(Updated Edition from 2008 Original)

Linda recently left me the following question:

I hope you will answer this message and help me!
My daughters are hosting a baby shower tea party for their sister in May. I want to know the best and most appropriate way to set a buffet table for 20 people. I have teacups for each guest and assorted teapots. There is a formal dining room table and a server in the room that can be set-up. This sounded like such a pretty way to honor my daughter and her baby girl….I am now regretting the decision as I want it to be etiquettly
(sic) as correct as possible.
I hope you can help me or direct me!
Thank you.

It’s such a good question and I quickly wrote Linda encouraging her not to regret her decision! A tea buffet is a simple and beautiful way to host a less formal tea gathering.

In fact, in many tea rooms I’ve visited, guests are encouraged to choose their own teacup before taking a seat. And remember, afternoon tea is not called high tea because it is traditionally served at low tables (like a coffee or tea table) instead of a high table (like the dining room table). Many teas are served from a buffet table.

Whether for an afternoon tea, or even a special occasion such as a baby shower or bridal shower, buffet style makes everything so much easier for the hostess and possibly more enjoyable for the guests, who can circulate and sit comfortably in different places. No need for counting exact numbers, sorting place cards, or worrying who one might be seated next to!

Here are Tea Party Girl’s top six suggestions for serving a buffet tea:

  1. Keep your food pretty, but simple. Serve nothing drippy, extra-hot (except the tea – more on that later!), or that requires cutting with a knife. Stick to tea sandwiches, scones, and bite-size desserts. That is the beauty of afternoon tea – the tea party food can be a combination of sweet and savory and only needs to be light.
  2. Stack salad-size plates for your guests to use for their finger foods. Guests should only have to carry the plate, a napkin, and a teacup with saucer.
  3. As I have suggested before, serve only two teas – an herbal/decaf and a black tea of choice that you brew ahead. DO NOT put out a number of teabags for your guests to choose from and expect them to brew their own tea and deal with drippy teabags.
  4. Stacked teacups (as seen in the picture above) are an appropriate way to conserve space at the buffet table. Appoint someone ahead of time the honor of pouring the tea for the guests. After offering the guests the two choices of tea, fill the teacup 2/3 full. This allows the tea to stay hot and gives them room for milk and sugar. Hand the teacup to the guest.REMEMBER~when serving tea do not separate the cup from the saucer, but always handle the cup from the saucer only.
  5. It’s ideal for your guests to be able to sit by a low table within arms reach. If they are holding a teacup and a plate of goodies, they will need a place to set down one or the other, though they can possibly set their tea treat plate on their laps while holding their cup and saucer.
  6. If you leave teapots on the buffet table for your guests to help themselves to another cup of tea, you must plan a way to keep the tea warm. There are several ways this can be done. A simple way is with a carafe or insulated thermos, but a pretty tea cozy is just delightful. Another option is a tea pot warmer and there are plenty of options for these. Again, the ideal is to appoint someone to make the tea in the kitchen and roam among the guests providing fresh and hot pours.Here are some of our favorite choices for keeping the tea warm if you would prefer the guests just help themselves as they please.We’re in love with this beautiful blue and white designed-in-England tea cozy:
    tea party buffetA thermally insulated carafe or ‘thermos’ is a popular and effective idea – such as this highly rated one here:Tea Party BuffetWhilst there are many teapot warmers that you could use for an afternoon tea party, or even for everyday use, most of them use a tea light candle, or other form of flame for heating. This is lovely for the effect, but potentially dangerous. So, unless you are certain to be sitting alongside the teapot warmer while it is being kept warm by the flame, we prefer the idea of an electric teapot warmer. Just like this one:Tea Party Buffet

Lastly, here’s an excerpt from my article, “How to Prepare the Tea Party for a Crowd” that applies to the tea party buffet:

“If using a buffet table, use boxes under the tablecloth or three-tiered trays for visual height. Determine how you can incorporate your theme into the buffet’s decorations and provide plenty of serving utensils so people don’t have to use their fingers to select their items. And remember, no scented candles to interfere with the fragrance of the food and tea!”

Does that answer your question, Linda? Does anyone else have a question or advice to add regarding serving the tea party buffet style? Buffet style really can be a great idea! Please add your comment below.