Plated dinners are elegant. Buffets are convenient. And food stations are fun. If you want to bring attendees closer together, however, there's one meal style that blows all others away: family-style. In fact, Successful Meetings identified family-style meals as one of last year's top meeting-industry trends
based on their ability to create a large impression on attendees without a large budget. Family-style food isn't just affordable, however. It's also extremely effective for groups whose strategic goals include teambuilding or networking. Because unlike banquets, which segregate attendees at 10-person rounds that make conversation feel forced and formal, family-style meals embrace communal tables and large serving platters that turn "breaking bread" into "breaking ice." The result: People who sit down to meals as strangers stand up from them as friends.
From fancy hotels to casual restaurants, here are five venues where your group can become -- if only for a few hours -- a close-knit family:
Hilton Milwaukee City Center (Milwaukee)
At the Hilton Milwaukee City Center, meeting attendees don't just eat family-style meals; they also prepare them thanks to the hotel's "family dinner" concept, wherein attendees collaborate to make, serve, and eat a family-style meal together. Each family dinner includes family-style dining tables and chairs that create an intimate atmosphere, as well as a central bar at the front of the room that holds bread and wine; a team member from each table is responsible for getting wine, bread, and butter for the table, then replenishing it as needed. Team members also are responsible for preparing the first course: a unique salad or appetizer made with fresh ingredients supplied by the kitchen. The main course includes vegetables and potatoes served a la carte, as well as a meat dish -- roasted chicken, for example, or beef tenderloin -- that one team member from each table is responsible for carving and serving. Finally comes dessert and coffee, which another team member is charged with preparing and serving. Part meal, part teambuilding exercise, the dinner has a humbling effect, according to the hotel, which says the act of preparing and serving a meal to one's peers can bring even the most divided teams together.
Bardot Brasserie (Las Vegas)
The French are a passionate people who live -- and eat -- life to the fullest. A French brasserie is therefore the perfect place to host a family-style meal celebrating the "joie de vivre." Chef Michael Mina's Bardot Brasserie (pictured above) is a cut above the rest. Located at ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, the 200-seat restaurant has a private dining area for groups of up to 45 people. Whether you take over the whole venue or just the private dining room, your group can choose from a variety of family-style menus, including both brunches and dinners. The Notre Dame brunch, for instance, includes a first course of seasonal fruit, French pastries, and salad; a main course of poached egg, French toast, croque madame, hearth-baked quiche, and French omelet; and a dessert course of chocolate macaroon and Nutella sticky bun -- all served family-style. For dinner, try the Burgundy, which includes a first course of family-style appetizers; a second course with a plated entrée of attendees' choice, accompanied by family-style sides; and individual desserts.
Plain & Fancy Farm (Bird-in-Hand, Penn.)
Pennsylvania Dutch Country is old-fashioned in all the right ways. Here, Amish families and friends continue the age-old tradition of communal dining at long tables designed to bring entire communities together. This custom is alive and well at Plain & Fancy Farm. Located just 10 miles east of the Lancaster County Convention Center in Lancaster, PA, this farm-to-table Amish eatery can host large groups of 20 to 300 for an "Amish Farm Feast" that includes rolls with apple butter, iced raisin bread, fried chicken, roast beef, chicken pot pie with homemade noodles, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, chocolate cake, and apple dumplings, to name just a few of the down-home delicacies attendees will enjoy.
Brasada Ranch (Butte, Ore.)
"Family-style" also meets "farm-to-table" at Brasada Ranch, near Bend, OR. An 1,800-acre resort that pays loving tribute to the Pacific Northwest, it's home to 52 cabins, an 18-hole golf course, a full-service spa, and an upscale barn where it hosts groups of up to 140 seated guests for family-style dinners crafted by Executive Chef Ryan Sturmer, who will interact with guests in between courses to share the story behind each dish and the local ingredients used to make it. Sturmer offers a choice of seven salads, like an apple and radicchio salad, a broccoli and fennel salad, and an heirloom tomato, avocado, and basil salad; six soups, including lobster bisque and spring pea soup; 11 appetizers, like duck confit spaetzel, crispy pork belly, and grilled lamb tenderloin skewers; 14 entrées, such as cedar-roasted salmon, forest mushroom risotto, and smoked prime rib; and six desserts, like chocolate truffle cake and white chocolate tapioca pearl custard. From these, planners can mix and match to assemble a custom family-style feast that's as warming as the outdoor fire pit to which attendees will retire for an evening of intimate conversation after their meal.
Disney's Polynesian Village Resort (Orlando)
Walt Disney World puts a theatrical spin on family-style cuisine at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, where groups can enjoy dinner and a show at Disney's Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show. The show's Polynesian host is Auntie Wini, who has organized a goodbye luau for a local island girl who's going to college on "the mainland." Featuring traditions from Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, and Hawaii, the program includes hula and fire dancing, Polynesian drummers, and even a fire-knife performer. The family-style menu, meanwhile, includes platters of Aloha pulled pork, Polynesian beef ribs, roast chicken, and a vegetable medley, served alongside a salad of mixed greens and mango dressing, then capped off by a pineapple-coconut guava cake with chocolate crunch for dessert.