The Correct Ways to Serve After-Dinner Coffee in the Western World



Traditionally, in a private, formal setting, men and women would separate for after-dinner coffee, women “withdrawing” to drawing room for their coffee, tea, liqueurs, cigarettes, and candies, and men remaining at the dinner table for their coffee, cigars, and after-dinner drinks. Thereafter, both sexes would reconvene in the parlor before bidding the host and hostess good night. The tradition of men and women separating at the end of the dinner was less the result of sexism than it was a courtesy to women on account of their expressed objections to the smell of cigar smoke.

Today, at small dinner parties, where it is easy for all guests seated at the table to converse with each other, coffee is oftentimes served at the dinner table. When the gathering is larger, however, such that guests, for the most part, converse only with their dinner partners and those in their immediate proximity, serving coffee in the living room allows guests to socialize with everyone prior to their departure. And today, of course, even in the most formal settings in Western-influenced cultures, men and women no longer separate for coffee.

At large banquets and wedding receptions, for example, coffee will be served at the dinner table. While it is best that the coffee setting be brought to the table when coffee is being served, at some large receptions, the coffee setting will be placed onto the table when it is being initially set. Again, under those circumstances, it is best placed to the upper left of the bread plate—out of the way—until needed. Then, when coffee is being served, the table assistant will place the coffee setting before the guest and proceed with the service.

When coffee is being served at the table with dessert, the coffee setting will be placed to the right side of the dessert plate (By that point, all the wine glasses will have been removed from the table, thereby creating uncluttered space for the placement of the coffee setting). And when it is being served at the dinner table after dessert, it will be placed directly before the guest, consistent with the placement of the dishes for any other course.

After-dinner coffee is served at the formal dinner table in one of several ways:

  1. A tray of filled cups is presented by the butler to each guest, who should carefully lift the saucer bearing the cup and teaspoon with one hand as he steadies the filled coffee cup with the other hand, placing the setting onto dinner table before him. The guest then adds sugar and cream to taste from sugar and cream dispensers conveniently placed around the table.
  2. The butler presents a tray with empty cups, each sitting atop its saucer with a teaspoon, and sugar. The guest places the desired amount of sugar into one of the cups then carefully picks up the selected coffee setting, holding it in his hands as it is filled by a table assistant working in conjunction with the butler. Cream, if desired, is added by the guest at the table from a conveniently situated cream dispenser.
  3. Coffee is poured by the butler at a sideboard and presented to each guest by a table assistant. Under such circumstances, there will be sugar bowls and cream dispensers placed conveniently around the table so that guests may add sugar and cream if desired.
  4. Some hostesses insist, even at adequately staffed formal dinners, upon personally serving coffee to her guests from her seat. Assisted by the butler, she fills each cup from her place at the table, with the cups being presented to the guests, beginning with the lady seated to the immediate right of the host and proceeding counterclockwise. Each guest then adds his desired cream and sugar from the conveniently placed dispensers.

At the formal dinner, coffee will be served in a teacup, not a coffee mug; and a teacup should be held by its handle, the index finger passing slightly through the handle, with the thumb, placed just a little higher against the handle from the opposing side, meeting the tip of the index finger to form a grip as the “middle” finger is placed at the bottom of the handle to provide balance to and overall support of the cup. The other two fingers should follow the natural, graceful curve of the hand. Never should the little finger be extended outwards (No “pinky” in the air!).

When after-dinner coffee is served away from the dinner table—these days, usually in the living room—it will either be presented on a tray by the butler or another of the service staff, or it will be poured at the coffee table or from a sideboard by the hostess herself, each guest desiring coffee approaching her to receive a cup, prepared with cream and sugar per request.

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