Keeping up with trends in special event dining is as exciting as ever. For this we can thank the mindset and taste buds of our millennials, who make up a growing percentage of the event industry’s clientele. Pair a greater interest in healthier, more sustainable food with a huge appetite for unique experiences and you’ve got the mark of a millennial. The traditional sit down dinner that stood the test of time for so many years has largely given way to reception style events that go heavy on the apps and light on plated service. From smaller tasting menus with farm to table ingredients, to lounge and communal style seating, the focus is on visual interest and culinary variety, and on the experience overall.
Hosts are intent on finding more and more unique ways of reflecting their own personal interests in the setting, decor, food, and drinks. Consider the reception trends highlighted below as you plan your upcoming celebration. Ramp up the surprise and delight your guests from beginning to end!
1. UNIQUE VENUES & LESS FORMALITY
While there is still a place for more formal events, “less formal” is continuing to dominate the corporate and social events scene. Offbeat settings, casual but creative menu offerings, and more natural social interaction are the prevailing norm.
Art and architecture, as well as food and wine, are driving the selection of unique venues for receptions and celebrations. Think galleries, urban lofts, and distilleries in addition to the rustic barns and wineries of the last few years.
2. COMMUNAL TABLES & LOUNGE AREAS – MORE INTIMATE, MORE SOCIAL
Consistent with the desire for a more informal feel, communal tables and lounge areas are continuing to be a popular alternative to standard tables and groupings. First we saw changes in the shape of dining tables, with square being a frequent choice, then a combination of round and square, and now, everyone loves communal tables and lounge areas. Mixing table shapes and sizes adds interest; adding selectively to what’s already on site allows you to achieve “wow” while controlling costs.
Linear tablescapes can be either minimalist or lush, complimenting taller arrangements on more traditional round tables. Textural florals and beautiful tableware offer a striking enhancement. Heirloom pieces, often mixed and matched, add warmth and personality.
We simply caution our clients to be sure to leave enough room on those long tables for all of the necessary tableware, and for guests to dine comfortably. And keep in mind that while more informal in feel, banquet tables should still incorporate assigned seating for large crowds. Assigned seating will reduce confusion while still elevating that sense of shared experience amongst family and friends.
Escort cards and seating displays, too, are getting far more attention than in the past. No longer just a utilitarian necessity, creativity abounds.
Luxe, artful, rustic, or playful, they’re the perfect onsite introduction to the feel of your event.
As for lounge setups, we’ve been using them for some time now for mitzvahs. They’re perfect for the young teen crowd, never inclined to sit for long.
But we’re seeing them increasingly requested for other social events, as well. Hosts are seeking to replicate the look and feel of private gathering spaces to add warmth and intimacy to large gatherings and encourage informal interaction between their guests.
Groupings of sofas and ottomans can be added to your pre-function space for the cocktail hour or integrated into your main reception space for use throughout the event. Treat them as an integral part of your design, just as you would in your own home.
3. SIPS & BITES, SAVORY & SWEET
Small sips and bites offer visual and culinary excitement. Shot glasses and petite-sized glass and chinaware are just fun. Think soup sips, like the gazpacho shooters below.
Paired cocktail fare, and mini everything. Tacos and tequila, or sliders and beer.
And for a petite surprise at the end of the reception, how about coffee sips paired with miniature doughnuts?
Or hot chocolate lattes at an espresso bar. Who could pass these up?
4. LIVE ACTION STATIONS & CREATIVE DISPLAYS
While the plated dinner still has its place at more formal events, creative food stations are as popular as ever. Rather than limiting the menu to one or two pre-selected entrees, many hosts are choosing to offer guests a varied selection best suited to a myriad of tastes and dietary restrictions. With this type of dining service, there’s a seemingly infinite number of options, from composed tapas plates to build-your-own salads to prepared-to-order individual presentations.
Stations allow your guests to interact with each other, and with chefs at live action stations. Shared experience is exactly what guests are looking for these days. And unique experiences will long be remembered.
Add to the uniqueness factor and get creative with your stations. Think prepared-to-order Asian noodles in Chinese takeout boxes or mini tacos set out on a tie rack.
5. FARM TO TABLE & LOCAL INGREDIENTS
Caterers have embraced the local, farm-to-table movement that dominates the restaurant scene. Menus feature local, seasonal produce, as well as sustainable fish and humanely raised meat.
Food artistry is on the rise, exciting the increasingly sophisticated palates of both hosts and guests.
And the freshest ingredients undoubtedly yield the tastiest and most beautiful results. Foodies will be over the moon.
6. SPECIALTY DRINKS & CREATIVE BAR CONCEPTS
Signature drinks continue to be popular, but we’re also seeing growing interest in craft cocktails, beer, and spirits. Talk to your venue coordinator or bar manager about a signature drink of your choice or a custom cocktail menu. And if you are a craft cocktail enthusiast, try sourcing artisan bitters, extracts, and cocktail syrups. Use natural, seasonal ingredients and garnishes for added wow.
Hosts are featuring the best of craft breweries and distilleries, local where possible. Choose your favorites and display the bottles across the bar – the labels are terrific. Or have a bar menu custom printed to coordinate with your decor.
Bourbon and whiskey interest is growing. Our June event at Lansdowne in Leesburg, Virginia, featured a custom-designed whiskey bar, perfect for the Middleburg horse crowd in attendance. Go on a mission to discover local, small batch craft spirits if this is your game. And if you can’t include them in your bar menu, at least the field trip will have been fun.
7. SELF SERVE ARTISAN CRAFTED DESSERTS
Dessert has also gone less formal, but receives as much attention as what comes before. Passed mini desserts and sweets tables are perfect for a crowd that prefers action and interaction to predictable plated service and formal sit-down dining. Hosts can offer a variety of items to suit a variety of tastes and dietary preferences. And guests can choose freely and frequently as they move about and enjoy both conversation and entertainment.
Consider a build-your-own dessert bar like the s’mores station we incorporated into last fall’s events. Or the shortcake bar we designed in collaboration with Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakeshop for our spring rustic chic, cherry blossom sweet mitzvah.
Artisan confections that coordinate with event colors or the overall design aesthetic are in great demand. We’ve brought in artisan crafted macarons, Oreo gems, chocolate crunch bars, and French style madeleines, beautifully displayed and available to take home in custom labeled bakery boxes at the close of the reception. (Great way to reduce waste AND give your guests a take home favor they’ll continue to enjoy after the fun has ended.)
8. LATE NIGHT SNACKS & DRINKS
Who doesn’t love a late night treat? With hosts nixing the four course reception dinner and offering lighter fare throughout the evening, “late night” snacks add a final element of fun. Artisan popcorn and pretzels, craft hot dogs and pickles, sliders and fries, and veggie quesadillas are perfect for a still hungry crowd. The handcrafted concession-style pretzels we brought in from DC-based The Pretzel Bakery for our March Madness event were a huge hit!
Set up a station in the pre-function area, pass a surprise treat, or package snacks to go.
On the sweeter side, milk and cookie shots or s’mores bites are a delightful end note.
And locally crafted doughnuts (like the ones we ordered from DC favorite District Doughnut) are a great take home treat as well as early morning sugar crush after a long night of partying.
9. FOOD TRUCKS
Food trucks, with both savory and sweet offerings, are still hugely popular. Street food is fun AND social. Hire your favorite local truck or check online for those that cater to large events. There’s something for everyone – doughnut trucks, pizza trucks, gourmet ice cream trucks, you name it. Let your guests enjoy their food truck delicacies on site, or provide special containers so that they can take their treats home.
10. NO LONGER JUST THE SPECIAL MEAL
Gluten free, nut free, vegan, vegetarian – dietary restrictions and preferences have become much more prevalent, hosts are more sensitive to and knowledgeable about such needs, and caterers are ever more accommodating. But we’re seeing a transformation overall, from special meal requests for a few guests to whole menus that are gluten free, vegetarian, or even raw. Caterers are experimenting more and more with fish and meat free alternatives, creating sophisticated all vegetarian menus and gluten free desserts. Labeling is serious stuff for guests with food allergies, but it’s no longer an afterthought or hidden information for the few.
Take the time to fully explore all the alternatives, work with your caterer or venue to customize your menu to your interests and needs, and always, always, consider each and every guest as if you were entertaining in your own home.
11. PRESENTATION IS KEY
Don’t forget to present the food beautifully. Food is no longer just a well prepared appetite buster, rather, an essential part of the whole event experience. Presentation is as important as taste, so aim to tease as many senses as possible.
Food can also do double duty, adding color, texture, and visual interest to your decor.
Not to mention tying in food selections and stations to your overall theme or design aesthetic. Take this wonderful cheese display, perfect for a rustic elegant reception.
12. PACKAGING & PERSONALIZATION
Finally, consider beautiful packaging and personalization. Handcrafted paper and embellishments for artisan favors.
Kraft paper or clear cellophane bags and twine for edible takeaways. Bakery boxes or bags and custom labels (they’re easy to find and order online).
Custom graphics and monograms. We’ve come a long way from the days of machine monogrammed cocktail napkins. “Branding” has entered the social mainstream. Custom monograms adorn everything from gobos projected onto a wall or dance floor to personalized containers and labels, to handcrafted desserts. Great designers are now accessible and affordable, locally and online. So have fun, add a personal touch to your event, and make it truly yours and yours alone.
2016 is winding down, but these trends will surely stick around into 2017 and beyond.
Image credits: Our Pinterest boards are a highly curated selection from some of the best event planning and design blogs and images on the web. They are a wonderful source of inspiration for us, our clients, and our guests. Most of the images included in this post were taken from our various boards. 1. Ruffled 2. Style Me Pretty 3. Style Me Pretty 4. Ruffled 5. Stephanie Lynn 6. Plum Pretty Sugar 7. Colin Cowie Weddings 8. Erich McVey Wedding Photography 9. Grey Likes Weddings 10. Mazel Moments 11. WM Events 12. Steve Beyer Productions 13. Louis Gervais Fine Foods & Catering 14. Peter Callahan via Borrowed & Blue 15. 217 Photography via Borrowed & Blue 16. Divine Weddings & Events 17. Make and Takes 18. L-eat Catering 19. Kristen Gardner via Style Me Pretty & Pop Sugar 20. Rentals Unlimited via Special Events 21. Lavish Weddings 22. Inspired by This 23. Martha Stewart 24. Williams-Sonoma 25. Paradise via DrinkedIn 26. Lemon Drop Martini via The Hopeless Housewife 27. Plum & Thyme Prosecco Smash via My Diary of Us 28. Dominion Collective 29. Style Me Pretty 30. The Flair Exchange 31. Stephanie Lynn 32. Food Gal 33. J.Stoia Portrait Design via The Knot 34. Bridal Guide 35.Wanna Come With? 36. Wistfully Yours via BrenDan-I-Am 37. Carpe Donut 38. Lia Griffith 39. Wedding Dates UK 40. L-eat Catering 41. Wedding Dates UK 42. wrap by Paper Source, tags by Pickle Dog Design / wrap design by Atelier Events, LLC 43. custom bags from Love Mr. and Mrs. created for Atelier Events, LLC 44. custom logo cookies created by Sugar Pixie Sweets for Atelier Events, LLC
Featured image: Style Me Pretty