For big gatherings, buffets just make more logistical sense than family-style seating or dishing out each plate, restaurant style. (Unless you’ve got your own live-in personal chef. In which case, I’m coming to your house for dinner.)
But buffets don’t have to be big and messy and dull. Paying attention to the details can mean the difference between a serving line that’s a big jumble of dishes crammed together, and an elegant buffet that actually looks festive and inviting to guests.
Have a serving plan: Several days before the party, go through the menu and mentally assign containers and serving utensils to each dish. (Personally, I am obsessive enough that I actually go into the kitchen and hunt them down, and create a written list. It’s the only way to remember if you left your favorite platter at your friend’s house on bunco night.) If you don’t have enough, now is the time to borrow extras from family members or neighbors, or buy what you’re missing. If you’re the super-organized type, or this is the first time you’ve hosted a party of this size, actually haul everything out, and try arranging them on tables and counters, so you are sure you have enough room. Finally, make sure you have at least a couple of extra serving spoons and forks stashed away; in my house, anyway, these are always the things that disappear at serving time, and you will want to have some backup.
Don’t worry about matchy-matchy: If your china won’t accommodate everything, or you don’t have enough silver platters, it’s fine to mix and match. To make a more interesting table, mix and match shapes, sizes and colors of serving vessels.
Create some height: Buffet tables look better if everything isn’t down on the same level, or the table isn’t just a big mass of flat square containers. This can be as simple as using a couple of pedestals or cake stands to support serving containers. Or turn over a couple of cake pans, cover them with linens that complement your tablecloth, and place containers on those. If you are using chafing dishes for your main courses, balance their height with some low platters on either side.
Try “food stations:” If your party, and your house, are large, take a page from upscale catering venues and create “food stations” in different areas, rather than one immense table. You can put appetizers in the living room, main course and veggies on the dining room buffet, dessert in the kitchen or even on the patio if it’s warm enough. Or put all the cold dishes on one table, all the warm ones on another. If you’re renting tables, get a few small ones rather than one large one; it also gives you more flexibility.
Make it neat: If you have room, place a small saucer or spoon rest by each large serving container, so people have a place to set utensils rather than just leaving them stuck inside the dish.
Individual servings: Since most of the food will probably be served in larger containers, break up the monotony of large platters with at least one dish served in individual containers. You can group these together on a tray, as a caterer would. Be creative: You could serve shrimp cocktails in shot glasses or espresso cups, a single-bite appetizer in ceramic spoons, or individual servings of dipping sauce in little bowls, even plastic ones.