What do you mean there's no dinner?!
October 2, 2013 7:47 AM   Subscribe

We're in the process of planning out a wedding, and we've decided to go with a full-on cocktail party instead of a sit-down dinner. The caterer we spoke to was very hesitant about this idea. Help us not fuck this up.

In a nutshell, the caterer explained that he's never experienced a wedding in the format that we want that has not gone horribly. Specifically, he mentioned that American weddings have become structured enough that deviating from the norm tends to confuse and anger attendees - without a sit-down dinner, people either won't eat enough and get hungry later, or will mob the tables that do exist and then get mad that there aren't enough chairs, or generally just not understand what's going on and be really surprised that it's suddenly 10 in the evening and the dinner service hasn't started. In fact, he's had such bad experiences with this format that he almost told us to go find another caterer, but since we're looking at a small group and the tail-end of the wedding season he said he'd try to work something out for us.

Other than the issue about format, this caterer seems great, and we'd like to stick with him and keep the cocktail party that we want. So, I am turning to the hive-mind for suggestions on how to keep everyone happy and satisfied that there was not a full sit-down meal.

-Have you attended a wedding like this? What worked, and what didn't?
-Any suggestions on how to set up the venue? They have plenty of chairs we can use, but we need to decide on tables and other rentals. Right now we're leaning towards high-tops with matching chairs for about 30-40 (total guest list is about 75) with the intention that people will not just park themselves at a table for the full evening.
-Would it help to get the ceremony out of the way in advance so that the reception feels less wedding-like?
-Anything else you would suggest would be awesome.
posted by backseatpilot to Human Relations (123 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
You should absolutely have the wedding you want, regardless of the naysayers. BUT I went to a wedding like this and there was a lot of talk about not being able to sit and eat. I didn't have a problem, but a bunch of people did. But then again, who can complain about free food, really?
posted by heavenstobetsy at 7:53 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

When would this wedding start? Because if it's anywhere around dinnertime and there is no food at all, but plenty of alcohol...yeah, big problem.

Even if you warn people in advance, they still need to eat at some point.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:54 AM on October 2, 2013 [44 favorites]

I would NOT do a cocktail party during dinner hours. If you want a cocktail party, have it during the late morning or early afternoon or really late at night so that your guests can eat a full meal before or after the party.

You'll also need to be very explicit about the fact that it's a cocktail party and what amount of food (if any) will be provided. Will there be any finger foods at all?

Also, depending on how long the ceremony and reception is, people WILL want to park themselves at a table for the whole evening. Not everyone can tolerate standing with a drink in their hand for an hour or two. At the very least I would find some way to rent couches or some other casual seating to provide enough seats for every guest.
posted by joan_holloway at 7:55 AM on October 2, 2013 [19 favorites]

I would find this annoying. I don't understand the notion that you can socialize better standing up. I'd get very bored and irritated very quickly.

Weddings and similar events have a sit-down dinner for obvious reasons: it's what works, it allows those who don't want to stand around to sit, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 7:55 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

-Any suggestions on how to set up the venue? Right now we're leaning towards high-tops with matching chairs for about 30-40 (total guest list is about 75) with the intention that people will not just park themselves at a table for the full evening.

Yes, tallboys are the way to go, the guests will NOT be confused about a seated dinner if you do this. I would do seating for 50 though

-Would it help to get the ceremony out of the way in advance so that the reception feels less wedding-like?

Well, it would because then you could invite people to a celebration cocktail party starting after the dinner hour, but don't do this if it will make you feel cheated. You can still be explicit in your invitations if you want to do the full whack: "You are cordially invited to the wedding of blah blah... join us afterwards for a celebration cocktail party."
posted by DarlingBri at 7:55 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I should clarify. There will be food in the form of apps and smaller bites, but no chicken-or-steak big meal thing. It will be help in the evening.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:55 AM on October 2, 2013

If there's not going to be a sit-down dinner, I would want to know that in advance, so I could eat dinner before I go and not wait all night for a dinner that will never show up. Hand in hand with that, I'd want the wedding to be late enough so I'd have time to eat dinner beforehand- like, ceremony at 7:30, reception 8-11. Or, you could do an early afternoon deal (ceremony at 1, reception 2-5), with brunch/light lunch items, though that's more of a luncheon than a cocktail party. People probably aren't going to dance in the middle of the day. On the upside, you can get away with serving less alcohol.

We did a dessert reception in the afternoon (in our church basement) and I think it went well enough. We did not have enough tables/chairs for all, and we definitely got some blowback on that from the church ladies. On the other hand, a short cake & punch was what we were planning, so I think this was less of a deal than it would be at a long evening event.

Would it help to get the ceremony out of the way in advance so that the reception feels less wedding-like? Like, on a separate day? Maybe, if you're interested in getting married just the two of you, or 2 + a few friends.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:56 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are a couple of good ideas here and here, regarding for instance the way to word it on the invitation. Expectation management can go a long way.
posted by Ms. Next at 7:56 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work in this industry and have observed over 100 weddings. You don't need a dinner in the traditional sense, but a plate with plenty of finger food on hand shouldn't be that big of a deal with your caterer. Maybe they're worried guests will approach them and be irritated with them when they hear there's not a dinner.

People at weddings love to sit. You can't help that they will park themselves at a table, but if there's an outdoor area and it's decent weather, they will wander around outside.
posted by okay-quiet-time at 7:57 AM on October 2, 2013

This is how I've interpreted the caterer's concerns:
People are stupid and don't understand what "cocktail party" means. Your guests will be annoyed because of the aforementioned stupidity, and you will hear about it. You will assume that this problem is because we did a bad job catering it and be mad at us. You will give us bad reviews and cause headaches for us. Let's avoid that.
So for me, this all comes down to the faith you have in your guests to understand what's going on. Make it clear that this is a cocktail party with no formal dinner. Maybe this means calling grandma and explaining it to her privately. Make sure not to schedule your reception during typical dinner hours, because that will only add to the confusion.

In short: communication is key here. And if your guests still don't get it and want to gripe about how they don't understand how to eat free food on a day that's about you and your spouse, well...that's too bad for them.
posted by phunniemee at 7:57 AM on October 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

-Have you attended a wedding like this? What worked, and what didn't?

No, and I'd have been pissed if I didn't know ahead of time a real dinner wouldn't have been served because when I attend a wedding, I plan my entire day around it, including when and how much I eat before going. If I had known ahead of time, I'd have shrugged my shoulders and gone and just hoped there was enough vegetarian appetizers for me to eat.

Any suggestions on how to set up the venue? They have plenty of chairs we can use, but we need to decide on tables and other rentals. Right now we're leaning towards high-tops with matching chairs for about 30-40 (total guest list is about 75) with the intention that people will not just park themselves at a table for the full evening.

You can't have only high-tops. What about the elderly? A woman who just gave birth? Or children, if any are invited? Or someone with a bad leg, hips, etc. You need to have some seating that doesn't require stepping up into a chair. You can mix these up elegantly. This is what your caterer is for.

-Would it help to get the ceremony out of the way in advance so that the reception feels less wedding-like?

I did something like this. We had the ceremony and several months later had a huge reception thing for everyone. What I wouldn't do is the ceremony the same day and everyone go to the reception that night, unless you're only inviting close family. But if you have the ceremony a few weeks ahead of time and invite people to a "Celebrate our marriage" party, then you can get away with it.

Anything else you would suggest would be awesome.

Be really clear in your invitations, etc. what the party is. Is it a wedding reception? Is it a cocktail party to celebrate your wedding? Is it a celebration that day, or several weeks or months after the fact?

The big thing with doing any type of non-traditional wedding is to provide the information that it will not be traditional. Include on your invitations, "Join us for cocktails and appetizers after the ceremony!" Also, have it in the afternoon. So if you have the ceremony at 3, have the cocktail hour from 4-6. Then people can meet up and go out to dinner on their own after.

But, BE CLEAR! And kinda get the word spread around by mouth that there won't be a traditional meal served.
posted by zizzle at 7:58 AM on October 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

We didn't do sit-down dining at my wedding, and it rocked.

Our wedding was outside, and under a big tent. The service was pretty quick, and then it was on to eating and drinking!

Instead of tables and chairs, we spread big--crap, I don't know what you call them, big Indian sheet-type things? tapestries? colorful squares of fabric?--over the lawn, and people just plopped down on them to eat. It was especially great for people with kids. Your idea of high-tops is great, because I think people welcome the opportunity to mingle more.

We got an awesome chef/caterer who'd worked on yachts around the world and had a great repertoire of international stuff. We served buffet style, and got a mix of really great wines, which people still remember!

It's weird what the caterer says about "confusing and angering" attendees. I personally love weddings that deviate from the norm, especially when I get good food and drink. Plus the the attendees are your friends and family. You know best what they'll enjoy.
posted by bassomatic at 7:58 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of people are going to think you just cheaped out. Some of those people will even be angry that they got you a gift expecting a good sitdown meal. Go for it if you'd like, but explain to everyone very clearly what's going on ahead of time (per Ms. Next's links) and maybe don't call it a "reception."

Me personally, I'd do this for no more than about half of what you're doing -- a cocktail party of 75 people is just too damn many.
posted by Etrigan at 7:59 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't do this over a mealtime. Which means that if you have an afternoon ceremony, you really can't expect the party to last until after dinnertime (10pm? On nothing but gin and tonic and finger food? Of course it's a mess), people are going to have to eat at some point. Have an early afternoon wedding and wrap things up by 6-7pm or so. Make sure you specify in the invitations that it is a cocktail party and that there will be no dinner service.

The lack of seating will be an issue, especially if you have older guests. Hell, I would not want to stand around for hours nursing a drink and shrimp cocktail, heels are really not so friendly.
posted by lydhre at 8:00 AM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yeah, it depends on the timing. If you're going to keep people more than a few hours during the dinner time, you need to serve them dinner. If you cannot afford that, maybe have a morning or a late night wedding.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:01 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I used to be a "wedding watcher" at a historic house, meaning every weekend I sat through at least one wedding and/or reception and made sure no one put their drinks on old mantels or sat on dangerous railings. Saying that, I would say about a full third of the receptions I saw were cocktail style. Especially if you are having dancing, the high tops are fine. People will set their down to drink, come back to take a swig, then head back out. Chairs at every high top might even be excessive. With 70 people, you really know who's there; think about older folks, pregnant folks, kids, less healthy folks etc. They may need to have better seats available, like cushy benches or something.

As far as guests revolting, I assume your friends and family aren't awful so you'll be fine. In the invitation say something like, "join us for a cocktail reception to follow" or just tell each of your moms to kind of discreetly spread the word, cocktail and snacks v. full dinner.
posted by stormygrey at 8:04 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well, it depends. If you are having your ceremony right before the cocktail hour then theoretically your guests should be expecting a cocktail party reception.

What is worth considering is how far your guests will have travelled to get to your wedding and the basic hospitality of it. If a friend visited you from out of town, and it was lunchtime, wouldn't you give them lunch? You probably would never think of sending them away hungry.

You can give sandwiches for lunch, it doesn't have to be a 17-course thing involving racks of lamb with little paper shoes on 'em. You can even incorporate sandwiches into a cocktail party, and they'll go further than the 3-4 canapés per person that you would also be serving.

Another thing to think about is: if you are having your wedding right before the cocktail hour, won't it also possibly overlap with the afternoon tea hour? Then you can serve little sandwiches, cupcakes, scones with jam and cream, and so on, instead of going the cocktail route.

Finally, you do have to accept that cocktail parties are uncomfortable. People have to balance food in one hand and drink in the other, they have to pass things from one hand to the other to shake hands, they can't sit down, and on and on. (In fact, the distinguishing feature of a cocktail dress is that it has a poufy or structurally embellished skirt such that you can't sit down in it.)

If the thing you want to eliminate is chairs and tables, an afternoon tea won't work for you.

If the thing you want to eliminate is an actual meal, an afternoon tea won't work for you, and chairs and tables will tantalize people into thinking they're going to get a full meal.

If the thing you want to eliminate is the expense of a full meal, an afternoon tea would work, and the chairs and tables will give people somewhere to sit and eat comfortably.
posted by tel3path at 8:05 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

> the caterer explained that he's never experienced a wedding in the format that we want that has not gone horribly.

Wedding cocktail receptions are actually the new hotness in wedding trends, so I'm a little surprised your caterer isn't up on that.

> Specifically, he mentioned that American weddings have become structured enough that deviating from the norm tends to confuse and anger attendees - without a sit-down dinner, people either won't eat enough and get hungry later, or will mob the tables that do exist and then get mad that there aren't enough chairs, or generally just not understand what's going on and be really surprised that it's suddenly 10 in the evening and the dinner service hasn't started

It is true that a lot of wedding guests still assume that all receptions include a sit-down dinner. You clear this up by making it clear on the invitation that a full meal won't be served:

Please join us for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres following the ceremony

...usually does the trick.

> Have you attended a wedding like this? What worked, and what didn't?

I have, a couple of years back. There were probably 8 or 10 different cocktails available at different stations--a cheese display/station, a fruits-and-veggies display/station, chicken skewers, stuffed mushrooms...basically food that was easy to carry around on a small plate. There were tables and chairs set up (with linens and such) so folks could sit and eat and chat. Still had the traditional wedding cake, of course.

I should point out that this was an afternoon wedding--ceremony started at 1pm, cocktail reception an hour or so later. Because of the time of day, no one was expecting anything more than cake and punch, frankly. If you're having an evening wedding, where the reception would be taking place around the time that folks would be eating their supper--well, your caterer probably has a point. I don't think anyone (in the US, at least) expects a full three-course meal at a wedding reception held before 6pm. 6pm or later, a whole other set up expectations come into play.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:05 AM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

with the intention that people will not just park themselves at a table for the full evening.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Also: will any of your guests have kids? Elderly? Knee or back problems that preclude sitting at tallboys or standing for long periods of time?

Not providing dinner is workable, so long as the reception isn't during a normal mealtime and there is sufficient finger food and people are warned ahead of time that there will not be a full meal (though I agree with the caterer that your guests may be a little confused) but you've got to provide enough seating for everyone. It doesn't have to be formal assigned-table seating, but you can't just leave half of your guests wandering around wondering why there aren't enough chairs.
posted by ook at 8:05 AM on October 2, 2013 [20 favorites]

Upon rereading the original post: If you feed your guests the same amount that they would have eaten at a sit-down dinner, even if it's in the form of lots of apps and so on, I think you're good. If you feed them less, not so good. Especially since they'll be drinking, and especially if the reception takes place around the usual dinner time.
posted by bassomatic at 8:07 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is exactly how I did my wedding. In fact, we got married during the cocktail party. We simply told everyone to pipe down around 45 minutes after the start time, did the ceremony and then got back to the party. Needless to say, it doesn't really work in this context if the ceremony is full of all the usual pomp and circumstance. It's a bit weird to have a bride in a full on white dress with a train parading in to "Treulich geführt" from Lohengrin. We stationed a few friends and family members on each side, and a leader from the NYC Society for Ethical Culture took us through the approximately 10-minute ceremony we developed with him.

Anyway, we thought it worked great and plenty of people remarked that it was one of the most fun weddings they had ever attended.

My advice:

Have plenty of tables at various heights and configurations for sitting and chatting.

Have the caterer produce copious fancy iterations of cocktail party-friendly foods. These should all be things that can be eaten while standing up, but that doesn't mean they all have to be finger food. We had some things that were finger foods, some things that were small plate foods consisting of a few bites, and even some little espresso cups of soup.

Come up with a custom cocktail list and get the caterer to batch those cocktails. This is really the only way you can guarantee high quality cocktails. I would recommend maybe 4 cocktails, plus one large bowl of punch (self serve), one each of white and red, maybe one round of sparkling wine for the ceremony, plus whatever amount of "open bar ordering" you want to have (hardly anyone ordered this way at our wedding).

Some of the food can be on centrally located tables (e.g., if there is a large platter of cheeses and crudites), but it is a nice touch to have the staff circulate with trays of food and trays of cocktails.

This can work perfectly for a group of about 75. That is almost exactly what we had. Sounds like fun!
posted by slkinsey at 8:08 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was invited to a wedding like this, although I wasn't able to attend. The bride wrote in the formal invitation that there would be "heavy apps" but "we suggest you eat dinner beforehand." As a guest I felt a little put off, especially since I was being invited to travel across the country to attend, although I guess it's better to tell people ahead of time then have them show up and not get enough to eat. I want to nth the concern that people will want to sit at a table for some amount of the evening - it can be tiring to stand and mingle for that long, especially if you are older/sick/pregnant/etc.
posted by handful of rain at 8:08 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think cocktail parties are totally fine but I understand your caterer's concerns. Finger foods and drinks are sometimes what people get in advance of a sit down meal at some weddings (I have sat down to a meal and already been full from pass-around appetizers) so it's worth understanding what people's expectations might be and how to manage them.

First, I presume you know the people you are inviting since your wedding isn't that giant. You can predict whether high top tables would work for the bulk of them. I've definitely seen events that had mostly these but then a few regular sit down tables for people who needed special accommodations (anyone in a wheelchair/walker, for one) and this was okay.

Second, timing. Having an event that goes through the dinner hours but does not include dinner at all would be a faux pas. This is especially true if you invite families with small kids. You know if you have families on your guest list, plan accordingly. Earlier or later would be fine. If there's ample finger food, that's fine.

Third, seating. I tend to wear dressy stuff to weddings and this sometimes includes uncomfortable shoes. I would sit through a lot of a cocktail party personally because I find the "stand with drink and small plate of food" to be sort of difficult. I may be an outlier or I may not, but I'd be a little more generous with seating than you are maybe planning.

That said, as always, it's your event. Your caterer seems like maybe they are not so keen on this idea (which seems normal) than they should be and I think it's fine to push back but meet them partyway with a clearly worded (and scheduled) invitation that gets across what sort of event this is. I hope you guys make it wonderful.
posted by jessamyn at 8:08 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

In my experience, apps and small bites are more expensive than a meal on a caloric/fullness basis, so you're certainly not going to save money (if that's a goal). But, for the double whammy, people are going to think you're cheaping out (irony!). People are going to get hungry and restless. Waiting for passed appetizers is really annoying--some people end getting more than their "share" and others go hungry. If you're doing a buffet of appetizers, people will load up and you'll probably be in the same boat.

Having a wedding that is uniquely "you" is great, but what's even better is having a stress-free wedding. If you've decided you're just going to do a cocktail hour, that's great and all, but the last thing you want is to look out at hungry, slightly too drunk guests who were expecting dinner--regardless of whatever you might have put in your invites.

What are you trying to accomplish with this? Cost savings? More fluid seating? A cool cocktail vibe? Regardless of your goals, I think there is a better way to accomplish them with a dinner.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:10 AM on October 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

I was a wedding DJ in the early 90s in St. Louis, and by far the majority of weddings I DJed were *not* sit-down dinners - I think I can count on one hand the number of sit-downs I did. Most of the weddings had a reception with an appetizer buffet (always including toasted ravioli) and a bar. Usually these were bigger weddings, but I think they also always had regular tables/chairs, not high-tops.

My impression for a lot of these weddings is that the ceremony was earlier in the afternoon, and then there was a few hours break before the reception, which would usually start around 7:30/8pm.

It may of course be that regionally, sit-down receptions are more common in the northeast than the midwest, but still, for the caterer to argue that cocktail receptions are absolutely unheard of is a bit absurd in my book.

Whatever you decide - be very clear in the invitations, and if you are going to do appetizers only, I like the idea of either doing the whole thing earlier in the day, so that people are done with the reception by 5 or 6 and can get dinner later if they want, or leave a gap so people can eat before the reception if they need/want to.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:10 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My best friend's wedding was like this. All of the appetizers were gone within 20 minutes or so. We actually left early to go eat dinner and then shortly joined the "after reception" celebration at a local bar.
There was assigned seating (ugh) but that meant there were enough seats for everyone.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:12 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

for the caterer to argue that cocktail receptions are absolutely unheard of is a bit absurd in my book.

It may be that they are unheard of for THAT caterer, or maybe for a specific demographic. I have never been to a Jewish wedding that didn't have a meal, for example.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:12 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There will be food in the form of apps and smaller bites, but no chicken-or-steak big meal thing. It will be help in the evening.

If it's in the evening, you really need to make sure that you offer more than a few token apps and small bites. It needs to be enough for everyone to get a meal's worth of food into them, especially if they're going to be having cocktails. That said, there is a long and distinguished history (perhaps mostly in the South?) of "open house" parties where dinner-amounts of food are consumed in a cocktail party setting with no formal sit-down.

It's also important to make sure that the apps are fancy and high-end, so it's a great experience and your guests don't think you're trying to save money on the food. You don't want them wishing for the standard overcooked salmon and wan chicken breast with mushy vegetable medly.
posted by slkinsey at 8:14 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you can avoid a lot of the issues people are bringing up by making it a cocktail party in celebration of the wedding that you had the week previously. If that's what you meant by "would it help to get the ceremony out of the way in advance," then yes. Also, you don't have to be pregnant or elderly to want a place to sit down, all you have to be is a woman in heels.
posted by HotToddy at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I went to a wedding reception that was a cocktail party. It was lovely and worked very well, and I haven't heard any complaining about it I think there were a couple reasons it worked:
1) there were nearly enough chairs for everyone. I don't think 50% is enough -- you might consider more like 75% to 80%.
2) the invitations were very specific about there being no dinner. As I recall, they said something like "Cocktail hour reception to follow, with hors d'oeuvres."
3) the little insert about hotel room blocks also re-iterated that there would be no dinner at the reception and had a list of restaurants near the reception location.
4) the bride got the word out via the biggest chatterboxes on the invite list ahead of time. no fewer than 3 people made a point of talking to me about how exciting and fun it would be to have all the fancy hors d'oevres. All three of them used the exact same words, which was amusing -- the bride seemed to have given them a script -- but very effective.
5) The hors d'oeuvres were heavy -- there were a lot of substantial items. And there were a lot of them. There was no need to have a meal after.
posted by OrangeDisk at 8:15 AM on October 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

in the evening

If it's late evening and the guests are explicitly told not to expect dinner AND the appetizers are abundant (seriously, more than you think) and filling and tasty, you're OK. I've gone to weddings like this and it was fine.

If it's early evening, those of us with healthy appetites will be cranky after a few hours without real food. Even pre-warned, it's a pain to eat dinner at something like 4pm before getting all dressed up and making your way over to the wedding, only to be starving again a few hours later. I've gone to weddings like this and it wasn't ideal.

I still think a meal is best, especially since a lot of people at weddings are older people who may have trouble standing for hours and hours.
posted by randomnity at 8:16 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is exactly how I did my wedding.

Your description sounds exactly like what we're trying to accomplish. Mostly party, pause for 15 minutes to do the deal, and get on with the eating and drinking. Glad to know it can work out.

The caterer's reservations were more along the lines of "people are stupid", yes, but we went through a whole plan and there would be enough food to substitute for a sit-down meal - he proposed way more than I had expected, so I feel comfortable that people will not be leaving hungry. There will also be enough chairs for everyone to sit, we just won't have tables for the full group. In fact, the venue is small enough that a sit-down dinner for 75 is essentially impossible so if this doesn't work we are going to be cutting our guest list in half most likely.

So it sounds like the big thing is going to be expectation management. Most of the guests will be friends from the area, so they'll know what's going on.
posted by backseatpilot at 8:16 AM on October 2, 2013

Anyone over 50 is likely going to want to sit for most of the time, if they can. Those dancing, if you're doing that, are going to want a place to leave a coat and a bag. Every "cocktail" reception I've been to suffers from the "we don't need chairs" problem. It means people leave earlier.

Finger-food and a buffet is fine, but plan for enough to cover a meal. If there's only a few hundred calories per person, folks will leave early or just drink more to compensate.
posted by bonehead at 8:17 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Question: Are you locked into doing it in the evening? The traditional "cocktail hour" for this sort of party is more like 4:00. You will do much better with expectations if you have this kind of soiree at 4:00 rather than 8:00.
posted by slkinsey at 8:18 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

with the intention that people will not just park themselves at a table for the full evening

Why? If relatives are coming from out of town, realize that for them, your wedding is an opportunity to catch up with other relatives who they only see at family occasions. Mixing and mingling with people they don't know is likely not on their agenda. Choose the seating that you want, but please don't choose it in an attempt to prevent people from doing what's comfortable and enjoyable for them.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:20 AM on October 2, 2013 [25 favorites]

We did this with our wedding. We got away with it by: being explicit that dinner was not going to be served; holding the wedding early/mid afternoon at a time reasonable people didn't expect a big meal; having tons of chairs and tables (cocktail party or no, people want to sit); having enough hors d'ouevres on hand that anyone who really wanted to make a meal out of it could, were they hell bent on doing so; and taking the wedding party and favored out of town guests out for a small dinner afterward.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:22 AM on October 2, 2013

Definitely make it VERY CLEAR on the invitations that there is no dinner, that it is cocktail fare only, because people tend to assume dinner hours = dinner reception.

I attended a wedding with the opposite problem: the reception was held at 3:00 because they couldn't get the venue at the time they wanted, and we guests assumed that it was a snacking type of deal because of that and were surprised by full meals, most of which were picked at because no one was really hungry yet.
posted by telophase at 8:23 AM on October 2, 2013

We went to something like this, but it was in the morning/early afternoon. The invite was very clear that it would be light brunch items and cupcakes. ("Please join us afterwards in the ballroom for light brunch and cupcakes.") This was great, as my husband is a Type 1 diabetic - it let us plan ahead for food.

On a purely selfish note, I'm short, clumsy, and hate highboy chairs, because I have to hop/jump or actively climb to get into them. Some "normal" seating might be nice for the above reasons (elderly, medical issues) and also for those of us who are height/elegance challenged.

You can totally do it, you just need to be very clear on the invitations, and maybe in other information as well (such as the hotel info, as mentioned above).

Good luck! I'm sure it will be lovely.
posted by RogueTech at 8:24 AM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

I'd just like to second the people who mention that controlling people's drinking/behavior will be very tough if you have a full bar and no meal. I recommend including some sort of hearty, dinner-type hors d'ouevres for drunks, kids, and the elderly (ie, sliders, mac and cheese, etc), if only to distract people who are getting overtired or drinking too much.
posted by rue72 at 8:26 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

We did this. We had the ceremony at 3, with the reception starting at 8, and included a list of suggestions of nice local places to get dinner in between.

At the reception, we had an open bar, a buffet of hors d'ouevres, small sandwiches, sushi, and such, and enough seating for everyone, but the seating was off to the side with the main area being dancefloor and standing tables for putting drinks/elbows on. I think some people did end up having dinner from the buffet, but I didn't hear of anyone complaining about it.

The wedding was a great success.
posted by 256 at 8:30 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this is workable, with the recommendations others gave you here, but for the record I have been to a wedding where this idea went over pretty badly. The invitation did say that it would be a cocktail party with appetizers, but the ceremony was at 6, and clearly at least half of the guests were expecting a real dinner. It mostly seemed to be the older family members, who were used to "the way things are done," and even though I wasn't in either family, I heard a LOT of complaining and grumbling from various parties throughout the night. Also a lot of people ended up leaving earlier than I think they otherwise would.

I think this isn't to say that it can't be done, but that you need to know your audience very well. There are people who will not "get it" even if you mention it in your invite, and if that type of person makes up a sizeable proportion of your invite list, it can poison the event for everyone.
posted by primethyme at 8:32 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I am a catering bartender.

My advice is KEEP IT SHORT. Really short. Like a 2-hour reception an BAM done. An open bar with no dinner will eventually turn sour. Your job is to end the party and get people home before it turns that corner. No dance floor, no DJ.

-Any suggestions on how to set up the venue? They have plenty of chairs we can use, but we need to decide on tables and other rentals. Right now we're leaning towards high-tops with matching chairs for about 30-40 (total guest list is about 75) with the intention that people will not just park themselves at a table for the full evening.

Not liking this idea. At all.

How many elderly/disabled guests are you expecting? Are they going to be able to sit in those? I'm totally against not having a chair-per-person.

Also, nothing but highboy tables is FAIL, particularly w/ insufficient seating. Where are the ladies going to put their purses down? Where are people going to put their drinks down? Those tables will get clogged with glasses fast as people have a sip, put it down and forget it. Now the lucky people are sitting at tables clogged with half-used glassware while the tired-feet. Plus, those rentals are a crapshoot and some of them can get hella wobbly.

Here's the caterer talking: your intentions are immaterial. You need to engineer the evening you want. People will claim seats, put a jacket on it, and it'll be theirs for the night. There will be a scramble because you don't have enough seats for everyone. I honestly recommend at least a couple of low tables and seats of everyone.

-Would it help to get the ceremony out of the way in advance so that the reception feels less wedding-like?

Well, you lose the emotional momentum of ceremony-to-reception that way

-Anything else you would suggest would be awesome.

MAKE SURE THERE IS ENOUGH FOOD! Sweet Elvis but I have seen people get fucked-up at weddings that had a full dinner. Plan to have more food than you need because if you run out, the "Emotional-Blow-Up-Clock" starts ticking the moment you do.

Americans do not know how to drink socially, It's a largely lost skill from my perspective. With no dinner, all the guests have to do is drink and talk. And if they are unskilled at both...

The shorter your party, the less time your guests have to get fucked-up on an empty stomach while spending the entire time on their feet.

Congratulations and best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:35 AM on October 2, 2013 [52 favorites]

primethyme makes a good point. A lot of older guests will definitely ignore whatever instructions are on your invitation, and it will lead to people leaving early. You need to serve a meal.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:36 AM on October 2, 2013

It will be held in the evening.

This is a tough one. You have to work out the logistics here-- specifically, when are people supposed to eat? Is this going to be a thing where people get dinner and then show up to your wedding? I think that might work, but you're talking about a wedding that starts at 8-9 pm. Give people 15 minutes to show up before you get started, the ceremony lasts 30 minutes, and then the "cocktail reception" doesn't start until 8:45 at the earliest, and your older guests get just over an hour to socialize before they start getting tired at 10pm.

I see this as more of a post-lunch daytime wedding for it to "work."
posted by deanc at 8:37 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with primethyme that while I personally love your plan and would much rather attend this kind of wedding than one with a sit down meal, weddings are culturally loaded, and differing expectations can cause lasting bad feelings. So do take your audience into account, including your in-laws side of the family. Realistically, are they going to get it?

(Here I crush my urge to recount anecdota about how certain expectations differed at my wedding. You're welcome.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:39 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ensure you have some non-greasy and lots of vegetarian foods. I hate most cocktail parties with finger food because they'll have one token vegetarian dip or roll, and everything else will be like bacon scallops or lamb skewers. If you have gluten-free attendees, keep that in mind too.

But it sounds like this isn't just a few finger foods, right? You're serving the equivalent of a meal, but in small plates?

What about having an hour of passed appetizers, the ceremony, then a shorter sit-down meal of shared family-style food?

Have a variety of seating options, including some lounge chairs and some tables at normal height. Your caterer or facility manager can help with rental companies for both.

People will definitely park themselves if there aren't enough tables. If there is a perceived scarcity (even if it's not an actual scarcity) the inner caveman emerges and people will start to hoard tables and food. Totally serious.
posted by barnone at 8:43 AM on October 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

26 years ago Mrs. Gungho and I did this exact same thing. A formal wedding in a church, and a cocktail and apps reception afterwards. We had the food spread out in different rooms (it was at an historic house), with a hot app table and demonstration chef. Hi-tops and minimal seating.

One thing we did do as a sop to the older folks was provide reserved regular tables and chairs for them.
posted by Gungho at 8:49 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just went to a wedding like this and it was wonderful. There were tall bar tables with seating and gold event chairs with small tables placed strategically around the room. What made it all great was that the invitation specifically said, "Ceremony at 5, Music, light bites and drinks from 6 - 9," and a separate evite highlighted late supper spots in the neighborhood.

I'm much happier roaming and socializing than sitting. It's not really about the meal for me. Your caterer sounds a little out of touch. Of course, it's cheaper to do it your way too, so that might be a concern for him, same number of people, same hours, less money.
posted by thinkpiece at 8:51 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I see that you have marked answers that affirm your plan to do this, but I'll say that I attended one wedding reception like this and it was a train wreck. People drank way too much and the food ran out quickly. Maybe your caterer can handle it, but my one experience seeing this terrible.
posted by dgran at 8:54 AM on October 2, 2013 [21 favorites]

I think a cocktail party wedding reception should be held at cocktail party hours, ie before dinner hours. Also there should be chairs for everyone. Some people have dietary requirements that mean they need to eat full meals and it's weird to keep them well into the evening with only finger foods, even if it's hearty finger food or whatever.

I mean one of the things about weddings is that they follow certain social conventions that have been around for a while. Like feeding people meals at mealtime hours and cocktail party snacks at cocktail party hours.
posted by sweetkid at 8:55 AM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

When you're calculating seating, please keep in mind that there are probably going to be people with injuries or invisible disabilities that you do not know about. If I were primarily standing and mingling for several hours without being able to spend a fair amount of that time sitting, I would be in major physical pain due to a chronic condition that I have, that most of my friends don't know about and would not know to accommodate. I would almost certainly wind up leaving early. Which is okay by me - I'd see you, celebrate your wedding, and then leave when I was no longer able to stay comfortably. But if it would make you sad, it's something to consider accommodating.
posted by Stacey at 8:56 AM on October 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

It's an awesome idea and I'd love to go to a wedding like this, BUT:

If you expect any children under the age of about 10 in attendance, you might want to modify your plans at least a little bit. The thing about sit-down tables is that they give parents a place to park a kid and something for the kid to do - e.g., sit at the table and draw, play with toys, and play with/eat their food. High tops don't work so well for that, nor do circulating appetizer plates. Without a specific place for kids to sit and play, they'll get bored and be underfoot all evening.

Parents in attendance will be very grateful if there are at least a couple tables or sofas or just some designated space available for seating kids with a plate full of appetizers and some crayons and paper.
posted by googly at 8:56 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Let the time of the ceremony dictate what kind of food you serve.

Since you're holding the ceremony in the evening a lot of people will be expecting it to be formal, which is possibly what your caterer was referring to when he said people would be confused and angered. Some people will be expecting an evening wedding to be formal, which is not incompatible with a cocktail party, but cocktail parties are held between 5 and 7pm because 8-9pm is dinner time.

The points about seating being necessary for people's comfort, and sufficient food being provided at mealtime, still stand. The way you could do this would be to have a buffet reception - same food, but heaped up in a way that makes it look as abundant as it actually is - and one chair per person, but not necessarily very many tables. Then at least people will be able to sit, and eat a full meal at mealtime, and you'll be able to fit them all into the venue. That won't be a cocktail party, and it won't be formal (so you can word your invitations accordingly), but it is probably the option that assures the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
posted by tel3path at 8:57 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hey, congrats to you guys!

And I just want to reiterate the "women in high heels hate standing cocktail hours" thing. Particularly at weddings, where I'm more likely to be wearing less-broken-in Special Occasion heels versus my relatively comfy, well-worn work heels. Please, please, please have sufficient chairs for high-heel-shoed guests to sit, relax, and chat with other guests.

And I think the key to success here is communication early and often. Any time you're deviating from a social norm (even if it's just one within your group of friends), communicate it clearly. Cash bar? Make sure everyone knows, so no one shows up without money. Light canapes only? Make sure everyone knows, so that the low-blood-sugared or low-alcohol-toleranced among us can compensate prior to your event. It's the expectation mismatch that causes people to (perhaps unfairly) whine and moan; as long as they go in with the right expectations, you should be alright.
posted by olinerd at 8:58 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think your expectations for when the event will start and how long it will last are where the cocktail party idea becomes problematic. There's nothing wrong with not having a full sitdown meal for guests, that's common enough these days. But if you're planning to start at a traditional wedding time (evening, before 7:00 pm), the logistics aren't great for the guests.

You should consider that everyone will be dressed up and many people will have made a special trip to attend the event. If they have to go out to dinner on their own, they probably don't want to go to McDonald's--they want to go somewhere nice and have a relaxed meal with family and friends they maybe haven't seen in a long time. If you start anytime before 8 or 9 pm, you're not only asking them to pay for their own meal, you're also forcing them to have start it at 5 pm or earlier. If you want to do a cocktail party I think your options are early afternoon before dinner or late evening.

Also, please, please, please have enough chairs for everyone, no matter what you decide on the food.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 9:00 AM on October 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

My aunt did something similar for her wedding last year. It worked really well. She had her wedding and reception six months apart, on the equinoxes. The wedding was family only, and the reception was a big cocktail party for everybody.

She had a separate area with tables, not enough to seat everybody at once, and the caterers had a table of hors d'oeuvres and finger foods that was replenished throughout the night, so people could eat whenever they felt like it. This did keep the cocktail party atmosphere, with most people standing/mingling/dancing through the night, rather than camping out at tables. I think it helped that the tables were in a separate section, and the food was in the main area, near the bar.

That said, many people do like to kind of stake out an area as "their spot" at long events, so I think if you don't have enough tables for everyone, at least do 50. The high tops are a good idea, they do lend a more cocktail party feel.

And yes, make sure it is clear on your invites that there will be no sit-down dinner.
posted by catatethebird at 9:01 AM on October 2, 2013

Just for what it's worth, too, at my wedding we had assigned seating with a full dinner, but as soon as the dancing started everyone was moving around between tables to chat. No one stayed in their same seat all night. If you have social guests, you'll have social guests. If you don't have social guests, I doubt that removing chairs from the room will help that.
posted by olinerd at 9:02 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Normally I'd say you either need to finish before dinner or have a dinner-timed break between the wedding and the party (I've been to both versions and they were fine), but having the whole thing, ceremony and all, be one party kind of precludes that. And I think what you're describing can actually work OK and sounds like fun, I've been to various functions like it (although not a wedding per se). The main thing is that you have to manage what kind of food you serve and how it comes out.

For example, I have problems with my stomach and if I don't get a meal-sized amount of substantial, non-greasy food into it all at once at the usual meal time I'm in trouble (which does include getting much drunker than I normally would on my usual amount of alcohol). Small bites of food spread over the evening, even when it is the same amount in the end, doesn't cut it. I've also seen other people have issues with either just being hungry or getting drunk faster than they expect when the food was spread out so I don't think it's just me and my weird metabolism. You basically need a meal stand-in. The best way I've seen this dealt with was setting out fancy cold cut meats and nice buns so that people can make sandwiches while also sending out a battery of wait staff with more substantial hors d'oeuvres all around the same time. This was served maybe an hour or so into the party when people's drinking was starting to catch up with them. Add in circulating more-nibbly food the rest of the time and another wave of dessert type food later on and you're good. You could have the main bulk of food timed to be just after the ceremony part, then you can kind of announce it and make it seem more like a meal.

For the décor, I don't think you need tables to sit at for everyone and not having dinner-style tables will signal that it's not a dinner-style event. So that parts fine. But there absolutely needs to be enough chairs for everyone, including plenty of normal height chairs with back support because there are lots of us out there who look young and healthy but can't deal with high-top tables or standing all evening for non-obvious physical reasons. And, if possible, add in some low side tables to the high standing ones so everyone has somewhere to put their drinks etc regardless of where they're seated.
posted by shelleycat at 9:03 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's the thing, if I came to your wedding, I'd get hungry and leave at about 8. If I eat beforehand, I'm not going to be all that interested in finger food.

What you are describing is a cocktail party and they typically last about 3 hours, all in.

That's fine and it's a nice idea. That said, it should start at around 6 and go no longer than 9.

Trying to have a 6 hour wedding with no meal is like a cross-country flight with no meal. People will be crabby and hungry and towards the end, it won't be so much fun.

Also, I hate high tops and if that's all you have, I'm leaving. Right now.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:05 AM on October 2, 2013 [19 favorites]

Your caterer is wrong, in my experience. For this reason, I would hire another caterer. In fact, we rejected several caterers, despite excellent recommendations and great tastings, because they thought this sort of reception would be a trainwreck. Seriously, high-end fundraisers and many many events are held on this model every week of the year. Such events are generally successful and usually fun. Find a caterer who understands how to have this sort of party and you will be fine.

Our wedding, at the dinner hour (6:30-10:30), was cocktail reception only--no plated dinner, no formal seating. Four hours of bar, passed food, desserts and a jazz pianist, with a five minute interruption to exchange rings and toast one another. No-one was confused, angry or desperate to go out for dinner afterwards. No-one got any more drunk than they got at other weddings and lots of people had only one or two drinks. It was brilliant--a really good party and just what we wanted. Some people ate before, but not everyone.

Our invitations made clear it was a cocktail reception, not a dinner. There were a few regular dinner tables, but mostly cocktail tables scattered around the room (low ones, not high tops) and comfy chairs with side tables, some banquettes. At least one chair for every guest, but not arranged into tables. We held the party in a bar space, not an event space. We kept the guest list small (75 people) and did not have any guests under the age of 21. We had several guests in attendance who have significant disabilities making it difficult for them to stand for long periods of time and there was no difficulty making them comfortable.

In addition to passed snacks, we also had a few food stations for people to help themselves. This was critical because no-one mobbed the waitstaff out of fear of not getting the passed food and it assured people that there was more where that came from. About 90 minutes before the end of the reception (we had the end time on the invitation as well as the start time), the caterer cleared the food stations and began passing the sweets. They also put desserts onto the table where the cakes were and cut the cakes. Coffee came out about then, too. At least half of what was available was vegetarian. All the food was more creative than cheese on crackers, but none of it required a fork-and-a-knife to eat.

Only two things which went wrong. One: the caterer's bartenders were terrible, really, really awful (seriously, who serves a Blue Moon OVER ICE?), which was bad since the cocktails were the point. So, you might want to hire bartenders separate from the caterer. Two: my husband and I saw each other for about 10 minutes all night.

I would not throw another party on this scale any other way.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:09 AM on October 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

I have never been to a wedding reception like this, but a few years ago one of our clients at work had this kind of reception and a few of my coworkers went. For what it's worth, when the topic comes up now, they still talk about the overall lack of seating and the difficulty people had with the higher chairs.

I am curious about this format for a wedding, what's the appeal?
posted by crankylex at 9:19 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have been to a wedding like this and there was not just not enough food. The wedding took place over the dinner time period (roughly) and we were not advised there would be only light hors d'oeuvres. People were expecting dinner. So yes make sure it's clear that is is cocktails and not a dinner. We ended up leaving and going to Burger King -- not a favourite at all but there was nothing else close by. Also there was not enough seating and my feet were killing me after an hour. I am fairly youngish and not too out of shape, but I wore my fancy 'sitting down' shoes!

I think your ideas is lovely -- just make sure there's plenty of food and seating.
posted by Lescha at 9:20 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

the caterer's bartenders were terrible, really, really awful

A thousand times this. No offense to Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey and I'm sure some cater bartenders are highly skilled with cocktails, but the vast majority can barely make a decent Gin and Tonic, never mind a sophisticated cocktail. If they know what a Negroni is, count yourself lucky. The way to get around this is to give the caterer the spec for around five "featured" cocktails and have those batched. This way all the cater bartenders have to do is shake/stir them out and pour them into glasses, which doesn't require any particular cocktailian skill. Plus, having servers circulating with trays of cocktails helps to reinforce the Thin Man vibe.
posted by slkinsey at 9:21 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

That sounds like a typical southern wedding. In fact, I think I've only been to maybe one or two weddings with sit-down meals (and I've been to a lot of weddings) and I'm sure those were for people that weren't from here.

Typically (and my own wedding was like this), you have the ceremony, and then immediately after, the reception. No cocktail hour or anything, since basically the whole wedding is a cocktail hour (or three.) Heavy apps, some passed, most buffet style. There might or might not be a carving station so you can make little sandwiches. But generally you're not going to get steak or chicken breasts or whatever.

Near the end, they bring out the cake and then the slices are passed out as it's cut.

Bar is open throughout. Reception is generally 3 hours long, so the whole shebang is about 4 hours, depending on what kind of ceremony it is.

Seating differs. I chose to have enough tables and chairs for everyone. The older folks like to sit at the tables and chat to long-lost relatives and friends. I guess it depends on what kind of crowd you're expecting, but it's never a bad idea to at least have a seat for everyone, if not a table.

So to me, your idea sounds perfectly normal to me, but because it's the custom here. People might think it's weird, but it works fine, honestly. Just make sure the appetizers are substantial.
posted by pyjammy at 9:25 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been to a wedding like this and there was not enough food and it was uncomfortable to be in heels the whole time. I would never do this to my guests. They came to your wedding. Give them a seat and a full meal, even if buffet style.
posted by slateyness at 9:29 AM on October 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

My wedding had no formal dinner and was structured more like a cocktail party. Instead, guests got bowl food, to eat standing up. I should stress they got the same amount of food as at a normal dinner, just without the faff of it being formally put in front of them at a specific time. Basically, we had small eats, then three different bowls of food (they were small bowls, and enough for each guest to have one of each). Desserts were small and placed on a table. There was also a mountain of nice cheese nobody touched. And a cake. We did this format because we liked it. It was no more or less expensive than a sit down meal.

On seating: we had about 100 people and about 80-90 chairs. I had thought it was enough. In retrospect, I don't think it was. What happened was all the guests formed into the groups they wanted to and people who didn't naturally fit into one group (e.g. work, university) didn't really find somewhere to sit. It wasn't a big big issue. But although they were too polite to say they'd enjoyed other weddings more I could see the lack of seating was a pain in the arse for the people that didn't get it.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:32 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm in the process of planning a similar "standing hors d'oeuvre / cocktail" reception; thankfully the caterer involved in the event has been very supportive about the whole thing.

Some of the more useful suggestions have been:
  • Making it very clear in the invitation that it's an hors d'oeuvre-only reception.
  • Doing "heavy appetizer" food stations, not just light passed appetizers, so that nobody actually goes hungry. E.g. carving stations, hot sandwiches, etc.
  • Making sure there are enough tables and chairs around for people who want / need to sit down, but not placing them in the same place; i.e. actively trying to avoid anything that feels like a "dining room" where people might sit down and wait to be served.
  • Hightop tables in corners and near the bar and food stations so that people don't have to juggle plates and drinks at the same time.
  • Adults-only, so that the need for "kids food", childrens menus, a structured dinner for kids, etc. is removed (granted, probably not an option depending on the situation)
  • An adjacent restaurant or other venue so that people who are really not cool with the plan can just bail and do their own thing, maybe coming back later on in the evening (if time allows) rather than standing around and complaining the whole time.
In the context of a wedding, you might want to think about how you'll greet all the guests if you're not doing a seated dinner. Normally, the bride and groom go around and say hello to everyone during the pre- or post-dinner lull. But if you're not doing dinner, you'll probably want to find some other time to do that and ensure that you meet everyone (or risk that someone doesn't get to see you and gets offended). This strikes me as a good argument for the traditional receiving line. (Also, it's technically not a reception without a receiving line; it's just a dinner or a cocktail party. /pedant)

From what I can tell, the horror stories about cocktail receptions seem to all hinge around unprepared guests, which seems like the sort of thing you can combat with careful wording in your invitations or just by getting the word out in advance. If there are particular people who are known to be inflexible, maybe talk to them in advance so they don't sour things for others.

I am curious about this format for a wedding, what's the appeal?

In general, you can fit more people in a venue when you are doing standing appetizers than when you are doing a full seated dinner. This is not just true of weddings but basically any event. Even if the food cost is the same both ways, for the same number of people you can end up not needing as large a venue, which is a huge cost driver. Chair and table rental is also an issue. It also requires fewer staff than a traditional table-waited dinner, although it's about the same as a buffet.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:33 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

My friend's wedding last year had a cocktail reception, but it was at a restaurant, so the invitations suggested dinner at the restaurant beforehand for those guests who wanted a sit down meal. They had a very small ceremony a day or two before, than a cocktail reception for out-of-town friends and family. I think it worked out well because they clearly communicated that it was a cocktail reception, and it was scheduled so that people could easily have dinner before coming, whether at the restaurant or not. Also, one of the options for "hors d'oeuvres" were sliders, and those were substantial enough for the guests who were hungry.

I will note though that it was a small reception (50ish people I think), and there was plenty of seating at the bar and at tables. If there hadn't been enough food, booze or seating, there may have been some disgruntled guests.
posted by yasaman at 9:37 AM on October 2, 2013

Anything else you would suggest would be awesome.

You're going out of your way to make the evening difficult for your guests. The wedding ceremony is about you - the party is about your guests. You've created a disconnect, which is why the caterer reacted with concern (a caterer's role is the contentment of his guests).

Consider above all the virtuous goal of ensuring your guests leave the wedding party happy and smiling. Which means, provide them with atmospheric comfort, feed them well, and put their considerations above yours. Congrats and good luck.
posted by Kruger5 at 9:39 AM on October 2, 2013 [23 favorites]

The caterer does have valid concerns, but as others have shown, they can be worked around with planning and communication. (And yes, more seating!)

I know you love the caterer you have, but if there are a cocktail lounge or high-class bar or two in your area who also do event catering, it might be worth taking an appointment with them just to talk and see if they have experience with the sort of thing you're looking for.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:40 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Exactly when in the evening you'll have this is going to be very important, as others have pointed out. I won't belabor the seating issue (huge, huge), but there's one other point... if you have only passed food, make sure that the rest of the wedding party has food set aside for them.

I was in a wedding party that was only passed food, and by the time we were done our various duties, there wasn't a lot left for us, and we were starving and angry. Particularly because we had to leave the wedding to go to a lousy nearby restaurant to have dinner so people wouldn't pass out. Look after your party.
posted by canine epigram at 9:44 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

From what I can tell, the horror stories about cocktail receptions seem to all hinge around unprepared guests, which seems like the sort of thing you can combat with careful wording in your invitations or just by getting the word out in advance.

That might be true if this were just a party, but it's a wedding. That makes it an obligation.

I have had people fully believing they could work around social norms with clear communication, but it doesn't always work. For example, I was once invited to a "welcome party" for a new baby, which I thought was going to be akin to a christening for non-religious people.

It turned out that it was actually a shower, but they had chosen not to call it that because they didn't want to make people feel obligated to bring gifts. And indeed, they had put on the invitation "gifts are welcome, however your presence is the most important". Clear enough, right? And then when I got there, the main event was the new mom (second baby) unwrapping a huge table full of presents. I had several people ask me during the course of the event, "What did you give her? Did you bring a gift?"

I got to the point where I even blurted out to the hosts that I was embarrassed that I hadn't brought a gift. But they told me "oh, don't be embarrassed". So, they communicated clearly to me that I shouldn't be embarrassed, so problem solved, right?

And then another hostess put out a dish with a sign on it inviting people to contribute money towards the cost of refreshments, adding "no pressure" to the end of the sign. So, that means they weren't pressuring guests to pay for what they ate, right?

There's a reason why certain things are traditional. It means they've been thought through from various perspectives over a long period of time. Warning people ahead of time that the wedding is going to be uncomfortable in various ways isn't going to alleviate their discomfort as much as, well, making the wedding comfortable. That is going to mean sufficient food and seating and places to put things down, and not giving mixed messages about things like the level of formality, among other things.
posted by tel3path at 10:00 AM on October 2, 2013 [29 favorites]

All the suggestions above are great--clearcut communication, various seating, time of day, length of event, enough food. I'd be giving the caterer the fish eye on this one. The suggestion that people won't be happy and that you're trying to cheap out is rather insulting. It's your wedding, you can do what makes you happy, and his job is to facilitate that and provide for your guest's enjoyment. I think his problem is that he stands to make more money on a sit-down dinner.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:01 AM on October 2, 2013

I would definitely get a different caterer. Because this can work really well, but not if your caterer doesn't know what he's doing. And no matter how great this caterer is, if he says he's never pulled this off successfully before, that means he's not the right caterer to do this for you. You want to go with a staff who has done dozens of these events successfully so that they can give you advice about how to place food/bars/chairs in your space, and how to make the timing work, and what to provide for the specific mix of people you're planning to invite. Because that's what you're paying for. The free advice you're getting here is great, but you shouldn't be paying a caterer who has explicitly told you that he can't do the job you want.
posted by decathecting at 10:03 AM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

I am short and clumsy, and if I were given the option between either repeatedly clambering up into a tall chair in a cocktail dress and heels or else standing in uncomfortable shoes all night, guarding my purse, while trying to figure out how to eat from a held plate while my other hand held a cocktail glass that I had nowhere to put down, I would leave after a half an hour and be super-cranky. My husband has autoimmune arthritis, and if he were having a bad flare, he might be unable to attend at all under these circumstances.

If you want people to spend all evening at your party, you must feed them sufficiently and you must have enough chairs for everyone to sit comfortably. This probably means more chairs than attendees, not half as many (!). I am kind of distressed that you've mostly chosen as Best Answers the people who say "nah it'll be fine."
posted by KathrynT at 10:12 AM on October 2, 2013 [37 favorites]

One of my relatives had a very nice wedding reception where food and drinks were served. The food was all finger food, there was plenty of it, and a nice variety of things laid out beautifully and refreshed often. There were small bar-type tables and no seating assignments, but plenty of chairs.

It would have been fine but the guests didn't know that the buffet was dinner. They thought it was appetizers, and that dinner would be served by-and-by. We were thrown because it was very different from what's usually done at dinner time (wedding or no).

I recently went to a birthday party with exactly the same deal. Cocktail party with plenty of passed hors d'oeuvres. Nobody said anything; some guests went into the kitchen to ask the caterers if dinner would be served.

I think you could solve the problem by either making an announcement welcoming the guests, thanking them for coming, and letting them know what your plan is with the delicious, plentiful buffet/offerings.
posted by wryly at 10:12 AM on October 2, 2013

Orangedisk and slkinsey pretty much described my wedding, except that we had a self-uniting "ceremony" (we are in PA, we basically said "I love you, I marry you!") at the beginning. Plenty of food (passed and stations - including meat, veggie, risotto, dessert, etc), plenty of chairs at both high-tops and regular height, set the expectations on the invitations (cocktails and hors d'oevures), and it was great.

It was pretty short, though. Maybe 3 hours.
posted by Pax at 10:15 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was just at a wedding like this and it worked very well. In fact it will be in an upcoming issue of Martha Stewart weddings. Part of the reason this worked well is because they wanted to have a dance party wedding and so bygods that is what they had and that worked very well for their fun-loving crowd.

After the ceremony - which started promptly - there were plenty of passed hors d'oeuvres. This was a longish period. Then the main room of the venue opened, where there were multiple long tables with bench seating and where people could sit traditionally if they chose. These did tend to fill up with an older crowd - I don't think I sat at one once. Otherwise there were cocktail tables with bar seats sprinkled liberally throughout the venue.

These long tables had elegant cheese plates and god bless them caviar which made people very happy. So people could continue to snack on these items while the main course items were being prepared. After a time there were bowls of three main course options that were passed by servers. There was a choice between two proteins and a vegetarian option in a small portioned bowl and most people had one or two or three of these. They could be eaten while standing next to a cocktail table or while seated at one of the long shared tables. The passed food never really stopped until the cake was served.

There were no carving tables, no one had to line up for food, everything was handed to you where you stood and everything was portioned accordingly. Honestly it worked better than I could have imagined. It was elegant and perfect for the couple (and the guests).
posted by rdnnyc at 10:26 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would be inclined to solve the meal-itself problem by not inviting anyone I actually believed might be upset with me because I didn't serve them a meal and they had to make do with passed appetizers. I genuinely cannot imagine the life of a person who never, for any reason, has to delay a full meal for a couple of hours and would be so upset that even the availability of lovely munchies would not appease them and they wouldn't leave your wedding celebration happy, but instead angry, because they didn't get a plate of chicken and rice.

I've been to lots of weddings with tasty appetizers and good wine. I cannot remember a single wedding I've ever been to where the dinner itself was at all memorable or important in the slightest. If the part of your wedding where you treated your guests well were to be the part where you serve them a plate of dinner, I think that would be a flawed plan to begin with.

Sure -- "Join us for a cocktail reception after the ceremony" will alert people that if they really think they'll be starving, they should eat first, and trying not to schedule the whole deal so that it runs from, like, 5:00 to 9:00 is probably a favor to your guests. Move it a little earlier or a little later so that people can get themselves some dinner by, say, 8:00 or else make it possible for them to eat at about 6:00 and still get to the wedding. (In other words, start it no earlier than 7:30 or end it no later than 7:30.) (I am making this up.)

But honestly, unless you are inviting really unpleasant people to your wedding, the difference between appetizers and dinner is not going to make the difference between whether they are happy or teeming with resentment.

I do, however, agree that you should give people room to sit down, and not make them sit at high-tops. It may seem weird to let people sit but not serve dinner, but if you put at each spot at the table a small plate and maybe a favor, I don't really think it's an unsolvable problem.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 10:28 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Please have enough chairs for everyone, especially if you think people will be there for more than an hour or two. I like a cocktail wedding, but I HATE spending hours standing around in heels. I would be really frustrated if I went to a wedding that only had enough chairs for half the guests - it is really optimistic to think that half your guests will want to be wandering around at the same time, even if there's dancing.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:30 AM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, not only should you not have half as many chairs as attendees, you should have more chairs than attendees if at all possible. Why? Because at an event that involves standing up and circulating, guests are going to want a "home base" where they can dump their stuff. Expect a significant portion of the chairs you put out to spend the evening occupied not by a person but by a coat, a purse, a plate of half-eaten food, and maybe a pair of discarded high heels. (Obviously this will not happen if you only have high chairs around high tables, but the problems with that plan are even bigger, as outlined upthread.) So if you want to make sure that Great-Aunt Ethel or your college friend with a bad back has somewhere to sit down, be generous with the chairs.
posted by ostro at 10:32 AM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think this could work, as long as you have enough food. I love cocktail food as a rule (I agree that it is nice to include some cold cuts and small rolls so people can have or make mini sandwiches).

However, I really hope you listen to the people who say you should at least have enough chairs or benches for everyone, and not make all the tables high. I'm in my 50s and have got pretty bad arthritis in one knee, and really do need to have access to a chair for a good chunk of most events. It makes my knee hurt to sit on those high chairs for any length of time also, let alone trying to climb on and off of them at my height (5'2" and with the bad knee that does not push well) while wearing a formal dress and shoes. I would be leaving early if there were no normal height chairs at an event, even a wedding of a close friend or relative. It would also make me cranky to have to choose between being in pain or leaving early from a wedding.

Please mix up the seating as well, as one of the nice things about weddings I think is the ability of young and old to interact and catch up, and having all the lower chairs only in one place segregates the older and less able people and can make them feel less valued or welcome.
posted by gudrun at 10:33 AM on October 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

my suggestion is to just have a very small wedding and reception for the closest of family and friends and then have a backyard BBQ/dinner party for all of the people you were unable to invite to the wedding. there are some real plusses to having a smaller affair and then a larger but more casual celebration party afterward.
posted by dmbfan93 at 10:43 AM on October 2, 2013


I just want to poke my head in and state that one benefit of the sit down meal is that it allows guests to communicate their dietary restrictions to you. As someone who's pretty much always had to deal with this (previously a vegetarian, now sugar and gluten free), I can tell you I cringe inwardly at invitations to events like this. What ALWAYS happens is that the caterers have one token vegetarian offering, which I would have to seek out amongst the nimbly circulating waiters, most of whom are carrying things I can't eat. Also, every other guest will also be grazing on the veggie/vegan/gluten free whatevers, meaning they will disappear quickly and maybe not reach your dietary restricted friends.

So, make sure to include in your RSVP a place where people can make you aware of food preferences or dietary restrictions, then ask your caterers to keep some of those offerings aside. Either put them on a specially marked table to make other guests feel guilty about stealing them, or have them hidden away somewhere where they can be fetched by request.

If you really want to make your guests feel special, assign a waiter to the folks with dietary restrictions (also to the non-drinkers who will be enjoying cider or whatever) to make sure they are taken care of throughout the evening.
posted by annekate at 10:48 AM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I didn't read through the other suggestions because, hey, I have my own.

We married this past March an we did exactly what you want to do. It worked out great! If your caterer is hesitant... get another caterer. Our caterer thought it was a great idea and helped us make it work out. She worked with us to chose enough food to feed everyone, suggested which appetizers would work better at keeping people full, and really worked with us to make our wedding a hit. The food was great too, so that helped. I'll say it again to emphasize it, if your caterer won't work with you on this get different caterer. This can be done, and it will be wonderful! especially with a smaller wedding like ours.

We did not specify on our wedding invitations that it was appetizers only. We did, however, explain our preferences in the program and we had a complete menu of appetizers for everyone. We also had seating for everyone because many of our guests were a little older and some were shy and we knew that they would not be into dancing etc... Plus, people need a place to sit down when they're tired (and to eat their appetizers). People will expect what they expect and they'll do what they want no matter how you try to steer them. Ours was a very non-traditional wedding, but several of our guests insisted on doing at least some traditional things (because it's just not a wedding without them!). It's just the nature of the beast.

Anyway, it's your wedding, have it your way. Don't let the caterer talk you out of something so important to you as this.
posted by patheral at 10:49 AM on October 2, 2013

Re: 'getting the ceremony out of the way' The ceremony is the part where you make your promises with your closest family and friends there to support you and share. It also makes the group cohesive, gives them something to talk about, everyone feels happy and hopeful, etc., which makes for a good party.

I would have the ceremony at, say, 7 or so, which suggests that guests should have a nosh 1st. I'd serve substantial food, and maybe serve well into the evening. A full bar is very expensive, so if $ is an issue, a signature cocktail or 2, plus beer and wine might be more manageable. Women like to have a place to stash the purse. I'd have enough seating for most guests to be able to sit, but, once people get settled at a banquet table, they often get stuck, so maybe smaller tables, scattered about? Take as many (all?) wedding photos as possible before the wedding, as photo time tends to get people settled into their seats.

Ask the wedding party and close friends to spread the word that you hope guests will really mingle, dance, etc. You don't have to do things the way the caterer, dress shop, jeweler, and wedding planners say. They *all* benefit from selling you more and more and more. People also have early weddings with a breakfast or brunch, or afternoon weddings with no booze and just a snack, or backyard parties, etc. Mazel tov.
posted by theora55 at 10:56 AM on October 2, 2013

My brother and sister-in-law had a cocktail reception with servers handing out hors d'oeuvres for the first hours or so. After the first half hour or so, everybody was turning down the food. The invitation said (to the best of my memory) that there would be a cocktail reception with hors d'oeuvres, so everybody knew well in advance that there would be no sit-down dinner, although there was still plenty of food. I was in the wedding party, so we were off getting photographed while most of the guests were out having a bite to eat before the reception.

Nobody complained, nobody cared, and everybody had a fantastic time. There were still tables set up so there were enough seats for everybody (including a pregnant bride and an extremely pregnant bridesmaid) to sit down and chat. Later in the evening (10:30-11:00-ish) there were trays of sandwiches put out on the tables.

Honestly, I couldn't care less if there is a seated meal at a wedding. I expect a married couple-to-be to do what is in line with their budget and their wishes. Just let your guests know what is happening and yes, have enough room for people to sit down and relax.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:16 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would love to go to a cocktail wedding reception! Other than what people have said about - please have low chairs, make your dining intentions clear, don't have it during the dinner hour - my suggestion would be to have the menu displayed somewhere, either on the bar, or on the tables. Just a printout saying Welcome to our wedding, maybe a nice note to your guests, and then a list of what appetizers will be served. Then people with dietary restrictions can scope out what they can eat, and you'll let people know what will (and won't) be served in terms of full-on meals.

I recently went to a wedding where the wait-staff brought out passed trays of appetizers about a half-hour before the wedding was over, which was awesome. We fell on those like ravenous wolves! And it helped some of us sober up a bit.

Good luck!
posted by lyssabee at 11:23 AM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

My two cents: reconsider your caterer. The caterer I had was a little crazy and I think we picked him because he served great food *and* felt more like a friend than a stuffy guy trying to sell us something *but* if I had said to him that this was my vision, he would have been like, game on, we'll make it work.

FWIW, don't take this personally but I'm not a fan of the "My Special Day!" or "Our Special Day!" school of thought regarding weddings. Yeah, it's about you but it's also about your guests. If you don't care what they think and are going to have the kind of wedding you want regardless of what your cranky aunt or pregnant best friend think, spare them the trouble and don't invite them. Wedding guests are not extras in the movie "Our Special Day!" If you want people to be there, think about them and what they want/need.

How long will your ceremony be? If it's a long ceremony, I would do that earlier in the day and give people a big break before the reception. You can use that time to take pictures. 75 people isn't that many so make it clear on the invitation that you're having a cocktail party but also ask a handful of people to tell others that "HEY You Should Really Have Dinner Before The Cocktail Party." And maybe suggest a few places where they can do that.

If you're having a short ceremony, I'd consider having the event start 30 minutes before the ceremony with beverages. Champagne, mocktails, fresh squeezed lemonade, something delicious, alcoholic or non, your choice. If people are late and they missed champagne, that's too bad for them but no big deal. Have your short ceremony, have some light passed or table appetizers (fruits, vegetables, cheese crackers), eventually bring out heavier appetizers (stuffed mushrooms, empanadas, whatever). Are you doing toasts? First dance? Cake-cutting? Do that, then serve dessert and coffee, the end.

Or, my crazy idea: have stations set up and make them like "theme" stations where you can get a drink/food item pairing that will knock someone's socks off. They don't have to all be alcoholic drinks (this is why you need a cool caterer). Then it's like a fun adventure for your guests to try all of the things. One station has tapas and prosecco, another has sangria and I don't know, chianti and hopefully you get my point, etc. You can either mix it up with alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks or do light pours of whatever. This doesn't even have to be that fancy - you could do a wine, a cheese at one table, a different wine, a meat at another, etc.

Congratulations, good luck, and have fun!
posted by kat518 at 11:30 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

One more thing to consider - will you be having some of the other traditional parts of a reception, without the dinner? That will help your guests sort of figure out where they are in the timeline of the reception. For example, during a traditional reception when dinner is over I figure we're about halfway through. Once the cake is cut, I know I can leave without missing too much more.
posted by lyssabee at 11:47 AM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

nthing what everyone said about having enough chairs, but please also have plenty of tables. It's almost impossible to hold a drink and a plate and then actually eat the food. (Unless you use these, which I find both cheesy and awesome.) If you're not serving a full dinner then you need to make it easy for people to eat the hors d'oeuvres.

Also, if you have any singletons who won't know anyone there, please consider allowing them a date. I've been to a couple weddings where I didn't really know anyone but the bride or groom, and cocktail hour was awkward - weddings aren't like traditional cocktail parties where the hosts can say "oh, Betty, have you met Veronica? You're both interested in $foo." One advantage of the sit-down meal is that it provides a structure for guests to meet each other.
posted by lalex at 11:51 AM on October 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

I am 100% for doing the wedding you want. We're doing the wedding we want, and our motto is "It's not that kind of wedding/" But I'd say either serve enough food for dinner (which doesn't necessarily have to be sit down prime rib) or don't do it during dinner time.

Like the others have said, go to great pains to ensure that everyone knows ahead of time what's going to happen. Good luck!
posted by cnc at 11:59 AM on October 2, 2013

Also, it sounds like your caterer is pissed off that they agreed to do a wedding where the final total is going to be much less than they originally anticipated. So they're committed tjo doing your cocktail reception when they could be doing a full sit-down dinner for somebody else with a much higher pricetag. So I call bullshit that people will be "confused and angered." They sound like they're the ones fitting that description.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:03 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I say Americans "Don't know how to drink", in particular I mean that despite the resurgence of "Cocktail Culture", most wedding guests aren't familiar with cocktails, or worse are intimidated by what the perceive to the the arcane complexity of it.

This means people tend to fall back on vodka & cranberry, vodka & soda, Rum (or Jack) & Coke, etc. Which is boring for everyone involved.

Have those responsible for the bar make up a couple of fancy bar menus listing the drinks they can make, along with the ingredients. This removes uncertainty, and gives beveragers access to the options.

Have a specialty cocktail like the French 75. Do you bartenders a favor and no blender drinks.

TIPPING: A lot of caterers discourage tipping, because they don't want to make guests feel obligated. But modern bar culture in America involves tipping, I lots of guests ask me "Where's your tip cup?" I love those guests.

If you & you sweetie (or a designated helper) throw an envelope at the bartenders w/ cash in it & a thank you note at the end of the party, that's awesome. Small, easily dividable-by-the-number-of-crewmembers bills are favored.

Even more awesome: since you're planning explicitly for it to be a cocktail hour, you might mention to your guests to bring singles to tip the bartenders. Because nothing sucks more than answering "No" to "Do you have change for a twenty?".

As an catering bartender, you want the drink makers to bring their A-game, let your guests know that it's cool to throw a buck (or more) at the bartenders.

As I say to newbies on the job, "Thank You is polite; cash is sincere".

Again, congrats.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:10 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Even more awesome: since you're planning explicitly for it to be a cocktail hour, you might mention to your guests to bring singles to tip the bartenders. Because nothing sucks more than answering "No" to "Do you have change for a twenty?".

As an catering bartender, you want the drink makers to bring their A-game, let your guests know that it's cool to throw a buck (or more) at the bartenders.

PLEASE do not do this. Your party, you tip the bartenders at the end of the night.
posted by lalex at 12:17 PM on October 2, 2013 [19 favorites]

I see that you've already marked the best answers, ones that reinforce your choice... but I wanted to add that I've attended a wedding almost exactly as you describe and it was miserable. The invitations were clear about the lack of a dinner option, it was not subtle, however everyone was so hungry that people got grumpy. There was simply not enough food, even though the bride and groom believed they compensated by providing triple the normal hors d'oeuvres. You simply cannot do this in the evening without planning on huge amounts of passable food and expect your guests to enjoy themselves.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 12:22 PM on October 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

Also, people will be trying to cobble together dinner from a bunch of hors d'oeuvres, which is kind of annoying and in the end it just seems like you might as well serve dinner. I went to one wedding where there were just a bunch of tables and you could sit whereever you wanted, and that worked out fine, but there was seating for everyone and a buffet dinner.

I also think these answers are kind of all over the place because we're still not sure if you're doing this over dinner hour or not- if it ends around 7 or 8 then I think not serving dinner is fine. If people are there until 10 they're all going to be like, "ok does this mini burger and this broccoli raab and this prosciutto melon thing mean dinner? Should I just quit drinking because I'm going to have to wait around for food to be passed through all night and will just get wasted?" I mean I don't even eat that much and am a small person, but some bigger guys I know would just be so frustrated with the whole thing.

I mean, people eat dinner. It's like an every day thing. I don't think they're bad people if they are frustrated they need to try to wrangle a meal at 5 at home while also getting ready for the wedding, because they're going to be at a wedding with a bunch of finger foods but lots of alcohol until 10 PM.
posted by sweetkid at 12:30 PM on October 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

You absolutely need to have enough chairs as there are people. People will go into high school mode ("sorry, this seat is taken") and it is NOT true that "some people will mingle while others eat." Once some people start eating, everyone will want to eat. Plus, balancing a plate, cutlery, a drink, and a handbag is pretty much impossible. I have been to too many weddings where people park at a table for the whole night and several guests have had to stand up the whole time. Finally, you'll find that a lot of tables may have an empty seat here or there but not enough for couples to sit together.

If there's anything I could urge you to do, it would be to provide as many chairs as the number of people who will be attending. Your guests will feel comfortable this way and will thank you for this. Yes, it's your big day, but hosting a party also means making your guests as comfortable as possible. People appreciate having a "home base" to come back to.
posted by juliagulia at 12:37 PM on October 2, 2013 [13 favorites]

You have gotten a lot of responses. To be honest, I do not relate to many of the thoughts. First, I am a big guy that likes to eat. (And I am a little over 50!) I would have no problem with not getting a sit down meal. Usually, that is the worst part of the food anyway. Bland. Second, I don't think the issue is a chair for all or for most. I think you will know that the issue is more likely a chair for certain people. Why not have one or two tables "reserved" for the relatives/olderfolk that really should have a place to sit or that will make a big stink about it if they don't. Then, party. I do not view a dinner as a quid pro quo for a gift, for traveling a long way or whatever. If I get invited to a wedding I decide to go or not go based on many factors, but getting a sit down meal is not one of them.

I also come from a friend culture of steady but paced partying. My friends would love this type of party. Drinks all night, foods spread out, dancing, mingling, etc. One you go to the sit-down with a loud band or DJ, mingling goes out, and it becomes a two tiered party of dancers and non-dancers. With a cocktail reception, everyone can mingle all night long.

I would go for it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:56 PM on October 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

I hate to rail on the previous poster's suggestion of having a few reserved tables...but I must. I'm sorry, but I think the only thing worse than not having enough chairs for everyone is not having enough chairs for everyone AND hand picking certain guests who are worthy enough of having a reserved table. I still cringe recalling a relative's wedding where the grandparents and wedding party got special treatment while my pregnant cousin and her infant sat on the concrete floor with me and some of our other cousins (nope - no one offered her their seat).
posted by juliagulia at 1:01 PM on October 2, 2013 [15 favorites]

Make it totally clear ahead of time to your guests that there will be a buffet of finger foods/appetizers, although not a formal dinner service. You will want to be sure to provide plenty of food, in one form or another, to soak up a lot of the alcohol so no one drives away drunk.

The hightop tables and 30+ chairs..... sigh. Maybe it's because I myself am a)older and b)short, but climbing up onto tall barstools for those hightop tables is a pain in the butt for many of older and/or less physically-able people. And having only 30-ish chairs for 75 people isn't going to work either: the older and less physically-able will NEED to sit, the younger and/or active will sometimes WANT to sit (and what are they supposed to do, tell your grandmother that she's had that chair long enough, it's someone else's turn?!?) --- and honestly, have you ever stood around in high heels without a single sit-down for a couple hours straight? Painful!

And finally, a cocktail party is by definition for adults, especially a cocktail party in the evening hours. It's certainly permissible to make your wedding adults only, no children allowed; its YOUR wedding, you can invite or not invite anyone you want. However: be prepared to listen to people complaining that you are picking on their little angel, that they can't attend if they can't bring that little angel (or three or four....) to the wedding, and of course the people who simply show up at the wedding with their kids --- surprise!
posted by easily confused at 1:04 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I used to work for a caterer as an event/menu planner. We specialized in finger foods, and I've helped plan tons of these kinds of weddings. YES, of course they can work, but you have to set it up for success.

I'm worried about your caterer NOT immediately being on board with this idea. I'm worried s/he doesn't have enough finger foods in her/his arsenal to make a knock-out offering. Of course you plan to serve the equivalent of dinner, which means having a wide variety of foods. The traditional finger foods - sweaty cubes of cheese, veggie dips, dry meat satays....let me tell you, they SIT untouched, even when a client (IMHO) ordered too little food and I know guests are hungry. It takes a LOT of broccoli pieces with ranch dip to average dinner, and even then guests will be eying the McDonald's across the street. Your caterer needs great, inspiring choices: mango-chicken cakes with a chili-lime aioli! Flank steak crostini with a wasabi-peanut sauce! Walnut-blue cheese filled endive leaves with cranberries! That's the joy of finger foods: everyone gets to eat a TON of different things, not just one hunk of uninspired chicken. If this is NOT what your caterer does I'd be asking around for someone who does. You want lots of options: no one will eat twelve stuffed mushrooms trying to get full, even if you have enough for them to do so. Finger foods succeed on having lots of variety. Be wary of having too many dips: veggie dip, fruit dip, artichoke dip....One, they're boring and not many will eat them. Two, they're not true finger foods; you need a plate for them and they're messy.

To encourage mingling, have the food at two stations, one near the kitchen to make the staff's lives easier, and one a little further away. I'm not sure your budget for staff, but it's even better when you have a staff member wandering around with a tray.

What are your demographics? Do you have elderly folks? Kids? They definitely need seating. Bar chairs are not comfortable for a lot of people. I might have a few high tops with no chairs if you have room (for standing at, but a place to plunk a wine glass and plate), but mainly have traditional tables and chairs where people can sit comfortably.

Have a limited amount of food out before your ceremony, so people can nibble on something and get a drink. Then, after the ceremony is finished, have the catering staff fill tables with the full spread. Then people will get the idea it's time to eat, just like a sit-down wedding.

posted by missmary6 at 1:34 PM on October 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

I also think these answers are kind of all over the place because we're still not sure if you're doing this over dinner hour or not- if it ends around 7 or 8 then I think not serving dinner is fine. If people are there until 10 they're all going to be like, "ok does this mini burger and this broccoli raab and this prosciutto melon thing mean dinner? Should I just quit drinking because I'm going to have to wait around for food to be passed through all night and will just get wasted?" I mean I don't even eat that much and am a small person, but some bigger guys I know would just be so frustrated with the whole thing.

Yep, this.

I actually don't think you've given us enough information. At exactly what time is this party taking place, and how long is it? And what's the demographic of your guests?

Bottom line is, you can 'manage expectations' all you like, but if people don't have enough food and somewhere to rest, they're not comfortable. Not comfortable = not happy = not fun.

Weddings can be pretty tiring for guests, too, in my (extensive) experience, what with travel/getting dressed up/taxis/babysitters/uncomfortable, formal clothing/hours of socializing and trying to remember names, and so on. Often, I'm really looking forward to the part where I get to sit at my 'home base' for a while and eat a balanced meal whilst only having to focus on talking to the people next to me.

I'm not saying it can't be done, I would just urge you not to lose sight of the fact that the reception is supposed to be a kind of gift from you to your guests, which means thinking realistically about their comfort as much as about your vision of your 'perfect day'.
posted by Salamander at 1:37 PM on October 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

I hate to rail on the previous poster's suggestion of having a few reserved tables...but I must. I'm sorry, but I think the only thing worse than not having enough chairs for everyone is not having enough chairs for everyone AND hand picking certain guests who are worthy enough of having a reserved table

Just because your relative screwed this up, does not make it a bad idea. If there are that many folks that need a seat, then the party should be sit down. If there are a handful of guests (grandparents, pregnant ladies, etc) that need it, the other guests will respect the "reserved" request. It sure beats having to rely on poor mannered people to give up seats for the needy.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:11 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think the whole thing depends on cultural factors. I grew up in the south, and in fact I thought the whole "chicken or beef" catered sit down meal thing was weird the first time I experienced it. That said, if you've never heard of a wedding like this, and everyone is going to be expecting a sit-down catered meal, yeah, you have a problem.

If I were throwing an evening reception, I would probably err on the side of doing a buffet rather than passed cocktail party apps. Just because it communicates "here is the food portion of the evening, please make a plate and go sit down and enjoy the food" as opposed to "these small bites are just an overture to the real meal which is coming soon".

I would also get real tables with plenty of seating, unless most guests are 22 year olds who will spend the whole time dancing. Why wouldn't you want to give people somewhere to sit at your wedding? Even the buffet and cocktail/app weddings I've been to have had plenty of seating for everyone to relax and enjoy the food.

Also, and I think you've addressed this but it bears repeating: apps, buffet, or full meal, there needs to be PLENTY of food for everyone and it needs to be presented in a way that people can actually eat enough to be satisfied. Unless your reception is going to be a short and simple affair during the afternoon, or something. And even then, err on the side of more food and facilitating people eating their fill.
posted by Sara C. at 2:13 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

> If there are a handful of guests (grandparents, pregnant ladies, etc) that need it, the other guests will respect the "reserved" request. It sure beats having to rely on poor mannered people to give up seats for the needy

It's not one or the other, though. Many people, myself included, are urging the couple to provide enough chairs for everyone to sit down as they desire.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:14 PM on October 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


I guess I wasn't really explicit enough in my original question, so I will attempt to clarify some.

-Yes, we will have chairs for everyone. The venue has more than enough folding chairs for everyone to sit down. They do not, however, have any sort of tables, so the question becomes what is the best kind of table (with or without additional chairs on top of the ones the venue already has) to let everyone know that this is not going to be a standard sit-down meal. It sounds like a mix of high-tops and standard height, smaller-sized tables might work well.

-There will be plenty of food. I will personally buy every person there a new hat and then eat each and everyone one of them if someone walks away hungry. The caterer we spoke with was pushing for even more food than the plan we had gone in with, so I'm confident he won't starve anyone. I asked him if we could just let him loose and do what he wanted and I think I heard a cash register chime somewhere, but he said he'd be happy to. We seem to be on the same page as far as variety and complexity of the food.

-The caterer's initial hesitation about the style of the wedding was more about the expectations of the guests and the formalized nature of a wedding than anything else. He's done plenty of corporate passed-app type events that worked out fine, he was just warning us up front about the difficulties involved doing it for a wedding. And he seems to have been right, based on the responses here!

-We have not made any formal arrangements for anything other than paying a deposit on the venue, so really we're open to different times, different durations - anything that will make this work out well.

-The guests are mostly our late-20s/early-30s friends with very few family and no older people (because they're all dead. You monsters.) In addition to our friends, it will be each of our parents, siblings, my aunts and uncles (who are all hale and hearty), and possibly an aunt and uncle from the fiance's side. We'll be heading out to visit her family sometime after the wedding to celebrate with her side separately since they mostly can't afford to travel across the country for this.

-The ceremony, such as it is, will be short and secular. I don't expect any other traditional wedding trappings; no wedding party, no gift bags, no reception line, none of the other bullshit. We really just want people to come and have a good time at a party and oh by the way we're also getting married.

I'm hoping that this is still a feasible idea and just needs a little bit of thought. There seriously is not enough space to seat 75 people for dinner so this is how we're going to get this many people at this venue.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:39 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

They do not, however, have any sort of tables, so the question becomes what is the best kind of table (with or without additional chairs on top of the ones the venue already has) to let everyone know that this is not going to be a standard sit-down meal.

Get regular tables. Why is this even a question? App buffet and ordinary tables with chairs says "fix yourself a plate, sit down, relax, and eat" to me, whereas high-top tables with bar stools and a few tables explicitly for older or pregnant people would be confusing. Especially if the intention is for people to sit and eat a meal rather than nibble.

The caterer's initial hesitation about the style of the wedding was more about the expectations of the guests and the formalized nature of a wedding than anything else.

Again, this is where it's really going to depend on your and your guests' cultural expectations of how wedding receptions work. If every wedding you've ever been to is a seated catered meal, and ditto everyone else on the guest list, and even the caterer simply cannot fathom any other way to cater a wedding than "chicken or beef", I would either go with tradition or find a more creative caterer who can think outside the box with you. If you think your guests will probably figure it out once they see a buffet line and plenty of seating, then your caterer is being weird and you should proceed with your plans.

Also, one thing that maybe hasn't been brought up here but should be. How formal is your wedding? I would be put off by a black tie* evening wedding held in an elaborate/stuffy venue but where the only food was crudite, chicken satay, and stuffed mushrooms. I would LOVE a simple indie affair with a barbecue buffet, Indian street foods, or a DIY taco station. That's something else that will help manage expectations.

* This also goes for you and the bride. If you're in formal attire, she'll be wearing a $5000 gown, and the food is mini-quiches from Costco, ugh. If the whole tenor of the wedding is simple and fun, simple food will also be fine.
posted by Sara C. at 2:56 PM on October 2, 2013

There seriously is not enough space to seat 75 people for dinner so this is how we're going to get this many people at this venue.

Just saw this. Way to bury the lede!

You have two options, if this is the case:

A) Short daytime reception not scheduled during a meal time. Passed apps and consider limiting alcohol to beer and wine.


B) Start culling the guest list.

You are not going to be able to serve people a full meal by passing apps, even if you have an endless quantity of food. If you are not going to be able to provide seating such that people can eat a full meal, you might as well just accept it.
posted by Sara C. at 3:00 PM on October 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

[Folks, question is not "please critique my entire wedding plan" or "tell me your worst wedding experience" Please try to stick to the issues raised and be constructive and helpful.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:03 PM on October 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

If 75 people could not be accommodated for a seated dinner, would a mix of high-boys and regular tables fit in your venue and allow there to be enough seats for everyone who RSVPs yes? If this isn't a destination wedding, I believe the average acceptance rate is around 75%, so in your case, that would be around 56 people. Perhaps some of your younger guests would willingly go towards the high-boys.

If you go this route, I agree with previous posters who suggest a shorter reception time than normal and not at dinner time. You mentioned that you were flexible with time and duration. In your case, I like the idea of a late afternoon reception. I also like the suggestion of a more casual affair all around. In any case, I would put "heavy hors d'oeuvres" on the invitation or reception card or otherwise make it clear that a full meal is not being served. That way, people will know before they get to the reception. I would not count on, as you say, letting the mix of tables indicate to the guests what type of meal will be served, because at that point, they'll be a captive audience and won't be able to plan ahead.
posted by juliagulia at 3:18 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Suppose you were given a plate of food, but were told you can only take a bite every five minutes. Terrible, right?
This is what having to eat from what servers pass around feels like to me. I get cranky if I can't satisfy my hunger in one whole go. I like the idea some answers have said of having servers with food plus a self-serving table. Even if it's just fancy crackers, cheese and fruits or whatever. I'd fill up the I'm-hungry-now part of my stomach there, and then enjoy all the other yummy finger food with no anxiety over staying hungry.
I know it seems like I'm too fussy, but when I have to put on a dress, get my hair and nails done, figure out where my pretty little handbag is and whatever else, I don't have time to eat before weddings.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 3:49 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I attended a wedding reception similar to what you want just a few weeks ago. It was held from 2 - 6 PM, and the invitation explicitly stated that only hors d'oeuvre would be served (I don't have it in front of me, but I believe the invite language included both "hors d'oeuvre" and "finger foods".)

There was enough seating (and standard tables) for everyone, which I quite appreciated as someone with a hidden disability (of which these friends are not aware), not to mention a propensity for spilling food on myself even when I am being extra-super-careful. The food was buffet-style and I guess the one issue was that they only had one station, but there was plenty to eat and after the first mad rush no one seemed anxious about getting enough. Buffet-style also allowed for small descriptive cards next to the dishes.
posted by camyram at 3:58 PM on October 2, 2013

I went to a wedding just like 256's and I loved it! The wedding party went for dinner with family and some older guests and guests with small kids. The rest of us split for dinner and/or disco naps before we all reunited at a local club for drinks and appetizers. Some of the older guests/guests with babies called it a night after dinner with the bride and groom. I think what made it work was that it was a small wedding (around 50 people), none of whom cared about the gift-dinner trade-off.
posted by atropos at 4:03 PM on October 2, 2013

To reiterate what others have said:

A cocktail reception is fine if it's not during dinner time and it's short. A cocktail reception is not fine if it's used as a way to avoid serving dinner.

There will be plenty of food. I will personally buy every person there a new hat and then eat each and everyone one of them if someone walks away hungry.

I could be reading into this too much, but the above statement leads me to think that you think that passed apps are an acceptable substitute for dinner. They're not. Passed apps are great for a late afternoon or late evening cocktail reception, though!

If you want the dinner and dancing style wedding (several hours, during the evening) then you need to, you know, give your guests dinner. If you're open to something that's more in line with a cocktail reception (short, not during a mealtime), you're not being rude at all. Plenty of good suggestions above for how to word this on the invitations.

Even more awesome: since you're planning explicitly for it to be a cocktail hour, you might mention to your guests to bring singles to tip the bartenders.

I work in the service industry, I live on tips, and I think that is horrifyingly tacky. Do not do this! It's your party. Tip the bartenders yourselves. If the guests tip, the catering bartenders can consider it a bonus.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 4:57 PM on October 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

Having folding chairs (especially regular-height chairs!) in addition to the barchairs & high-top tables is good; having no tables to go with those folding chairs is not. From what you say, the problem is that your venue simply isn't big enough to fit seating + tables for all 75 guests..... is there a reason you are (if you'll pardon the expression) wedded to this particular venue, as opposed to a slightly larger location?
posted by easily confused at 5:00 PM on October 2, 2013

For what it's worth, I would be ecstatic at a wedding that served only appetizers and not a dinner, even over dinner time, as long as I knew in advance that the appetizers were dinner so I could eat enough of them that I wouldn't be hungry. I would be really, really angry if there weren't enough chairs or tables while I was carrying these appetizers in my nice and expensive clothing wearing heels.
posted by jeather at 5:42 PM on October 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Most of the guests will be friends from the area, so they'll know what's going on.

I don't see why you wouldn't want all of the guests to know. Have a page in with your invitations explaining whatever details people need to know.
posted by yohko at 7:34 PM on October 2, 2013

This is pretty much exactly what we did for our reception, and we were getting comments for years about how our reception was the most fun people had at a reception in quite a while.

The way we set it up was that there was no shortage of food. Coming from different ethnic backgrounds we had plenty of food that was able to satisfy both ethnicities and even the vegan/gluten-free/etc crowd. This was accomplished by having two caterers, one for each major ethnic type, but the second caterer was of the deliver-it-and-go type. The servers/etc were provided by the primary caterer.

The reception itself was also held in a "party house" rather than a large reception area. Every room had food, every room had plenty of seating area, and there were drinks stations scattered around. String quartet in one end, and DJ in another. Family members who wanted to visit were thus provided an environment for that and the people who wanted to get crazy had that also.

Oddly enough, doing our wedding this way was actually significantly cheaper than what it cost our friends who had the sit-down wedding thing. This was not the intention for the way we had our's, but was certainly a nice bonus.
posted by Runes at 9:32 PM on October 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think having some high top tables makes it all feel more cocktail party-ish, and less like dinner without food, which is how regular tables feel. So, given your guest list, I would go mostly high top with a few regular tables, but smaller, round ones so that you don't lose the kind of intimacy of the cocktail style.

I think a lot of reactions here are weirdly heated....it's not like you're starving ppl. And I don't see how lots of finger food- good, swanky, hearty finger food- cannot fill people up.

I went to a work 'dinner' a while back that turned out to be finger food only. Of course weddings are different, but I was a bit confused when I realised that we were only eating finger food. However, I was not hungry, I was not angry, and actually in retrospect I am very glad that I wasn't in the position I often am at work functions where I am stuck sitting next to the same person all night, when there are actually lots of people I would like to speak to.

It is probably all about your demographic. There's nothing inherent in the concept that means that you will make your elderly pregnant aunt sit on the floor in heels, starving. But for some people, it is clearly offensive. So...work out what kinds of people you are inviting, and if they seem like they'd be ok with the idea, then make it clear (in invitations), comfortable (enough food, enough chairs) and plentiful, and it sounds as though you will have a lovely night.
posted by jojobobo at 1:30 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Richmond Virginia in a social echelon I'm no longer a part of now that I'm an adult: the old money/country club crowd. And this type of wedding is the absolute norm. It's referred to as a cocktail reception with heavy hors d'oeuvres. There is as much finger food to eat as would fill a plate at a seated dinner. Good planners don't serve food that requires utensils. There is always an open bar.

I hate going to weddings where I have to sit with people I don't know, or maybe even people I know but don't especially like (such as relatives). So I prefer weddings where I can move around and speak to different people.

Not only have I been to weddings like this, but MOST of the weddings I've been to are like this. (I'm 44.) Both my weddings featured heavy hors d'oeuvres, awesome food, and an open bar.

If someone is rude enough to complain within earshot of you, well, I guess that's one fewer Christmas gift or birthday card you have to buy in future.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:28 AM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm kind of surprised at how negative the responses have been. But I suppose if you've had bad a bad experience with a party like this, then it's understandable. I've been to two cocktail wedding/receptions like what you're describing and they were both pretty fantastic. They both had different elements that I really enjoyed. The thing that's similar in these two situations as well as yours was that there were no elderly family members present (parents/aunts/uncles all in great shape 50's and early 60's) and both were mostly friend weddings with no children.

#1 Wedding + Reception
The couple was well established and had it on a fancy hotel rooftop. The time WAS at dinner time and no one left hungry. There were a few tall tables with a few tall stools, but I think the saving grace in terms of eating was that there were benches that lined the walls of the venue making it easier for some people to sit and eat, along with many small side tables for people to rest their drinks. Also the guests behaved exactly as you hoped - some sat and ate while others stood and talked. Everyone was fine. Once everyone got there and were mingling with drinks in hand, the couple had a friend part the friend sea and the couple walked behind him while he officiated the ceremony. It was quick and simple and causal (even though everyone was dressed to the nines) and really, really lovely. Regarding food, the caterer served all of the couples favorite comfort foods (read: substantial) - and lots of it, coming out of the kitchen ASAP (lots of waiters standing by. As soon as the ceremony was over, they streamed out). The most memorable for me was pad thai served in those Chinese restaurant to go containers (w/chopstics). I was thoroughly full and ready to dance. I think the only thing I might have added was having a few standing appetizers to nibble on before everything got started (cheese straws, crudite...whatever) only because it was delayed a little later than the original starting time.

#2 Reception only
The couple in question was moving out of the country so they didn't have a huge budget for a reception. They did a small wedding with family at city hall the day before. The cocktail reception worked perfectly for them. This one was on the later end - started at 9pm (which is not a crazy time to start a party in NYC). Absolutely no one was confused about whether or not they should eat dinner first. The couple did have passed apps - definitely not enough to feed the crowd, but to be honest, they didn't go that fast because most people ate before they came. There were signature cocktails and a full bar and TONS of dancing and room for awesome speeches.

Look, you can't please all of the people all of the time. But, this is your party and you can definitely please you. Good luck and congratulations!
posted by tealeaf522 at 11:20 AM on October 3, 2013

You need a chair for everyone. Even people who don't NEED to sit will want to, and even if not, they'll still pile their stuff on a chair and take it up.

However, imo everyone needs to be able sit, especially if they're wearing fancy shoes.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:13 PM on October 3, 2013

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