Buffet-style entertaining caught on in America during the Great Depression. At home it required little or no maid service and enabled the hostess to present a splendid table. Restaurants studied this trend and capitalized on it. The Prix fixe dining option was not a new concept. Neither was all-you-can-eat. Colonial taverns, grand passenger ships, college dining halls and Victorian eating clubs were founded on these principles.
What made Depression-era buffet different was that it presented the perfect human fueling option in a time of need. Buffets, in this scenario, were all about quantity. This gave restauranteurs the wiggle-room they needed to make a profit. Diners enjoying the challenge of piling high their plates, even when they could return as many times as they liked, were especially welcome. The epitome of the grand American buffet was perfected in Las Vegas. Today’s American Brunch is often served “buffet style.”
Buffet was a popular American party option in the 1930s:
“Buffet service is one of the simplest and most delightful ways of entertaining large groups. For formal occasions, such as wedding breakfasts, formal teas and receptions it is most usual. But it is equally charming for the informal Sunday breakfast or supper, holiday breakfasts, indoor picnics and church socials. The general procedure for formal and informal buffet service is the same–the elaborateness of decoration, the types of foods, the kinds of linen, and the presence or absence of servants mark the distinction between formality and informality. The buffet table should be as much of a “picture” as possible. A handsome cloth of damask, lace or embroidery, or runners of lace or linen are suitable. The floral centerpiece should be truly beautiful and flanked by tall candles in holders of silver, glass or porcelain. A candelabra may be chosen as the center decoration, with flowers on either side. Candles are not used, however, before four in the afternoon. The coffee or tea tray and the punch service are placed at opposite ends of the table. Plates filled with sandwiches, cakes, little cookies, salted nuts, and if the menu is elaborate, with salads, or other foods, are arranged down the sides of the table, with the silver and china needed in their service, laid close by. If the silver is placed in rows, the effect is graceful. Piles of plates and of small folded napkins should be conveninetly near. Everything should be balanaced to create an artistic and orderly effect. If guests are numerous, the punch may be served from a separate table. At a formal affair, waitresses preside at the buffet table and serve the guests. They also collect the used dishes. If a frozen dessert is provided, it is served from the table, or individually from the pantry. A frappe or soft ice is usually placed in a bowl. It is served in cups or glasses, placed on doily-covered plates, and a teaspoon is placed on the plate. Moulds of ice cream are sliced and served on plates; forks are laid on the side of the plates. The guests stand or sit at a buffet meal, as convenient–special tables are not provided. The informal buffet table may be gay with colored linen and simple flowers. The table is set as for formal buffet service with this exception: decorations and foods are less elaborate, and guests serve themselves informally, or are served by the hostess or members of the party.”
—When You Entertain: What to do, and how, Ida Baily Allen [Coca Cola Company:Atlanta GA] 1932 (p. 27-8)