Formal Dinner Service

Formal dining should be an elegant event. A multi-course menu includes the choicest seasonal delicacies and finest wines. The table setting is resplendent with translucent porcelains, sparkling crystal, gleaming silver, and pristine linens. Menu cards are laid at each place setting or offered to guests between place settings. After-dinner entertainment is planned.

The host and hostess do not assist with the meal, nor do the guests help. A chef prepares the meal and a professional staff serves overseen by a majordomo, who also pours the wine. To make sure that the needs of the guests are met, the majordomo watches the service at a distance from behind the hostess's chair. Maids assist with formal luncheon service.

But so often enjoying good service and knowing how to direct or give it are two different things. Here are some general guidelines.

Never leave an empty space before a guest. Etiquette dictates that the space before the guest must always hold a plate, and for this reason service plates are laid on the table before the guests enter the dining room. An empty cover is left before the guest very briefly only when the table is cleared for dessert.

Good service is quiet and unobtrusive. When a meal comprises five or more courses, the clearance and placement of plates on the table is hardly noticed if the staff make a conscious effort to avoid noises that disrupt conversation.

The ratio of help to guests depends not only on the number of courses, but on the amount of special preparation required. To serve each course at its proper temperature, provide one butler for four to six guests. When the guest list is increased by four, increase the number of butlers by one. If a course requires last-minute attention, the rate of service is slowed and extra help are engaged to assure a timely tempo. When sauce is presented, two butlers often work as a team: one to serve the course and the second to follow with sauce.

The server’s fingers do not touch plates that hold food. To keep fingers from the rim of the plate, the butler holds a fresh plate in the palm of his left hand (often a gloved hand) and slides it into place. But the server's fingers may touch the rim of the plate when it is cleared.

The serve ware required per course depends on the number of guests. A “service" is the serve ware required to present a course, such as a platter and a sauce bowl. In general, six to eight guests require one service per course; fourteen guests, two services; and sixteen to eighteen guests, three services.

Service moved in a single direction. Food service proceeds to the right, counter­clockwise, starting with the guest of honor. Beverage service progresses to the left, clockwise.

The traffic level in the dinning room is kept at a minimum. To promote an atmosphere that is not disruptive to conversation, a butler tries not to enter and exit the dining room more than four to six times per course: to set a plate before each guest; to serve the course; to present sauce (as needed); to serve wine; to replenish water (as needed); to clear the plate.

Prearranged courses are served on a platter: At a formal dinner, to make service of each course easy for the guest, individual portions are prearranged and presented on a platter.

The platter is held in a position that facilitates service. To enable the guest to serve himself comfortably, the platter is held about 1 inch above the guest's plate. To avoid spills and make access to the platter easy, the platter is held partially over the table in a level position.

A separate utensil is provided for each food on the platter.

After service, the platter is lifted above the guest’s shoulder.Rather than lift a platter over the guest's head and risk a spill, the platter is raised above the guest's shoulder after service.

Sauce bowls are passed if appropriate. When the well of a platter is not deep enough to contain fluids that flow from food, such as the juice from a roast, liquid seasoning is passed in a bowl.

Second helpings are not offered. Formal dining includes multiple courses and second helpings are not offered. Once serve ware is taken from the dining room, it is not returned.

The temperature of the plates should be appropriate for the food they contain. To enhance and compliment the flavor of each course, food is served on a hot or cold plate. Because porcelain is naturally cold to the touch, the plates are not cooled before cold courses, such as appetizers or salad, are served.

Plates are served and cleared from the left side.  At a formal dinner, plates are served and cleared from one side only, the left side, a method that makes the guests feel less enclosed by someone constantly hovering about them with arms suddenly appearing left and right. The server's right hand clears a used plate, and the left hand slides a fresh plate into place. The exception is when something on the right side of the cover is removed, such as the sherry glass; rather than reach across the guest, the butler clears it from the right.

Plated are served and clearer one at a time. At a formal meal, when a soiled plate is cleared, the butler immediately slides a fresh plate into place. In this way, there is never an empty space before the guest. And because both hands are engaged in the removal and service of plates, at formal affairs plates are served and cleared one at a time.

The exception is the service and clearance of the first course and the dessert course. To expedite service of the first course, the butler carries two plates to the table at one time. After the table is crumbed, the butler carries two dessert plates to the dining room at one time.

Beverages are served and cleared from the right side.

The goblet and wine glasses remain on the table throughout the entire meal so each guest may enjoy whatever wine her or she chooses. Only the sherry glass is removed at the end of the course it accompanies. If a guest informs the butler that he or she is allergic to a particular wine or simply does not care for the taste, the butler removes the wine glass with the guest's permission.

When the same wine is offered with consecutive courses, it is served in the same glass.

the order of service

The guest who is served First

Years ago it was traditional to serve the host and hostess first, a custom that origi­nated in the Middle Ages to demonstrate that the food was not poisoned. Today the custom is observed only in a few instances: to demonstrate to guests from a foreign country the correct way to proceed; when a hostess is dining alone with her family; or if a hostess is dining with a group of younger women.

Customarily, the honored guest is served first, a courtesy that affords a selec­tion of the choicest food from an untouched platter. Service begins with the lady of honor seated to the right of the host, proceeds counterclockwise, and ends with the host. But when a formal affair has no one guest of honor, service begins with the most important female guest. Depending on individual circumstances, there are several ways to serve a formal meal.

Ladies served first. At a large formal dinner, or one where strict protocol is followed, service may commence with the women, starting with the lady of honor. Although this is a courteous method of service, it is slow, as each butler must circle the table numerous times and crisscross around the room.

Service in the order of progression. At a small formal dinner where less help is provided, service in the order of progression commences with the lady of honor seated to the right of the host and proceeds counterclockwise around the table, ending with the host. The hostess is served in the order of pro­gression and commences to eat as soon as she is served so that others may begin to eat while the course is at its proper temperature. The butler does not double back around the table, and the meal is not delayed.

Service for a single hostess and an acting host. When a single hostess asks a gentleman to act as her host, he is seated opposite her. The lady of honor is seated on his right hand and is served first. The hostess is served in the order of progression and the acting host is served last.

Service for a single hostess without a host. The lady of honor is seated at the end of the table opposite the hostess, and she is served first. The order of ser vice proceeds from the lady of honor counterclockwise. Because there is no host the hostess is served last. As the arrangement is not balanced with al ternate male-female seating, this form of service is rare.

Service for a single host without a hostess. A host without a hostess seats the lady of honor to his right. Service begins with her and proceeds counter­ clockwise around the table, ending with the host.

Alternating service for each course. To avoid serving the same guest last, alter­nate service is provided. The first course commences with the lady of honor and proceeds counterclockwise around the table. The second course starts with the lady seated to the left of the host and progresses clockwise. Each time the host is served last.

duplicate and triplicate service

To ensure that each course is served at the proper temperature, when more than six guests are seated at the table, duplicate and triplicate services are presented simultaneously.

Duplicate service. The lady of honor is served first, and the guest seated directly opposite her to the left of the host receives duplicate service. The remaining guests are served in the order of progression (counterclockwise on the right side of the table, clockwise on the left), regardless of gender. The host and hostess are served last. Alternatively, duplicate service begins with the lady of honor and the lady seated diagonally opposite her at the other end of the table. If the man of honor is extremely important, duplicate ser­vice begins with him.

Triplicate service. When the ladies are served first, triplicate service begins with the lady of honor and two ladies seated equidistant from her. If service is in the order of progression, triplicate service begins with the lady of honor and the guests seated one-third the distance from her, regardless of gender.

time lapses between service of courses

A multi-course meal takes time to prepare, serve, and clear, an interval that prompts leisurely dining and promotes good conversation. Depending on the number of courses served, and whether they require sauce or extra attention, a formal dinner may last 4 or 5 hours, or more.

inspection of the meat platter

Traditionally, the main course at a formal dinner is a roast of beef, fowl, or game. To expedite service, a combination of food is presented on the platter, such as prime rib with potatoes, asparagus, and parsley. Because the main course is the most impor­tant course, at a formal dinner held in a private residence, the meat platter is pre­sented to the hostess for inspection, a courtesy that enables her to make sure nothing was omitted from the platter, that the food is arranged attractively, and that the plat­ter is tidy. With a nod or a comment she indicates approval (or disapproval) and service begins. However, the custom is followed only for the main course. Because the courses that precede and follow the main course do not include a combination of food, the approval of the hostess is not needed. Moreover, in a club or hotel, the meat platter is not presented to the hostess for inspection; instead the job is performed by the maitre d' hotel.

service of watery vegetables

To absorb liquids that flow from food, vegetables that leave fluids on the bottom of a dish, such as asparagus, are served on a folded napkin.

when to clear each course

Years ago, so that guests didn't have to look at a table filled with soiled plates, plates were cleared as soon as each guest laid his or her eating utensils in a finished posi­tion. By the time the last guest ceased to eat, the table was cleared. However, the method tended to rush slow eaters, and the custom changed.

Now the time to clear the course depends on the number of guests seated at the table. At a small dinner party, plates are cleared after the last guest is finished. At a large dinner party, to expedite service, plates are cleared as soon as the majority of guests are finished. When dinner guests are seated at several tables, plates are cleared first from the tables at which the host and hostess are seated (as these tables are where the honored guests are seated). To speed service at a banquet, plates are cleared as soon as two or three diners at a table are finished.

clearing the table

To keep the noise level low in the dining room, rather than stack several plates to­gether or clear them on a tray, servers carry plates to the kitchen or pantry one at a time. However, at a large affair, to speed clearance one butler may carry a soiled plate to a sideboard, for another to take to the kitchen.

Before dessert is served the table is cleared of everything unrelated to the dessert course, starting with the largest items and working to the smallest, namely plates, stemware, flatware, and small sets of salt and pepper. Although large articles are cleared one in each hand, to expedite service small items are cleared on a small doily-lined tray. The doily prevents slippage on the tray and reduces the noise level in the room. The purpose of the doily is to keep the tableware from slipping and to absorb oils from food, such as dessert presented on a plate. Linen doilies are used in formal dining and paper doilies at informal affairs. Because heavy ware, such as a coffee service, is unlikely to slip, a large tray is not lined with a doily.

crumbing the table

The multiple courses served at a formal dinner create crumbs. To freshen the table before dessert, the butler stands to the left of each guest and with a small thin brush or a folded napkin, brushes the crumbs onto a small plate, a tray, or a silent butler held just below the edge of the table.

service of sweets

Special sweets, such as fine chocolates and glaceed fruit, are presented in compotes and placed on the table as part of the table decor. The compotes remain on the table throughout the meal and are offered to the guests during dessert. However, in the long lapse between courses, oftentimes the guests help themselves to a bite or two from the compote placed nearest to them.

service of demitasse, liqueur, and brandy

A formal dinner lasts for hours. To allow guests to stretch, freshen up, and regroup, demitasse, liqueurs, and brandy are served in another room.

Demitasse is a stimulant and a digestive. It is traditionally taken black. Cream is not offered because it reduces the stimulating effect, and makes coffee more of a food. However, on request, sugar is added.

Demitasse is served English style or continental style. In the English method, the men and women take coffee, liqueur, and brandy in different rooms, a separation that affords a brief interlude for guests of the same gender to enjoy conversation not relevant to a mixed group, an interval of approximately 20 minutes.

The hostess leads the ladies to a separate room, such as the bedroom or the anteroom of the powder room, where a maid pours demitasse for the ladies and presents it on a small tray. As she hands a demitasse to each lady, she asks the guest if she would care for a liqueur. If so, the maid pours the liqueur and serves it on a salver.

The gentlemen remain in the dining room for coffee, brandy, and cigars, or they move to the library. Demitasse and brandy are set out on a tray on a sideboard. The butler pours demitasse for each gentleman and asks each guest in turn if he would like a brandy. If so, the butler pours brandy and serves it on a salver. Cigarettes and cigars are offered from a tray in an open humidor.

In the continental style, demitasse, liqueurs, and brandy are taken jointly by the guests, traditionally in the drawing room, a convivial custom that does not disrupt the party. At a small affair, the butler sets the coffee tray on a low table, and as a personal touch, the hostess pours, asking each guest in turn how he or she takes coffee. The guest steps forward to receive the cup, or the host hands it to the guest. At a large affair, the butler presents a coffee tray to each guest, and asks if he or she would like a cup. If the answer is yes, the butler takes a demitasse cup and saucer from the tray, places it on the table nearest the guest, and pours. The butler may also hold the tray in his left hand and pour demitasse with his right hand. The guest removes the demitasse cup and saucer from the tray. Sometimes two butlers work in pairs: The first butler carries a small tray with a demitasse pot, and the second butler follows with a larger tray of cups, saucers, and spoons. The first butler removes the demitasse cup and saucer from the larger tray, places it on the smaller tray, and pours for the guest. The guest removes the cup and saucer from the tray.

After coffee is poured, liqueur and brandy are offered. Generally two after­ dinner drinks are offered, perhaps brandy and a sweet cordial, such as a cream liqueur.

cigarettes and ashtrays

Cigarettes and ashtrays do not appear on a table except at the hostess's request. However, when cigarettes are offered, out of courtesy to those who are allergic to smoke or find the habit offensive, guests wait to light the cigarette until after dessert is finished. Years ago, it was customary to lay at each place setting an ashtray, a book of matches, and a small silver urn with several cigarettes. Today people are more health-conscious, but when cigarettes are offered at formal affairs, it is from an open box presented on a silver tray that contains a stack of small ashtrays and a cigarette lighter or a lighted taper. A lighted candle not only makes the presentation dramatic, it eliminates the chemical odor inherent in lighter fluid. The butler lights the guest's cigarette and places an ashtray to the right of the cover. When cigarettes are offered in the drawing room, they are presented after demitasse is served.

a tray of water

Approximately a half hour after the guests are finished with after-dinner drinks, a tray of water and tumblers is set out on a side table in the drawing room, and the guests help themselves.

late-night snack

A formal dinner begins late in the evening, generally at 8:30 or 9:00 P.M., and lasts until well past midnight. The meal is followed by entertainment, dancing, and possibly cards. To revive the guests, at the host's option, a late-night snack is served, such as a tray of finger sandwiches and a dish of chocolates, from a nearby table.

bidding guests good night

At a large affair, the host and hostess say good night to their guests in the drawing room. In the foyer the butler helps the guests into their wraps, escorts them to the door, and bids them good night. A valet brings their car and helps the guests into it.

service of a formal six-course dinner

Although a four-course menu is the minimum number served at a formal dinner, for illustration a six-course menu is presented step-by-step. Each course follows the same sequence of service: presentation of the course, sauce, wine, and water (replenished as needed).

First Course, Hot or Cold

Hot soup. To eliminate the awkwardness of ladling soup from a tureen held by a butler, the soup plate is filled in the kitchen and laid on the service plate. Soup may also be served from a cart that is rolled around the room.

Cold appetizer. A cold course, such as fish, is presented to the guest on a plat­ter. The butler places a plate before the guest who serves himself or herself from the platter.

Wine. In formal dining, wine bottles are opened in the kitchen. The host's glass is filled first and the host tastes the wine for palatability. To avoid spills, the wine bottle is brought to the glass.

Water. Traditionally, water is poured after the first course is served. However, at a multi-course meal that involves extensive service, water goblets are often filled before the guests come to the table. This expedites service, decreases the noise level in the room, reduces the amount of hovering about the guests, and creates a more relaxed atmosphere. Water goblets remain on the table throughout the meal. The water pitcher is brought to the gob­let, and to avoid spills, the goblet is filled no more than three-quarters full. The butler carries a folded napkin in the left hand, or over the left forearm, and uses the napkin to catch drops.

Rolls. Rolls are served dry in a low container lined with a linen doily or a napkin. Guests remove the roll from the container and lay it on the tablecloth. In Europe, rolls are occasionally placed in the fold of napkins or are laid on top of napkins, a method that eliminates the need to pass rolls with the first course. However, because the roll may drop to the floor when the napkin is lifted, the method is used less today.

Second Course

Immediately after the first course is cleared, the butler slides a fresh plate into place and carries the soiled plate to the kitchen. After all the plates are cleared, the second course is presented on a platter. Wine is poured. If croutons or toast are served with the second course, they are presented, usually by a second butler. Water is replenished.

Main Course

After the second course is cleared and the dinner plates are in place, the meat platter is presented to the hostess for approval (only in a private residence). To steady the platter, and to insulate his hand from the heat, the butler either covers the palm of his right hand with a napkin folded in a square or a rectangle or wears white cotton gloves. In England years ago, servants wore thumb guards rather than gloves.

To eliminate traffic in the room, the meat platter is filled with a combination of foods, namely a roast, starch, vegetables, and garnish. Vegetables may also be offered separately, one or two bowls at a time. When bowls are carried two at a time, the butler presents the first bowl with the left hand, while holding the second bowl in the right hand, behind his back. After the first bowl is presented, the butler presents the second bowl in the right hand and holds the first bowl behind his back.

After the meat platter has been passed, the butler presents sauces and condiments served in sauceboats or small bowls carried on a salver. Wine is poured. Water is replenished.

Salad Course

At a formal dinner, a prearranged salad is served from a platter, followed by an optional presentation of a cheese tray, toasted crackers, and butter served at room temperature. Because silver is subject to scratches, a wooden cheese board is placed on a silver tray. A separate knife is provided for each type of cheese. The guests cut a slice of cheese and place it on the side of the salad plate. The service of crackers and butter follow. The guests remove a cracker or two, place it on the salad plate, and take a slice of butter. Because the acidic quality of salad dressing competes with wine, a new wine is not introduced with the salad course. Water is replenished.

Dessert course

To prepare the table for dessert, the butler clears items that do not relate to the dessert course, and the table is crumbed.

The butler then slides a dessert plate before the guest. A finger bowl is pre­sented on the dessert plate or on a fruit plate.

Firm dessert, such as torte, is pre-sliced and served on a platter. Soft dessert, like parfait, is preserved in tall, narrow glasses, brought to the table on a tray, and placed before the guest. The dessert utensils are laid on the dessert plate.

Dessert wine is poured. Water is replenished.

Fruit Course

At a long rectangular table, two to four bowls of fresh fruit flank the centerpiece in positions that alternate with the compotes of glaceed fruit, chocolates, and nuts and smaller floral arrangements.

The fruit plate is laid before the guest, along with a fruit fork and a fruit knife. Guests help themselves to fruit from the fruit bowl. But if the fruit bowl is inaccessible, the butler presents it to the guest. The hostess may also request sliced seasonal fruit passed on a platter. After the fruit course, compotes of candy and nuts are passed.