For decades, the wedding buffet was the more casual alternative to the traditional seated dinner: They're interactive, more varied, and offer more room for customization than a standard three-course meal. Now, there's another option that's threatening to overtake the buffet in terms of popularity, and that's the food station. "This is what we suggest when people want a certain feel for their reception but a buffet is a little too traditional for them," says Julie Savage Parekh of Strawberry Milk Events. "Food stations are the new buffet—a little bit trendier and more modern way to do it." But what does that mean for your wedding? Here, we're decoding the differences between food stations and buffets.
While both food stations and buffets are more relaxed alternatives to a formal seated dinner, the difference in format can have a big impact on the flow of your reception. A buffet, with all the food on a long table and a single line of guests waiting to be served, is more structured and can lead to long waits for friends and family who aren't at the head tables. It can also lead to a more structured evening as guests focus first on eating, and then on dancing. "Visually they see the line building for the buffet and they feel like they have to get in now or they're not going to get food," says Parekh.
Food stations, however, are usually scattered around the room, which encourages guests to go back and forth between eating and dancing and to explore the entire reception space. "People can come and go as they please, if they want to walk around and chat with other guests or dance," says Parekh. "Couples who are looking for the option of not being stuck at a table all night like that, because it gives you a chance to get up and interact with other people."
Though you can offer the same amount of food regardless of the format you choose, food stations offer more opportunity for menu variety and unique presentation. "It feels a little more trendy, more modern, a little more foodie-esque," says Parekh. "To devote a whole spread to one thing is a little more interesting." Some of her favorite stations: Parisian-inspired steak frites, cheese and charcuterie, an Italian burrata bar, and dim sum. Your planner or caterer can also help design food stations that fit seamlessly into the rest of your reception. "Each station can have its own décor and feel almost like it's incorporated as part of the overall vision of the reception, as part of the décor, instead of just a long table of food," says Parekh.
However, if you're serving one cohesive meal—Parekh uses a rehearsal dinner barbecue as an example—or hosting an especially large crowd, then a buffet is often the easier and more manageable option. "If you just want to dance and you don't want the food portion to linger, it'll be a faster way," says Parekh. "Sometimes the food is not the priority at the event, so a buffet is just an easy way to get it done."
The Hidden Details
If you're leaning toward food stations but watching the bottom line, check with your caterer about any additional costs for replenishing the food or having the stations manned; some action stations, like an oyster bar that requires an attendant for shucking, may mean you pay more for labor (but, says Parekh, shortening the amount of time the food stations are open may help you trim costs). With either buffets or food stations, you can cross seating assignments off your to-do list—unless it's critical that your aunts stay as far apart as possible or you're determined to fix up your cousin with your fiancé's old roommate. Since seating charts are often for the caterer to know who gets which entrée, you can assign people just to a certain table or forego a seating chart altogether.
And if you like the idea of food stations but don't want to give up your seated dinner, consider them for dessert. "A lot of people are opting for a smaller wedding cake that does the trick for the photo op, and bite-sized dessert stations where people can help themselves," says Parekh. "Then people can go at their leisure and really pick want they want and what they like."