Today's banquets are the contemporary equivalent of ancient feasts, and the goal remains much the same as in medieval times--to gather, to celebrate and perhaps more importantly, to impress. While little of the protocols of professional banquet serving recall the rules of feasts and celebrations of yore, understanding the basic etiquette of banquet serving goes a long way toward the goal of impressing the guests.
Even before the first guest arrives, a banquet server's knowledge of etiquette is tested. A fork on the wrong side of the place setting or knife pointed towards the spoon is as noticeable a faux pas as mispronouncing the entree du jour. According the Emily Post Institute, the most recognized authority on matters of etiquette, specific rules govern table setting. Forks should be placed to the right; while knives, then spoons, go to the left of the place setting. Knives should be positioned with the hilt or blade facing toward the center or to the left. Glasses should be placed to the right of the place setting and bread plates to the left of the forks. All should be precisely aligned so that every setting looks exactly the same. Most importantly, every piece on the table should be polished and spotless. The same should be said of a server's appearance and uniform.
"The Encyclopedia of Restaurant Training" by Lora Adruser and Douglas Robert Brown outlines beverage-serving etiquette. Drink service should continue throughout the banquet, with drinks served from the right-hand side of the guest with the server using his right hand, so the open palm and never the back of the server's hand is facing the guest. The guest of honor should be served first, followed by the ladies at the table, oldest to youngest. The gentlemen at the table should then be served, beginning with the most senior member of the party. Finally, the host of the event should be served. It's considered rude to fill half a table's water glasses and return to provide refreshment for the rest of the table.
Individual caterers and banquet companies may amend the steps of service for speed or convenience, but Adruser and Brown say servers should adhere to certain basic rules. All food, appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts should be served from the guest's left-hand side. The server should use her left hand, palm toward the guest, serving in the same order as beverages were, with the host served last.
Ideally, all courses should be served to all guests in one trip. If this is not possible, then guests at each table, beginning with the guest of honor's table, should be served before food is delivered to the next table. Entree selection or the guests' choice of a main course and special dietary restrictions are generally placed before service begins. If a guest makes the server aware of any changes or restrictions at the table, the server should provide a substitution right away.
There is some debate about the proper etiquette for clearing tables between and after courses, but the Emily Post Institute says dishes should be cleared as soon as, but not before, everyone at the table has finished the course. Dishes and used silverware should be cleared from the right-hand side of the guest, with the server using his right hand, and not reaching across the guest or table while clearing. Unused place settings and glassware should also be removed at this time. Once all tables are cleared, it is time to "mise en place" or provide utensils for the next course.
By nature, banquets require what is referred to as "invisible service." Because guests' attentions are expected to be focused elsewhere, menus are often pre-ordered and seating charts are prearranged, leaving guests free to concentrate on awards presentations or wedding toasts. An ideal banquet server is always available, but barely noticed. To this end, professional appearance, posture and behavior goes a long way toward allowing the hosts to truly impress their guests.