Bring up a wedding, and, for most people, one of the first images that pop into our heads is that of a grand dinner table, set beautifully with candles and flowers and, of course, assigned seating. Traditionally, this has always been the way of the wedding world, probably because it is the most formal option and easier for planning (though many brides will tell you that creating seating arrangements is one of the most stressful parts of a wedding). A formal sit-down also keeps the big day on a set schedule of events (hopefully).
However, it can also be quite expensive when you are paying per head, as we were reminded so hilariously in Father of the Bride (remember when Steve Martin opted for the "cheaper chicken"?). And as wedding receptions continue to evolve and modernize with the times, the wedding aesthetic is being more and more influenced by a younger, more casual crowd—the thought of a formal sit down meal seems to be getting a bad rap. Thus, a major upswing in a longer and more robust cocktail hour at weddings, in addition to buffet-style dinners, food truck stations, or family-style parties at trendy restaurants, has been the modern trend. Think about it: the sit-down dinner may be over as we know it.
Susan Martin of SMARTproductions says she has seen a major rise in the heavy cocktail parties or "free-form" dining category. “Having all of that food—no matter how delicious it is—people never really eat all of it,” she says of the sit-down style. “It can be daunting to look at packages from wedding venues that are $100-$125 per person for something you HAVE to order whether guests eat it or not.” And let’s be honest, the cocktail hour sometimes has the best food anyway! With DIY food stations (hello, make your own s’mores) to intricate cocktails and craft brew samplers, it’s becoming quite easy to make hors d’oeuvres the main event.
Meet the Expert
Susan Martin is an event planner/producer and brand integration specialist at SMARTproductions. She has more than 20 years of experience working with media companies, advertising agencies, luxury lifestyle brands, and the tech sector to produce a wide range of custom events.
Plus, if you are holding the reception in a smaller venue, a non-seated dinner allows you to have more people—just remember, you do still have to provide some seats. Lauren Pulwer, who got married in the Green Building in Brooklyn in 2015, told Brides she hated the idea of a sit-down dinner at her wedding. The venue allowed them to completely customize their “floating supper” which included a raging skillet, doughnut tower, and kosher food for her relatives. “We were able to bring in whatever we wanted and decorate however we wanted,” she says. “Our planner told me that another couple brought in a grass floor. It’s a little bonkers, but live your best wedding life, I guess!”
Eliminating the formal dinner also allows time for other activities—like dancing! “We thought a sit-down dinner would take too long and interfere with dancing,” Corie Hengst told Brides of her 2014 wedding in Hamburg, New Jersey, which had a quick buffet-style dinner. “We looked at cocktail hour as really a great time to chat with everyone before we all danced.” In fact, Hengst and her husband Kyler also did their first look before the ceremony so they could really be present for cocktail hour and see their guests.
And with more fun food options, a prolonged cocktail hour keeps the atmosphere a bit more party-like. Kara McKenna told Brides she is opting for a combination of passed appetizers all night as well as food stations (chilled seafood, hibachi, and carved beef tenderloin) for her upcoming wedding. “I always find when I go to a wedding, just as everyone starts to have a good time during cocktail hour, you have to go sit down at a table and it ruins the vibe,” she says. “I also find that, unless the reception is at a really great restaurant, the dinner you're served isn't anything special and the cocktail hour appetizers are usually better.”
But the dinner was definitely special at Lisa Cohen’s recent wedding. It was held at the Officine Brera restaurant in L.A.'s downtown Arts District. Chef and friend Angelo Aurianalet let them take over the venue for the ultimate wedding dinner party. “Walker [my husband] and I are both southern Italian by heritage (with family in Calabria), so naturally food and dining became our main priority for our wedding,” she says.
“We wanted to throw the kind of party we would adore to attend.” Their cocktail hour featured bite highlights from the restaurant menu including farinata (a traditional Italian chickpea pancake), stuffed zucchini blossoms, and a massive spread of salumi. But the ultimate pièce de resistance? The bride’s fantasy request of a wheel of Parmesan and pecorino Romano with truffle honey, stacked up like a Christmas tree.
With a special venue like a restaurant, the surroundings dictate the flow and style of the reception, says Kristine Cholakian Cooke of Simply Charming Socials, especially in receptions that forgo the traditional sit-down. “We've had brewery weddings where food trucks park outside and guests enjoy local beer tastings as they chow down on three different street food offerings like banh mi, tacos, and mac and cheese,” she says.
“This is a more laid-back event, where you can also expect lawn games and karaoke.” With all these weddings, though, she has noticed one thing they all have in common: “They want their wedding to be different than everyone else's. Therefore, they go off the beaten path when it comes to hosting their wedding celebration and how the meal is served.” Remember: it’s your special day, so do what makes you happy—especially when it comes to the food!