Once an ultimate luxury depicting both wealth and status, a butler's pantry is actually not a pantry at all, nor is it a larder. Rather than a space to house dry goods, snack foods, and small appliances, a butler's pantry has traditionally been a headquarters for a family's butlers to prepare and plate meals on an abundance of heirloom-quality serveware and fine china. While that sounds like something out of a PBS miniseries, rest assured that the 19th-century staple isn't totally obsolete in 2023. Sure, the modern era has seen these handy hideaways combined with food pantries, prep stations, wet bars, and more, but the original thinking behind the room's concept—as a place to prep and plate—has lasted through the decades. A butler's pantry isn't just a handy spot to get things table-ready in between the bustle of the kitchen, where food is prepared, and the calm of the elegant table in the dining room, where it's enjoyed; it's also a great place to organize and display all of your beloved tableware.
Ahead, we outline what exactly a butler's pantry is, what a good one needs, and how you can make use of one even without a full waitstaff. In getting the full story, we enlisted the guidance of interior designer Linda Hayslett of LH.Designs, as well as our resident kitchen expert, House Beautiful's Director of Special Projects Carisha Swanson.
Also known as a serving pantry or scullery, a butler's pantry was a room, usually in-between the kitchen and dining room, where a family's valuable heirlooms were kept. Dating back to the 19th century in both England and America, butler's pantries were seen in large manors, estate homes, and mansions—homes with a full-service waitstaff.
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Not every heirloom was kept here, of course, but fine china, silverware, fancy serving pieces, and tableware were kept under lock and key in one of these spaces. Sometimes the butler would even sleep in the pantry to keep the pieces safe from damage or theft. "They have good storage," Hayslett explains. "But the most luxurious ones have exact sized storage spaces for every nice kitchenware you may have. So, every plate, crystal, silverware, and glassware would have a designated spot. A high-end one may also have a sink and/or wine fridge as well."
These days, traditional butler's pantries are few and far between, but many modern homes have taken elements of the original rooms and modernized them. A walk-in pantry that houses both food and serving pieces is common, as is dedicated storage for fine china and silver platters (think shelving or cabinets, not to be confused with a separate, free-standing china cabinet or credenza). But these modern versions are as functional as they are fancy. "They do require a home have additional space because these are typically their own room, or sometimes a pass-through between say a kitchen and a dining area (or den)," Swanson says. That being said, she adds that today, "butler's pantries are more for serious home chefs than they are just for the wealthy."
Hayslett recommends that homeowners think of them as a practical space, rather than a true luxury. "Think of it like an extra room or smaller kitchen area," she says. Most homeowners are focused on the main kitchen area, but if you're able to carve out space away from the kitchen for your nicer dinnerware, smaller appliances, and a small sink, anyone can have a butler's pantry. It's an area that helps keep the prepping of a meal out of sight."
Why Would You Want a Butler's Pantry?
Hayslett points out that without one, trying to keep entertaining and serving separate can be a real hassle. "We all have those times when we're preparing a dish yet guests are hovering and talking and we're running around trying to get things ready," she says. "A butler's pantry helps the host stay focused on the tasks at hand, while not being so stressed out in getting the food out to guests."
What Does a Butler's Pantry Need?
The most important element in any butler's pantry is storage. Having drawers, shelves, cabinets, you name it—with a designated spot for each of your beloved tableware pieces is the first priority. It's like a miniature museum for all of your favorite pieces. Additionally, a good butler's pantry will have plenty of counter space for plating, and some may even feature a coffee bar, wet bar, wine fridge, and other kitchen luxuries. "It's also a place to infuse more personality than what's in your kitchen," Swanson says. "Think of the butler's pantry as the room where are all the fun is."
Swanson suggests filling the butler's pantry with all the tings that could live in your primary kitchen but you don’t want to sacrifice space for, or don’t need access to as regularly. It's a way to turn storage into a showplace. Swanson points out, "Designers are much more playful here using colorful tile, gorgeous wallpapers, natural stones or beautiful wood countertops like those from Grothouse. This is really a room where color and pattern can be fully layered in without worrying about timelessness." A decorative sink or intricately patterned backsplash is the ideal finishing touch.