Party Plan: Lovely Lunches

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Social etiquette changes with time, and the formality of rules most especially. Read these rules for social lovely lunches from 20 years ago and see the changes that we have seen come about. Some changes we are delighted to see, others are practical basics we are happy to keep:

Social luncheons are sometimes held in the hostess’s home; larger ones generally take place in a club, hotel or restaurant. The number you can accommodate in your dining room or at small individual tables, as well as the amount of time you can spend no preparation and the help that is available to you, determined the choice of locale.


The word lunch is used much more often than luncheon. Luncheon is rarely spoken, but it is written in etiquette books and sometimes in third-person invitation.

Although invitations may be telephoned, an engraved card is occasionally used for an elaborate luncheon, especially one given in honor of a noted person.

However, a formal invitation to lunch is more often in the form of a personal note or on a fill-in invitation. It is rarely mailed more than a week in advance. The personal invitation might read:

Dear Gloria and John,

Will you come to lunch on Saturday the tenth at half past twelve to meet Jane’s fiancé, Bob Thomas?

I hope so much that you will be able to join us.

Sincerely (or Affectionately,

Elaine {Andrews}

If it is a very large luncheon for which the engraved card is used, “To meet Congresswoman, Lowy” is written across the top.

Candles are not needed on a lunch table, but are sometimes used as ornaments. They should never be lighted in the daytime. The plain white tablecloth that is correct for dinner is not used for luncheon, although colored damask is acceptable. Far more often, the lunch table is set with place mats made in any variety of linen, needlework or lace. A runner, matching the mats but three or more times as long, may be used in the center of the table.

The decorations are practically the same as for dinner: flowers or an ornament in the center, and two or four dishes of fruit or candy, where they look best. If the table is very large and rather too bare without candles, four small vases with flowers matching those in the centerpiece—or any other glass or silver ornaments may be added.

The places for a large formal luncheon are set as for dinner, with a service plate, a fork, a knife or a spoon for each course. The lunch napkin, which should go well with the tablecloth, is much smaller than the dinner napkin. Generally it is folded like a handkerchief in a square of four thicknesses. The square is laid on the plate diagonally, with the monogrammed (or embroidered) corner pointing down toward the near edge of the table. The upper corner is then turned sharply under in a flat crease for about a quarter of its diagonal length, then the two sides are rolled loosely under, with a straight top edge and a pointed lower edge and the monogram displayed in the center. Or it can be folded in any simple way one prefers and placed to the left of the forks.

If it is a large luncheon, guests are often seated at several card tables, and place cards are used just as they are at dinner. Card tables are covered with square tablecloths, either white or colored. A small flower arrangement makes the prettiest centerpiece.

Cocktails may or may not be served before lunch. If they are, they differ a little from those offered before dinner. A glass of white wine, a white wine spritzer, an aperitif or a Bloody Mary are typical prelaunch drinks, As always, there must be sparkling water, and regular and diet sodas available for those who prefer nonalcoholic drinks.

A lunch table may be the dining room table, several card tables or a patio table for an al fresco luncheon. Depending on the formality of the luncheon, the table may be set with a tablecloth or with placemats.

When all the guests have arrived and have had time to enjoy a cocktail, if it is offered, the waiter or waitress at a large luncheon notifies the cook, goes back to the living room, and approaches the hostess and says quietly, “Luncheon is served.” If it is a simple luncheon, the hostess, after seeing that the table is ready, says, “Shall we go in to lunch?”

If there is a guest of honor, the hostess leads the way to the dining room, walking beside her or him. Otherwise the guests enter in any way they wish, except that the very young should make way for their elders. Men stroll in with the women they happen to be talking to. If alone, they bring up the rear. Men never offer their arms to women going in to lunch—unless there should be a very elderly guest of honor who might be taken in by the host, as at a dinner.

If the luncheon is to be formal, the hostess will need help, whether her own full-time employees or temporary ones.

The formal service is identical with that of a dinner. Carving is done in the kitchen and except for the ornamental dishes of fruit, candy and nuts; no food is set on the table. The plate service is the same as at dinner. The places are never left without plates, except after the salad course when the table is cleared and crumbed for dessert. The dessert plates and finger bowls are arranged as for dinner.

At a simpler luncheon one can serve eight or twelve guests quite easily if the first course is already on the table. At a luncheon for this many people it is a good idea to have either a waitress or friend assist with the service. The assistant may clear the plates from the card tables by standing at the corners and taking away one plate in each hand. The main course should be limited to a single dish and salad, or it will take a rather long time to serve, as the food is served in the usual way from each person’s left. The salad may be all ready in small bowls or plates, which are brought in two at a time and placed on the guests’ left. If there is no first course, the salad may already be on the table. Rolls, butter and iced water and any other beverage should also be put on the table beforehand.

When dessert is finished, the waitress carries the coffee tray to another room and if it is a bridge party readies the tables while hostess pours the coffee.

If you are serving without the help of a maid or waitress you will be wise to make your party a buffet luncheon. The food is set out as for a buffet dinner on the dining room table or on any table with sufficient space. The fare is much simpler than for a dinner. A delicious but light and healthful meal is a wonderful respite in the middle of the day.

s soon as you announce that luncheon is served, your guests file past the table and serve themselves, taking their plates to the card tables and seating themselves wherever they wish. If you are having a course before the entrée, it should already be on the tables when your guests arrive, and they sit down and finish it before going to the buffet table for the main course. When there is no serving staff to help, the guests take their empty plates and leave them on a side table as they do to get their next course. While they are helping themselves, you may remove the soiled dishes to the kitchen.

The same procedure is followed when the guests are ready for the salad or dessert. When they have finished, you ask them to go to another room, or at least to leave the table and sit on more comfortable chairs to have their coffee. This gives you a chance to clear away the glasses, silver and cloths from the table, and if bridge is to follow, to set out the cards.

The Luncheon Menu

Two or three courses are sufficient at any but the most formal luncheons and then no more than four are served in a private home. There are five possible courses and you may select the ones you wish to serve from those listed below:

1)      Fruit or soup in cups

2)      Eggs or shellfish

3)      Fowl, meat (not a roast) or fish

4)      Salad

5)      Dessert

Melon, grapefruit or fruit cup with or without a liqueur poured over it, is a popular first course. The fruit cup may be served in special bowl-shaped glasses that fit into long-stemmed, larger ones with a space for crushed ice between, or it can just as well be served in champagne glasses, after being kept as cold as possible in the refrigerator.

Soup at a luncheon is never served in soup plates, but in two-handled cups. It is eaten with a teaspoon or a bouillon spoon, or after it has cooled sufficiently the cup may be picked up. It is almost always a clear soup. in the winter a bouillon, turtle soup or consommé, and in the summer a chilled soup such as jellied consommé or madrilène. Vichyssoise and gazpacho are also popular in hot weather.

There are innumerable lunch-party egg and fish dishes, and they often serve as the main course. A second course that is substantial should be balanced by a simple meat, such as broiled chicken served with a salad, combining meat and salad courses in one. On the other hand, if you serve eggs in aspic, or escargots, first, you could have meat and vegetables, as well as salad and dessert.

While cold food is both appropriate and delicious, no meal—except on the hottest of hot summer days—should ever be chosen without at least one course of hot of food.  Some people dislike cold food, and it disagrees with others; but if you at least offer your guests a hot soup it is then all right to have the rest of the meal cold.

Hot breads are an important feature of every lunch—hot croissants, baking-powder biscuits, English muffins, dinner rolls, corn bread, etc. They are passed as often as necessary. Butter is usually put on the butter plate beforehand, and it is passed again, whenever necessary, until the table is cleared for dessert. Preferably the butter should be served as butterballs, or curls, rather than in squares.

Bread-and-butter plates are always removed immediately before dessert, with the saltcellars and pepper pots.

Wine is often served with lunch. One wine is sufficient, and it should be a light one such as dry Rhine wine or claret.

A chilled white wine with soda (a spritzer) may also be served in the summer, but iced tea or iced coffee is the usual choice. Tea is poured into the glasses and decorated with springs of fresh mint. Iced coffee should be passed around on a tray that also holds a bowl of granulated sugar and a pitcher of cream. The guests pour their own coffee into tall glasses that are half full of ice and accompanied by long spoons. Or if your luncheon is a buffet, a pitcher of each should be available close to the buffet table. A bowl of fruit punch may take the place of the iced tea and coffee and appears cool and refreshing if it is prepared with floating slices of orange and lemon and is surrounded by glasses or cups adorned with fresh sprigs of mint.

On the winter may hostesses like to have hot coffee or tea served with the meal instead of, or in addition to, serving it later.

A pitcher of iced water is welcome in hot weather or glasses of water may already be on the table if it is a seated luncheon.

On a hot summer day when people have been playing cards for an hour of more, a tray of cold drinks should be brought in and put down on a convenient table. One thing that hostesses frequently tend to forget is that five people out of six long for a cold drink in the afternoon more than anything else—especially after a cocktail or two and a larger-than-usual lunch.

From Emily Post’s Etiquette by Peggy Post. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

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