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In formal dining, a full course dinner can consist of 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, or 16 courses, and, in its extreme form, has been known to have twenty-one courses. In these more formalized dining events, the courses are carefully planned to complement each other gastronomically. The courses are smaller and spread out over a long evening, up to three, four or five hours, and follow conventions of menu planning that have been established over many years. Most courses (excluding some light courses such as sorbets) in the most formal full course dinners are usually paired with a different wine, beer, liqueur, or other spirit.
In service à la russe, courses are brought to the table in sequence and only empty plates are set in front of each guest. Courses are served on platters and each person makes a selection from a variety of dishes and fills their own plate. Food presentation is skillfully focused on the platters. A filled plate is never placed in front of a guest because that would imply limited portions. Guests are expected to choose whatever they like and eat as much as they want.
In service à la française, food is served "family-style" with all courses on the table at the same time. Each person serves themselves, and it is not possible for all dishes to be served at their optimum temperature. Alternatively, buffet style is a variation of the French service where all food is available at the correct temperature, in a serving space other than the dining table. Guests commute to the buffet to be served or sometimes serve themselves, and then carry their plate back to the table.
In American formal dining, each course is served sequentially. Guests are served plates already filled with food in individual portions. Sometimes, guests have an opportunity to choose between a vegetarian or meat entree, but not always. There is no opportunity to request something different or to ask for more than a single serving. However, portions are usually large. Since there are no platters, food presentation is focused on individual portions, skillfully decorated to look like art where each plate is a masterpiece.
Table settings can be elaborate. More ostentatious settings sometimes include all silverware and glassware that will be needed for the entire meal, and lay out the silverware so that the outermost tools are used for the dishes appearing earliest on the menu. In this scheme, when diners are served the first course, they can depend on finding the correct implement at the outermost edge of the arrangement.
An alternative scheme arranges the place setting so that only the implements needed for the first one or two courses appear in the table setting. As the dinner progresses and new courses arrive, used implements are removed with the dishes, and new silverware is placed next to the plates. This scheme is commonly used when dinners are offered à la carte, so that the most appropriate implement is selected for a given course. For example, some diners may order clear, thin soups and others may order thick, creamy soups. As each of these soups has its own unique spoon, it would be considered improper and impractical to lay out a spoon that may not be needed or correct.
An example of a twenty-one course dinner follows:
Courses such as the above need not be served in strict sequence. Many are well-suited to be served paired with the previous or next course; this also minimises waiting for guests who may choose to have very little of a course for one reason or another.
Followed by coffee