When discussing meals, there are frequently special names to describe types of meals. In fact, you may hear the terms banquet or buffet to describe an invitation to celebrate something. These two terms describe similar events and at times, an event can be both a banquet and a buffet. Their definitions have subtle variations though, and a description of the differences is detailed here.
A buffet is a way of serving food in which the food is placed in a public area and the diners may serve themselves from an assortment of dishes. Buffets are commonly found in hotels, restaurants, and other social events.[i] A banquet, on the other hand, describes a large meal or feast, that features main courses, desserts and alcoholic beverages. Individual will commonly be seated at large tables that hold 8-10 individuals each.[ii]
Buffets originate from the Swedish word for schnapps, brannvinsbord, or a shot of an alcoholic beverage. This term came about in the 16th century to describe a table in which a patron may select a shot. The smorgasbord buffet gained popularity as the railroads expanded throughout Europe. Initially, it simply described a ritual for gathering to enjoy a pre-dinner drink before the more formal dinner was served. There were typically different rooms for men and women. The term was first used for food during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City in which Sweden used a similar table to showcase the many native foods to their country. The term has been simplified so that the word buffet is the popular term to describe this type of dining in the English language.[iii]
The history of banquets is tied to the history of feasting, which were important historical events that commonly occurred during times of surplus in order to display wealth as well as solidify social and political ties. Frequently, luxury foods or other goods were offered to guests-these are items that may have been difficult to obtain during lean times. While the idea of banquets is quite ancient, the word itself is much more modern, emerging in the 16th century. However, the banquets of this era were much different from the modern perception. The word’s origins are derived from the medieval ‘ceremony of the void.’ In this context, the guests would stand while drinking sweet wines and spices as the tables were cleared (voided) after a meal. The word ‘void’ was later replaced with the French word dessert, but the term banquet persisted and evolved. In later years, guests would no longer stand after the meal, but would move to another room prepared for entertainment, which became known as the parlour or banqueting room.[iv] The term gradually came to describe the meal itself when thrown to celebrate an event.
Buffets are quite common and are used in many different settings. If an individual is hosting a large group within their home, they may set up the food so that guests can walk through and select what they want. This offers a much more efficient way of serving dishes, and it can be used when there simply isn’t enough room on a dining room table to seat all of the guests and hold all of the food. Many restaurants feature only a buffet and simply prepare individual dishes as they begin to run low on them. There are also finger buffets that feature small and easy to consume items such as pizza and appetizers. Buffets are commonly used in institutional settings, such as a business convention or when there are large numbers of people to serve all at once. In most instances, they are the most practical and efficient way to offer food.[v]
Unlike buffets, banquets are usually more about the celebration than the food. They are often held for a purpose other than providing food. Examples of purposes include charitable gatherings, ceremonies, celebrations, and events that honor an individual. Banquets are also commonly used in the business world for conferences and even training events.[vi]
Buffets and banquets can both feature a wide variety of food. A buffet will offer many different options all at once and the diner can select which items they would like. If they want to return to the buffet line for more food, they may. They can eat as much as they would like and sample as many items as they would like, or simply eat one or two things if that is all they want. A banquet, on the other hand, often features a set menu that contains multiple courses. In events such as a wedding or training session, the attendees may have the option of choosing a selection from a set menu, but even then, the options are commonly limited. Banquets usually have much more elaborate and sumptuous courses than what is commonly found at a buffet.[vii]
Locations and employees
Buffets are common and can be found in many different hotels and restaurants. Like other guests, they are created to accommodate a steady flow of patrons throughout meal times. Since this type of dining promotes self-service, there are frequently few employees needed to staff a buffet. A banquet usually has many guests all at once, which requires a much larger space than the average restaurant. Most banquets are held in specific banquet halls, which are commonly only found in restaurants or other venues that can accommodate many individuals at once. Since the courses must be timed correctly and the food should be delivered to all guests around the same time, banquets require much more staff than buffets to ensure that the appropriate level of service is attained.