered and encouraged.
Plated are served on the left side and cleared on the right side. Because fewer courses are served at an informal meal than at a formal affair, the left in, right out technique does not give the guests the feeling of being enclosed by a hostess whose arms are suddenly appearing right and left. However, to avoid reaching across a guest, plates on the left side of the cover are cleared from the left side.
The time to clear the table depends on the number of guests. At a small dinner, plates are cleared when the last guest is finished. At a large dinner, plates are cleared when the majority of people are finished. However, when guests are seated at several tables, the hostess clears her table and the host's table first (as these tables are where the honored guests are seated).
The table is cleared in an orderly fashion. Before dessert is served, the table is cleared of items not needed for the dessert course, an order that starts with the largest pieces and works to the smallest. Serving dishes and platters are cleared first. Plates are removed second, two at a time, but to keep the noise level low in the room and to reduce the risk that a utensil may drop to the floor, plates are not stacked. Flatware and unused stemware are cleared third. Small items, such as salt and pepper sets, are cleared last, and to expedite clearance, they are placed on a small tray for easy removal.
The table if not crumbed before dessert. Unless the table is quite messy, it is not crumbed when only a few courses are served. Moreover, bread-and-butter plates help to keep the table crumb-free.
After-dinner coffee is served in another room or at the table. To allow the guests the opportunity to regroup, the hostess serves coffee in another room, and sets out a tray of coffee on a low table or any suitable surface, such as a desk top. However, rather than interrupt good conversation, the hostess may choose to serve coffee at the dining table. She asks each guest how he or she takes coffee, pours, and mentions the guest's name as she passes the cup.
After-dinner drinks are not necessary after a simple meal. Liqueurs and brandy are served as a digestive and a stimulant following a lengthy multi-course meal. But at a simple meal digestives and stimulants are not necessary, and liqueurs and brandy are offered only as a gesture of hospitality.
Certain procedures can expedite service before the guests come to the table. For example:
- Water goblets are filled (if water is provided). To temper the glass and reduce the possibility of cracks, a few ounces of water are poured into the glass before ice cubes are added.
- The first course is placed at each place setting or served in the living room.
- Rolls are pre-buttered and placed in a low container on the table. However, when dinner rolls are presented unbuttered, a butter pat is placed on each bread-and-butter plate or a butter dish is placed on the table.
- Sauce and condiments are presented in duplicate for eight or more guests, one set for each end of the table.
- Candles are lighted.
- Dinner plates are warmed.
- A coffee tray is set up ready for after-dinner service, complete with cups, saucers, spoons, creamer, sugar bowl, and sugar spoon or tong.
- When after-dinner drinks are served, liqueur and brandy are placed on a tray in advance of the meal, along with the attendant stemware.
Service of Informal Dinners
To provide a general guideline for the service of an informal dinner, four methods are presented: host style, French style, English style, and professional style. Each method adapts easily to suit individual needs.
Guests chat while the hosts serve the meal, a method that creates a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. Although the guests are left alone temporarily at the table with an empty space in front of them, by the time the meal is served they are engaged in conversation and the absence of the hosts is unnoticed.
The host and hostess serve the meal from a buffet or the kitchen. The host carves the meat or serves the casserole. The hostess dishes up the vegetables, serves the plates, and clears the table.
The meal is placed on the table all at one time and the guests pass the serving dishes. Although French service saves steps for the hostess, unless covered serve ware is used, the food cools faster this way than in other service methods. Moreover, the excessive handling of serve ware by the guests disrupts the conversation.
A meat platter or casserole is placed in front of the host. The plates are stacked above the meat platter, slightly to the right for easy handling. The host asks guests for the cut of meat they prefer and repeats the name of each guest as he passes the plate. Those who prefer an outside piece or a well-done cut are served before those who prefer a rare cut.
A small table adjoins the dining table, and the hostess remains seated throughout the meal. Although this method enables the hostess to remain seated throughout the meal, it entails excessive handling of the plates, disrupts conversation, and is seldom used today.
A small table, such as a card table or a tea cart, is placed next to the dining table to hold a salad bowl, salad plates, dessert, and dessert plates. The meat platter or casserole is placed before the hostess, and the dinner plates and serving utensils are laid above the platter. The hostess serves the plates. The first plate is passed to the lady of honor seated to the right of the host. To reduce the number of times the guests handle the plates, the second plate is passed to the host. Service proceeds up one side of the table and down the next. The hostess is served last. At the end of each course, the guests pass their plates to the hostess, who stacks them on the adjacent table. To reduce the noise level in the room, the plates are not scraped.
Host and hostess remain seated throughout the meal. Professional service is reserved for posh affairs cooked entirely, or partially, by the hosts. Professional help is engaged to serve and clean up. One maid serves six to eight guests. When more than eight guests are seated, the hosts and professional work together as a team to expedite service. The following variations may be adjusted as needed.
Russian Style: The Most Formal way to Entertain Informally. A maid presents each course to the guest from the left side, and returns the serve ware to the kitchen.
Water and wine are served in the same manner as a formal dinner.
Rolls are served by the maid and placed on a bread-and-butter plate or the rim of the plate. Butter dishes are placed at each end of the table for the guests to pass. Or a container of rolls is placed at each end of the table for the guests to pass. Or pre-buttered rolls are passed.
At a table of eight people or more, the maid fills the salad plates in the kitchen before she serves them. At a small dinner of six or fewer, the maid places an empty salad plate before the guest and presents the salad bowl. Or she presents a platter filled with prearranged salads to each guest.
The roast is carved in the kitchen by the maid and presented on a platter to the guests. The platter is returned to the kitchen to keep warm. The maid carries two vegetable bowls at one time or holds a divided bowl and offers it to the guests. The main course is passed twice.
The maid serves and clears plates two at a time. The smaller plate is removed first with the right hand. The larger plate is carried with the left hand.
The table is not crumbed unless unusually messy. Dessert is presented on a platter or pre-served on individual plates. The maid serves coffee, clears the table, and cleans up.
HOST CARVES ROAST; MAID EXCHANGES THE SERVICE AND APPETIZER PLATES FOR A DINNER PLATE; MAID SERVES THE VEGETABLES. This method of service is appropriate for an elegant dinner where service plates are used, a technique that does not leave an empty space before the guest, except before dessert is served.
The meat platter and dinner plates are placed before the host. The maid stands to the host's left. As the host fills a dinner plate, he hands it to the maid, who takes it to the guest and exchanges it for the service plate and appetizer plate on the cover. She takes the plates to the sideboard or the pantry, then returns to the host to receive the next dinner plate, takes it to the next guest, and continues until all the guests are served. The maid presents the vegetables. The meat platter remains on the table, and the maid offers second helpings. The maid clears the table, serves dessert, and pours coffee.
HOST CARVES THE ROAST; DINNER PLATES ARE USED AS SERVICE PLATES. To fill the empty space at each cover and to expedite service, a dinner plate is laid at each setting before the guests come to the table.
The maid places the meat platter before the host and lays two dinner plates above it. She stands to the left of the host. The host fills the top plate. The maid takes the filled plate to the guest of honor, exchanges it for her dinner plate, and takes the empty plate to the host. The process of filling and exchanging plates continues counterclockwise around the table. To expedite service, the hostess is served in the order of progression. Aftereveryone is served, one dinner plate remains before the host which is used to serve himself. The maid offers second helpings, clears the table, serves dessert, and pours coffee.
HOST CARVES ROAST; GUESTS PASS DINNER PLATES; MAID SERVES VEGETABLES. This is an expeditious technique appropriate for a small group of approximately six guests. The host carves the roast and the guests pass the plates down the table. The maid presents the vegetable bowls to them, offers second helpings, clears the table, serves dessert, and pours coffee.
HOST CARVES ROAST; HOSTESS SERVES PLATES; MAID SERVES VEGETABLES. This is a courteous method of service because the guests handle fewer plates. When meat is cooked to the same degree of doneness all the way through, such as a ham or a turkey, after the host has carved the meat the hostess serves the plates, starting with the lady of honor on the host's right. The honored male guest seated to the hostess's left is served next, followed by the remaining guests on the left side of the table. The hostess then serves the honored male guest seated to her right and proceeds with service up the right side of the table, ending with the woman on the host's left. The hostess serves herself second to last, and the host fills his plate last. The maid serves vegetables, offers second helpings, clears the table, presents dessert, and pours coffee.
HOST CARVES ROAST; THE LADIES ARE SERVED BEFORE THE GENTLEMEN; THE MAID PASSES THE VEGETABLES. This method of service is courteous to the ladies, but entails excessive handling of plates. The host carves the roast, and the first dinner plate is handed to the lady of honor seated on his right. The second dinner plate is handed to the lady seated on his left. The honored ladies pass the plates to the remaining ladies, a progression that ends with the hostess. Afterthe ladies are served, a dinner plate is passed to the man of honor seated to the right of the hostess, followed by the gentleman seated to her left, and so on, ending with the host. The maid serves the vegetables in the same order as the meat, offers second helpings, clears the table, presents dessert, and pours coffee.
HOST CARVES ROAST; HOSTESS SERVES VEGETABLES; MAID SERVES PLATES. This method adds a personal touch to the meal because the host and hostess are involved in the service. However, the technique creates additional traffic in the room, and the vegetable bowls left on the table take up space.
The meat platter and plates are placed before the host, and the vegetable bowls are placed before the hostess. The maid stands to the left of the host. As the host fills a dinner plate, the maid takes it to the hostess who dishes up the vegetables. The maid serves the lady of honor. Service proceeds counterclockwise. The hostess is served second to last and the host last. The vegetable bowls remain on the table, the maid presents the course for second helpings, clears the table, serves dessert, and pours coffee.
HOSTESS DRESSES SALAD AT THE TABLE; MAID SERVES THE PLATES. To ensure absolute freshness for the salad, the hostess dresses the greens at the table. The maid places a salad bowl, cruets, and salad plates before the hostess, who tosses the salad. The maid serves the plates.
HOSTESS SERVES DESSERT AT THE TABLE; MAID SERVES THE PLATES. To add a personal note to a meal, the maid places serving utensils and dessert plates before the hostess who fills the plates. The maid serves the plates.
HOSTESS POURS COFFEE AT THE TABLE; MAID SERVES THE CUPS. At a small dinner of eight or fewer guests, rather than interrupt good conversation, the hostess may choose to pour after-dinner coffee at the table. The maid places a coffee tray in front of the hostess. The hostess asks each guest how he or she takes coffee, pours, and hands the cup to the maid, who serves the guest.
- Mike Lininger, Editor, Etiquette Scholar
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