Sit-down and buffet formats each offer distinct advantages. Sometimes table-space limitations make the decision easy, but often an executive decision may be required.
buffets The advantages of a buffet are: a) it doesn't require a large table to accommodate everybody; b) it injects a built-in mingle factor; c) guests can help themselves to whatever and how much they want without calling attention to their food quirks; and d) it can be set up virtually anywhere.
The disadvantage is that the conversation and the party naturally fragment -- not to mention that it can be hell juggling a glass, plate, cutlery, and napkin while trying to eat and look good, all at the same time.
If you are going to set up a buffet, here are a few hints:
~ Be sure that there are enough comfortable places to sit. Import some pillows if necessary.
~ Find serving containers that are attractive -- even if it is the same pot or pan you cooked in.
~ Provide an appropriate serving utensil for every dish.
~ Try to serve foods that can be eaten with a fork only.
~ For hot food, warm your serving vessels before filling them with food. Whenever possible use a lid to retain heat.
Note: Buffets are the only exception to my rule of always warming your plates. I discovered this exception in my early days of entertaining after I heated the plates and then watched in horror as my guests politely tried to keep the scalding china from searing their laps.
sit-down dinners Seated dinners generally require more work, but they often reward the host with a greater sense of achievement.
There are two serving options attached to sit-down dinners. I like to assemble plates in the kitchen. This allows more control over presentation and portioning. Serving "family style" is simpler, and it facilitates individual portion and quirk control. Many of my friends prefer this method, but I feel it transforms dinner into something uncomfortably close to an episode of The Waltons. If you insist on the latter, garnish each serving dish and, if you have a round table, get a lazy Susan.
some assembly required One of the easiest tricks to help facilitate mingling involves making a meal that integrates food and activity. I call it a BYO party. No, not bring your own, build your own. (i.e., shish-kaBobs, burritos, fondues, pizza, ice cream sundaes, etc.). Everybody loves to assemble their own dinner and the interaction it creates is a great ice breaker. As a bonus, build-your-own dinners are usually good insurance policies against food quirks.
setting up a self-serve bar Choose a location far from the kitchen, put out glasses, liquor, a measuring jigger, mixers, and any available bar accoutrements. Fill an ice bucket (or wing it with a fish bowl), set out tongs or a spoon, ice down some beer in an appropriate container, cut your citrus, and voila.