In our continuing quest to help engaged couples find the best wedding caterers in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Annapolis, we turned to some of the most innovative and respected catering companies in the business for their advice. Read on to learn about the catering menus, themes and trends that are hot for weddings today, and some great suggestions on how to hire a wedding caterer! (Oh, and we just dare you to read this without getting hungry.)

What are some current trends in wedding catering?

Debbie Beard, Windows Catering: “Our savory mini cupcakes will be popular in 2012, with the emphasis on bite-sized treats that are easy for the guests to enjoy while moving around during cocktail hour. Two of our savory cupcakes are lobster and Manchego cheese with chive crème fraiche icing, and smoked salmon, zucchini and American sturgeon caviar with mascarpone cheese icing.

We’re also seeing an increase in passed desserts versus dessert buffets, like our Chocolate Salt Squares and Ice Cream Pops! Another trend we are seeing is more stylized and creative receptions, incorporating more time for guests to be out of their seats engaging in activities like food action stations, soda bars, and hot donut stations.”

Michelle Fishman, Main Event Caterers: “Whimsical desserts are trending very strongly right now – cute names and presentations, as well as items that play on the nostalgia of diners. Items like mini pies and classic cookies are very popular, and different approaches to familiar desserts like crème brulee and ice cream also get more attention than they did before. If you have a cute name for a dessert that reminds someone of their childhood, you’ve got a winner for sure!

Another trend is “budget-minded” clients. In this economic climate, many clients are looking for the best bang for their buck while still maintaining a quality event. Luckily, some of the dessert trends mentioned above can easily fill this need, as they are reasonably-priced alternatives to costly wedding cakes or high-end plated desserts.

Also – stations, stations, stations! We thought this trend would come and go, but it seems that it’s here to say. Couples want their guests up and mingling as opposed to them only interacting with the other nine or so people at their table. What better way to accomplish this than to have them travel around the room from dinner station to dinner station? Although the stations-style service has been around for quite some time, the foods have become much more sophisticated and can be tailored to any cuisine.

Finally, there are also trends that focus on elements of the event other than the food. Clients seem to be taking more risks with colors and patterns and are injecting a sense of whimsy into their event. When you use bright colors or a print table linen, there is less need for chargers or specialty glassware, which ends up costing less in the long run. There also seems to be a trend away from the standard round table for dinner service, with clients opting for square or rectangular tables and even some choosing beautiful wood tables that eliminate the need for a linen.”

What kinds of menu themes are currently popular?

Paul Kountz, Chef’s Expressions: “Over the past few years, we have seen a real increase in clients wanting as much fresh, local, sustainable ingredients as we can give them. Our chef has secured relationships with many of the best local vendors in the area, to include One Straw Farm, Springfield Farm, and Brogue Hydroponics, just to name a few. Unlike a restaurant, catering menus are normally created months in advance, so sometimes it’s difficult to know when the freshest local products will be available. What we love is when one of our regular clients calls us and gives us a date and a place and tells us, ‘Just create the best menu you can using seasonal, fresh and local ingredients.’”

Leslie Grimes, Corcoran Caterers: “Many couples are foregoing the traditional wedding cake and are instead featuring dessert bars that can be adorned with any variety of sweets, such as cookies, mini cupcakes, and cake pops, to name a few. We recently catered a wedding that included a candy bar. These types of tables also allow for more creative design and can add to the decoration and overall theme of the reception space.

Themed food stations are also popular and can enhance the atmosphere of a wedding. For instance, for the reception of a well-traveled couple we worked with, we set up various stations, each offering a cuisine of the different places the couple had been.”

Lauren Levine, Festive Foods: "Small plates/grazing style menus are really hot now as many couples appreciate the ability to offer a broader range of cuisine by focusing on smaller portions. This allows them to be more cost-conscious, health-conscious and adventurous. A win-win all around!"

What advice do you have for couples who want to narrow down the long list of caterers in the DC market?

Natalie Seng, R&R Catering: “The top three things a couple should consider when choosing their caterer are (1) price, (2) quality and taste of food, and (c) reputation and reviews. The best advice comes from direct referrals from previous clients. If you do not happen to know someone who has used a caterer before, the online and social media market comes in at a very close second place. Websites like WeddingWire feature online reviews from previous clients and give you a front seat to their experience. It’s a great tool to showcase a caterer’s consistency of their food, presentation and services, as reviewed by actual customers.

Another option is to attend a caterer’s open house, where you can experience an event in full swing, try a variety of menu items, get an idea of their setup and food presentation, and see how their staff works. You cannot get any closer to seeing what your special day might be like that to attend an actual event by the caterer you’re considering.

Scheduling a private tasting is a much more intimate way to get to know your catering contact and to talk about the specifics of your contract, in addition to trying the food you selected. Also, keep in mind that most caterers are a one stop shop when it comes to equipment, as they may own their own table linen, napkins, china, glassware and other equipment, which means overall savings for you.”

Lauren Levine, Festive Foods: "The best advice is to talk to people like friends, family and colleagues, anyone who has recently planning their wedding. Also, use the Internet! Read reviews, look for the ones that address your individual needs. For example, if local or organic food is important to you, look for comments where a vendor is praised for using these. Also, look to reviews from weddings that have occurred at the same venue you are using.

Once you have approached several caterers and requested proposals, be sure to review carefully! I have been planning events here in DC for 30 years and the most common error I see is couples not understanding the differences (or inclusions/exclusions) that different vendors are offering. I suggest to my clients that they take their favorite menu (or create one from the various vendors being considered) and then resend a specific RFP with identical details to each vendor that they feel might be a good fit. In catering, comparing apples to apples is critical! This will prevent unpleasant surprises for both the bride and groom and the caterer later on. Lastly, don't be afraid to ask your caterer for specific former clients who you can independently interview regarding the caterer's services."

What factors – besides budget – should a couple consider when selecting a wedding caterer?

Michelle Fishman, Main Event Caterers: “There are many factors to consider when choosing a caterer that go far beyond the quality of their food. One of the most baffling statements we hear from our clients is that they have called multiple catering companies and we are the only one that called them back! Really?! Appreciating the fact that someone responds to your inquiry in a timely fashion (within 24 hours) with genuine interest in your event should be at the top of your list of things that matter when choosing a caterer. Probably the next most important factor is that you like and trust them. You’re going to be working with this person for up to two years planning your special day, and you must feel that you can trust their judgment and that you enjoy their personality.

Just as with any other large purchase, do your homework! Ask questions, get references and call/email them, research wedding sites and other sites where people can post reviews (WeddingWire, The Knot, Yelp, etc.) – however, don’t be scared off by one low review if they have many other wonderful postings from satisfied clients. If anything, having a low scoring review on a posting lends validity to all the others.

Of course, you don’t want to have a great event designer, get a wonderful price, have great service at your event and then serve mediocre food, so the last thing you want to do is make sure to taste their creations. The tasting is really the last step in the decision-making process and will be the final piece of the puzzle. Chances are, if your caterer passes muster with all of your other criteria, then they will pass this last test with flying colors.”

Leslie Grimes, Corcoran Caterers: “Caterers have essentially become event planners. We can provide linens, tables, chairs, lighting, flowers, decoration and other equipment, thereby reducing the number of vendors a couple has to work with. Moreover, the ability to assemble all of these details together to create a beautiful atmosphere is key. Catering for weddings is much more than just food on a plate – it’s all about the details and providing exceptional service to ensure that the couple’s special day is as magical as they dreamed. I like to think of myself as a Visionary Problem Solver behind the scenes ensuring that your wedding day is flawless.”

What are some of the most important things a couple should ask when interviewing a caterer?

Jayne Havens, Occasions Caterers: “Catering is likely to be the biggest expense at your wedding so it’s important that you make an educated, well-informed purchase. Couples should start by asking friends, family and people they know and trust for recommendations and referrals. If you’ve been to a great wedding reception, find out who catered it.

To save time, make sure you can give the caterer a budget to work with. Menus, service, equipment – just about everything a caterer offers – can be tailored to suit not just your taste and style, but importantly, made to fit into your budget. If you’re realistic about what you can spend, the caterer can create a great proposal for you.

Caterers can coordinate a lot of services at weddings, and couples should know exactly what is included in the caterers’ estimate. Our proposals include a price for food, and also complete estimates for service (which includes a detailed breakdown of the number of the number of waiters, bartenders, chefs, etc.). I also spell out equipment charges, beverage costs and give estimates for any other outside vendors they’d like me to handle: tenting, valet, lighting and music are just a few examples.

If you get the sense that the caterer really understands you, shares your vision for the party and is excited about working with you, get a contract and make the deposit!”

Tatum Jelinek, Market Salamander: “Interviewing a caterer does require a bit of time in making sure the caterer fits the bride and groom’s ‘vision’ for their special day. At every consultation I have with potential clients, I make sure to address certain questions, even if I am not asked directly. The key questions include: (1) How many events will the caterer take on one given day? With the amount of time and planning that goes into the big day, it is important that your wedding is number one on the caterer’s priority list. (2) Every bride and groom should have a tasting, regardless of whether they’re 100% sure of their meal (this is also one of the few perks for the groom!). Following the tasting, it’s important to ask if the same chef who prepared the tasting will be preparing the wedding meal. Every chef has his or her own unique flair that shows in the dishes, and consistency is important. (3) Who will be the point of contact going forward, all the way up to the big day? In my experience, clients like the familiarity of dealing with one main contact – if the caterer is constantly switching up personnel it is easy to become frustrated and feel not taken care of, so to speak. (4) Lastly, it is important to ask how the service speed correlates with the selected meal. A chef can prepare the most delicious meal you have ever tasted, but if the service is too slow, no one will remember your delicious meal, only that it took forever to get their plate.”

What kinds of flavors and ingredients are particularly unique to the D.C. area?

Debbie Beard, Windows Catering: “We are seeing a lot of ethnic and exotic flavors that we have not seen as often in the past. The Asian, Latin, Korean and Portuguese cuisines are becoming more apparent in our menus. We often have brides who want to incorporate their heritage into their main course. Fusion cuisines are still trending with Latin American and Asian flavors being a popular combination.

Exclusive to the Washington, DC area are the flavors of the Chesapeake, where Old Bay seasoning is incorporated into our Maryland crab dishes like our Maryland Crab and Avocado Salsa and Maryland Crab Risotto. Another unique dish to the area is our Shenandoah Smoked Trout on European cucumber rounds with horseradish crème fraiche.”

Natalie Seng, R&R Catering: “D.C. is such a melting pot of people from all kinds of different cultures and backgrounds, so I feel like you can find almost any style of cuisine you’re looking for. We are getting an increase in requests for Southern and ‘comfort’ food as couples are wanting to stay as close to their roots as possible when serving their guests on their special day.”

What kinds of flavors and ingredients are particularly unique to the Baltimore area?

Paul Kountz, Chef’s Expressions: “If I never hear the terms ‘surf and turf,’ ‘steak and cake’ or ‘beef and reef’ again, I would be thrilled. Although these menu items are synonymous for an elegant seated dinner reception in Baltimore, we suggest to our clients that they put a twist on these products. Over the past year or so, we have been breaking the beef and the seafood up into two different courses. This helps us create complementary flavors and better presentation. For example, we will serve some type of first course and then suggest as a second course our Housemade Seafood Ravioli served with a Roasted Red Pepper Beurre Blanc finished with a Fried Basil Leaf, or Seared Local Rockfish on a Bed of Sauteed Baby Spinach finished with a Lemongrass Beurre Blanc. Then as an entrée we’d serve Braised Boneless Beef Short Ribs Provencal or Pineland Farms Calotte of Prime Beef with a Roasted Fig and Borello Sauce.”

What kinds of flavors and ingredients are particularly unique to the Annapolis/Eastern Shore area?

Amy Daniels, Palate Pleasers: “Everyone automatically thinks of our wonderful crabs when thinking about local fare. However, we like to highlight other ‘typical’ local fare, such as Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Salty Ham Biscuits, Fresh Corn Salad and Strawberry Shortcake.”

What should an eco-conscious couple look for in a catering company, and how can they make their wedding more “green?”

Jayne Havens, Occasions Caterers: “Occasions is certified by the Green Restaurant Association and we’ve made lots of improvements to our offices, prep kitchen and on-site practices to meet and exceed the standards set by GRA. For instance, all of our parties use a complete on-site sorting program for trash, recycling and composting. It isn’t glamorous, but sorting trash has a big environmental impact.

Occasions bottles our own flat and sparkling water. This saves on shipping/importing water, reduces plastic bottle use and the water tastes great!

For eco-conscious couples, we’ve designed menus using only locally sources, organically grown and ethnically farmed foods. I work with couples to design seasonal menus that highlight local ingredients and support area producers. We’re lucky to have access to a lot of great, local produce, meats, cheeses, fish – the list is almost endless.

Couples can look for recycled paper products for invitations, menu cards, cocktail napkins and programs. Finally, non-floral, reusable or repurposed centerpieces are a way to reduce waste at the party. Or consider donating your centerpieces to a local hospital or VA.”

Oliver Friendly, Eat & Smile Foods: “There are a number of ways caterers will say they are ‘green’ – purchasing carbon offsets, using recycled materials, organic cleansers, etc. I think that, more importantly, one should ask where they get their ingredients: local or commercial? All of our protein, fruit, vegetables and dairy products come directly from the farmer/producer within 120 miles of D.C. By keeping the ingredients local, couples will do far more to stimulate the local economy and provide a living wage for local farmers. Also, because this food doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles, it releases far less CO2 into the atmosphere as well as bringing you fresher produce that was picked when it was ready, not months beforehand and then shipped across an ocean to ripen in warehouses. Another good question to ask a caterer is what do they do with their trash? We compost all of our organic waste, recycle our used fryer oil into biodiesel and donate reusable food to D.C. Central Kitchen.”

Lauren Levine, Festive Foods: "A couple needs to be clear on what their options are when it comes to food and should make a list of priorities. Going 100% organic is fantastic but that option can sometimes be too costly for a couple. A skilled catering company that has creative, experienced chefs can combine use of organic and local products to offer a balanced yet affordable menu."

What are some creative wedding menu ideas for couples and guests who are vegetarians?

Oliver Friendly, Eat & Smile Foods: “I am a big fan of the all passed hors d’oeuvres menu, as it provides a wide range of flavor options while also freeing the bride and groom to be more social during their entire reception. To me, a successful vegetarian wedding is one where no one mentions that it was an all-vegetarian meal and just enjoys the food. For plated meals, we have Local Crowder Pea Cakes with Cilantro and Lime Sour Cream that has been a huge hit at the previous vegetarian weddings we have catered. I always suggest not using ‘meat replacement’ items like tofu or seitan and instead focus on what vegetables are in season and the best way to highlight them.”

Amy Daniels, Palate Pleasers: “Some of our most interesting menus have been vegetarian. One tasty menu that we offer year-round is our Golden Polenta Bar, which includes a Slow Roasted Wild Mushroom Ragout, Cuban Black Beans with Sherry Vinegar, and Parmesan-Style Eggplant. A favorite passed appetizer this year has been our Semi-Soft Fig, stuffed with either creamy goat cheese or blue cheese, dipped in finely chopped pistachios.”
Michelle Fishman, Main Event Caterers: “The most important thing to remember when planning for vegetarians or vegans (or really anyone with special dietary needs) is that they should not be an afterthought. A good caterer will have an extensive repertoire of specialty dishes to suit any desire, so be sure the menu they offer emphasizes these dishes just as much as the menu for the rest of your guests. And, if you ever have a caterer tell you that your vegetarian guests can just eat the side dishes? Run screaming! We have received many rave reviews on our vegetarian/vegan offerings from our carnivorous clients, so don’t let anyone tell you these foods aren’t delicious.

Some of our favorites? Raw Zucchini Lasagna with sun-dried tomato pistachio pesto with pine nut ‘ricotta,’ basil crown, balsamic syrup and virgin olive oil…and Grilled Vegetable Napoleon with layers of portabella steaks, eggplant, red and green bell peppers, yellow and green squash, and lavender-scented tomato sauce.”

What kinds of foods do you wish you’d see more often on wedding menus?

Natalie Seng, R&R Catering: “Couples are getting more and more creative with their ideas of adding ‘street flavors’ to their reception, which keeps us excited about turning their vision into reality. Last year the growing trend was mixing food stations and mini plates. Food stations are by far the most popular style with our clients, and we are predicting this to remain a strong crowd pleaser for 2012. Dessert stations are evolving to be very popular, with tons of unique ideas and flavors such as popcorn buffets, s’mores stations, brownies a la mode stations, pie buffets, dessert crepes or flambé stations. We are excited to see what this year’s brides have in store for us.”

Oliver Friendly, Eat & Smile Foods: “We are in a rather unique position within the catering industry, in that we do not have any set menus. All of our menus are created in collaboration with the couple and our farmers to find what is best in season and craft them into menu items the couple wants. I always push the envelope a bit with the menu to give couples the option to be a bit more adventurous if they choose. I would like to see more veal (as we get ours from our local dairy where the calves have been raised with their momma out in the fields, not kept in crates as commercial producers do) and also pig trotters. We make a fantastic fried Trotter Tot as a passed hors d’oeuvre with a honey mustard glaze that’s wonderful, but getting couples to put it on their menu can take a little work.”

We’re so grateful to the many talented caterers and chefs who shared their expertise with us – we don’t envy engaged couples faced with the task of choosing a wedding caterer in D.C.! We’d love to hear your comments on the amazing suggestions and advice presented here, and be on the lookout for more catering features in the near future.