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Food for Thought

How do you plan the feast for your fete? From picking your canapes to making the most of your cake, three top caterers lay it all on the table.

For some, it’s the band; for others, it’s the guest list. but for plenty of Zagat-toting New Yorkers, it’s the food that makes a wedding. With the city’s culinary creativity at our fingertips, there’s no reason a fantastic meal can’t be had on any budget. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself and your caterer about how much you can spend. Good caterers will be happy to tweak a menu with cost cutting in mind without compromising the quality of the food. For example, combining a starter course with the salad course saves on staff work—and on plates! The trend toward less-formal menus with homey, seasonal ingredients makes this a lot easier to do. To give you an idea of the kinds of menus and presentations available on different budgets, we’ve consulted the experts and priced out three wedding meals, from modest to no-holds-barred, each with a guest list of 100 in mind.


THE CONCEPT: Abandon the idea of a sit-down meal and focus on the convivial aspect of a wedding celebration. Let your guests meet and greet while being served “dinner” in the form of passed hors d’oeuvre. “Formal seating limits how many people you talk to,” says Serena Bass, of Serena Bass, Inc. “Everyone thinks if you get up from your table, you’re not enjoying their company. This way, everyone can happily mingle.”

THE SPACE: Cocktail weddings are versatile—just about any space will do. Renting a restaurant or nightclub like Serena, Bass’s lounge in the Chelsea Hotel, is a good deal, as rentals and staff are typically included in the venue fee. Serena would be $5,000 for a Saturday night in December, the busiest time of year.

THE MENU: Keep it simple, serving less fussy and less expensive food—the kind that people actually want to eat—in inventive ways. Soup in Japanese sake cups, mini Cuban sandwiches, and assorted blinis are some of Bass’s favorites. She suggests beginning with room-temperature hors d’oeuvre and then switching to hot ones so that guests will feel as though they are moving from a starter course to a main course ($60 per person).

THE DRINKS: A full bar with top-shelf liquor will cost $35 to $45 per person. Contrary to what you might think, serving only beer and wine does not actually save you any money—you get more drinks out of a quart of vodka than a bottle of Merlot—though you will save on the number of bartenders you’ll need to keep your guests happy, since pouring only beer and wine is easier and faster. Bass has an even better suggestion: Fill a few galvanized-steel buckets with beer and white wine, pack them with ice, and let guests help themselves.

THE STAFF: Having a crew that’s worked together many times before guarantees the event will be as smooth as a ballet. As soon as a ceremony ends, Bass’s waiters have wine ready to go on trays. But such attention comes at a price. At Serena, staffing is included in the venue fee, but chefs and captains are typically $40 to $50 an hour and, like all staff, must work a minimum of five hours. For a party of 100 you’ll need at least four waiters at $30 to $35, two bartenders at around $35, plus two roving bartenders and two busboys for $30 to $35 an hour each. When clients try to cut the number of staff, Bass usually offers a word of caution. “Busboys make the party,” she says. “There are always napkins on the floor, earrings come off, people drop things. You don’t want to see more than two cigarette butts in an ashtray. That makes me insane!” A better way to save is to stagger your staff’s arrivals and departures. If the wedding is at five, some waiters can arrive at three to set up, and others can stay later to clean up. Don’t forget to factor in the gratuity—cash is preferred, and it should be paid the night of the event. A generous tip is $100 for the chef and captain, plus $50 apiece for everyone else.

MONEY-SAVING TIP: A designer wedding cake can easily cost upwards of $1,000. Bass makes an equally sweet alternative: a “cake” out of doughnuts for $450. “Some are plain, some are filled with cream,” she says. “We glaze them with lemon icing, then roll them in silver sprinkles, coconuts shavings, or sugar sparkles. Everyone takes a doughnut instead of a slice.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: Food, beverages, and staffing for a cocktail-style party at Serena will run you $14,000 to $17,000 for 100 guests.

THE CONCEPT: Brownstein, a veteran of city weddings and celebrity soirées, suggests coming up with some kind of organizing principle for your buffet dinner, whether it be an ethnic theme—Moroccan food, say—or simply a menu featuring seasonal produce (artichokes, fava beans, and sweet peas for spring; tomatoes, corn, and squash in the early fall). Brownstein buys all her vegetables from an organic purveyor upstate. “Whatever he’s growing, we use,” she says.

THE SPACE: To have this kind of wedding, you’d need a space that’s larger than a cocktail bar. Brownstein often does buffet weddings at Sun West Studios at 450 West 31st Street, which costs $6,500 to rent. It doesn’t come with much besides a gourmet kitchen, so count on another $30 to $75 per person for rentals.

THE MENU: Buffet-style weddings are no less expensive than sit-downs—you need more rentals for the buffet itself, and the caterers have to make extra food to guarantee that it looks as good to the first person as it does to the last. Things that don’t have to be piping hot work best in a buffet, says Brownstein: whole roasted filet mignon, leg of lamb, colorful vegetables dishes like a roasted-beet gratin, and pilafs. Brownstein’s buffets typically run $50 to $90 per person, including passed hors d’oeuvre but not the cake.

THE DRINKS: If a caterer does not have a liquor license (and most don’t), then the couple must buy the liquor themselves. The caterer will help estimate the amount needed and often will coordinate the return of unused bottles the day after. A bar stocked with the most popular liquors (“Having every liquor under the sun is cheesy,” says Brownstein), decent wine, and enough sparkling wine for a toast is approximately $25 per person. Her specialty cocktails, like pomegranate or passion-fruit martinis, are an additional $5 per person. “Sometimes brides have me make a drink to match a décor element,” says Brownstein, “like their flowers, or, if it’s not white, even their dress!”

THE STAFF: For a buffet wedding, you’ll need an executive chef, a captain, and a manager, all at $45 an hour, as well as six waiters, two bartenders, two assistant chefs, and one pantry helper at $35 an hour (plus tips). A piece of advice from Brownstein: If you want to cut costs, keep your wedding short. “I think a four-hour event is very nice. After a while, people start to feel like they’re being held hostage. If you cut out an hour, you’re saving thousands of dollars in staff.”

MONEY-SAVING TIP: Sylvia Weinstock, the queen of New York wedding cakes and a veteran of too many celebrations to count, has a suggestion that’s especially apt for buffet dinners, where there’s no such thing as portion control: Don’t serve so much food! When guests gorge themselves on hors d’oeuvre, they can’t even eat dinner. Give them only a modest number of nibbles during cocktail hour so they treat dinner like the main event it should be. The same advice applies to dessert. Clients often spring for an extremely expensive cake, only to use it for a photo op alongside a full spread of other confections. If you’re bothering to have a cake, give it the spotlight. If affording one that’s large enough is the issue, order a smaller one and supplement it with less-expensive sheet cakes in the same flavor. When it all comes out of the kitchen, your guests won’t know the difference.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A buffet dinner by Brownstein at a loft space for 100 guests will cost approximately $20,000 to $30,000.

THE CONCEPT: Having a traditional sit-down setup doesn’t mean it needs to be traditional in execution. Caterer Abigail Kirsch says that more and more couples are willing to take risks with their menus, choosing food that expresses their personalities. “People are less afraid to see fusion in menus,” says event planner Marcy Blum, of Marcy Blum Associates. “They’ll have a Thai or Japanese appetizer and still serve something very American for dinner, followed by a salad or a cheese course before dessert.”

THE SPACE: Kirsch has exclusive arrangements with several venues, including the New York Botanical Garden. The garden is the only one of her sites to charge a fee—from $300 for a small mid-week lunch to $2,500 for a prime Saturday evening in June.

THE MENU: For a full cocktail hour and a four-course meal—which includes a plated appetizer, a salad, a choice of two entrées (typically a tenderloin of beef, plus a fish like snapper; no one wants salmon anymore), a plated dessert, and wedding cake—the cost can range from $120 per person to more than $200, not including tax, service charges, and gratuity. Clients often start with this framework and then customize the menu. One couple, both wine lovers, chose to have six small courses, each paired with a different wine, which came to an additional $25 to $50 per person. A pair of foodies asked Kirsch to re-create dishes from their five favorite restaurants, which added about $10 to $15 per person. Raw bars during cocktail hour, like Kirsch’s Latin-themed seviche bars accompanied by mojitos, come to an additional $15 to $30 per person.

THE DRINKS: A top-shelf open bar is included in Kirsch’s per-person service cost, but specialty cocktails are an additional $6 to $12. And Kirsch’s signature drinks are tempting: “Romance” is made with rose water, cassis, and champagne and served in a raspberry-sugar-dusted glass. She also has a selection of dessert martinis, like a chocolate one served with shards of both dark and white chocolate.

THE STAFF: Kirsch recommends one to one and a half waiters per table plus two bartenders, a captain, and a chef. The staff service charge comes to 20 percent of the total event cost, plus gratuity.

MONEY-SAVING TIP: Kirsch will happily come to you if you wish to hold your event somewhere besides her exclusive locations, but having a wedding “on premises” means that bathroom attendants and valet parking are included, and that you will save at least a third of the total cost on food, rentals, and staffing.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A multi-course seated dinner by Kirsch at the Botanical Garden would cost $15,000 to $35,000 for food, beverages, and staff.

From the 2004 New York Wedding Guide


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