Downton Abbey, here we come. Those addicted to the PBS drama, like me, can’t help but notice that a large part of the series is centered around food. Many scenes feature formal dinners where the dress is black tie or white tie, and the Crawley family and their guests are served à l’anglaise, with servants presenting the food on platters.
Table service refers to the manner of presenting various dishes at the table. This term also refers to the specific array of objects used at the table, such as the linens, plates, glasses, and silver. The collection of dishware, utensils, and so on required to serve a particular part of a meal or event is called a service, as in coffee service, tea service, fruit service, or dessert service.
Described below are three classic forms of table service that are more common in Europe, as well as a form widely used in the United States.
Service à la française: Originally, French service meant all the food served at a meal was placed on the table at once, and guests passed the platters and served themselves, what we think of today as family style. The modern buffet style of dining evolved from this. In the formal variation on French service, a server presents platter of food to each guest from the left (food is always served on the left and cleared on the right, and female guests are always served first). The guest proceeds to serve him — or herself. This is considered to be the most formal kind of table service.
Service à l’anglaise: A server presents a platter or food from the left and serves each guest (beginning with all the female guests) from the platter. This kind of service is considered more economical and thus appropriate for banquets, such as a corporate dinner for two hundred people, because the waiter can limit the size and number of portions served to a predetermined number of guests. This is the style of table service seen on Downton Abby. You may remember that Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith, was shocked and offended when a servant who didn’t know better expected her to serve herself from a platter.
Service à la russe: A server presents a decorated platter with a whole fish or roast of meat or poultry on the platter to the table, and the food is then carved at the sideboard. An arranged plate is then presented to the guest. Again, female guests are served first. In restaurants, the food is cooked and carved by the table on a rolling cart.
American service: In the kitchen, the food is placed directly on the plates from which it will be served and eaten. This service, also known as plated service, has the advantage of being faster and easier, and the food is more likely to be hot when it reaches the diner.