The ubiquitous 1970s hostess trolley is making a big comeback. But why? We sum up all the pros and cons of investing in a hostess trolley or heated side-server.
Before we go on, we’ve found (tragically) that most retailers no longer sell full-sized heated hostess trolleys. Two of the bigger manufacturers, Philips and the White Knight sub-brand ‘Crosslee’ have ceased production. Even the ones we’ve listed below flit in and out of stock regularly, mostly the latter. If you’re a retailer who does stock hostess trolleys we’d love to hear from you!
However, we’ve found some great options in this space that we’re going to share with you – costing from around £20 up to near £2,000, so there should be something to suit all needs and budgets!
If you’re struggling to find one you can skip ahead to view some of our best alternatives.
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What is a hostess trolley?
Hostess trolleys are heated, portable (they often come on wheels), electric cupboards in which to store ready-cooked food until you are ready to serve.
They can prove invaluable when you need to cater for a big crowd (such as at Christmas, Easter) or when hosting a dinner party.
Generally they have a lid opening at the top which holds a series of glass pyrex dishes in which vegetables, potatoes and rice are kept warm without drying out. When ready to eat people can just go up to the trolley and help themselves to the piping-hot food.
Additionally they usually have a heated cupboard below which can hold plates, casserole dishes and roast meats, keeping them all toasty too.
They come in a variety of finishes but the most popular style have a wood finish – so when they are not in use they can be unplugged look just like another cupboard, doubling up as storage space and (with the lids closed) they provide extra worktop space.
When would you use one?
My mother-in-law always puts her heated hostess trolley to good use when she has a big crowd of family staying.
She’ll often cook up a full English breakfast for the early-risers then stash the remaining food in the hostess trolley meaning it stays lovely and warm and ready to eat whenever people drift down for breakfast. It saves her from getting stuck in the kitchen.
Keeping Christmas dinner warm
If you are worrying about how to keep food warm at Christmas then a hostess trolley could be the answer.
If you have a small kitchen it can be especially hard to get all the many dishes cooked and ready to serve at the same time. By storing some dishes in the hostess trolley the chef can make a wide range of dishes that will all be hot at once.
A hostess trolley can also take the stress out of a dinner party and make a useful buffet server. Cook up whatever delight you have planned earlier in the day then transfer it to the trolley. It will keep warm while you get ready and actually allow you to chat with your guests instead of being stuck in the kitchen!
Pros and Cons
As with any large purchase it is best to do some research before you take the plunge. If you know someone who already has one it is a good idea to ask them for some hostess trolley advice as personal recommendations can be especially useful.
Before you buy a hostess trolley think about whether you need a whole trolley or if a side-server would do; consider how many times a year you’d use it; and if you have the space to store it when not in use?
Pros of hostess trolleys
- Helps keep food warm without it drying out as can happen in the oven
- Frees up space in the kitchen
- Large crowds can serve themselves
- Stops you getting stuck in the kitchen when entertaining
- Can be unplugged and used as extra shelf and cupboard space
- You can wheel it from the kitchen into whichever room you are entertaining in.
Cons of hostess trolleys
- Another gadget taking up space
- If you only entertain infrequently might not be worth the outlay
- Uses up energy to keep the trolley heated
- Costly bit of kit.
What is the best style of hostess trolley?
These are proper bits of furniture so make sure you have the space to accommodate one. Equally this is one of their plus points as, when they are not in use, they can double-up as cupboard and worktop space.
The Connoisseur Hostess Trolley Oak-Effect HL6232GO and the Connoisseur Console Hostess Trolley HL6232DB in mahogany are/were a classics in the genre but is nigh-on impossible to get hold of now, though you may be able to pick up a second hand one on eBay or the like.
With three 2 litre glass pyrex, oven-proof dishes under the worktop to keep vegetables and side dishes warm and a ‘hot locker’ with ample room to store plates, casseroles and pans ensuring the food gets to the table piping hot.
Below this sits a ‘hot locker’ with ample room to store plates, casseroles and pans ensuring the food gets to the table piping hot.
It’s a bit more open than other designs so may be less useful as additional storage and, in some models, heated shelves – these models are the sort of thing those of us that grew up with them think of when someone mentions ‘hostess trolleys’.
Alternatives to heated Hostess Trolleys
One of the best places we’ve found for alternatives to hostess trolleys is with catering equipment supplier Nisbets.
Now these are serious bits of catering equipment – with a price tag to match. We’re no longer talking about “hostess trolleys” any more, these are “hot cupboards” used in professional kitchens.
The cheapest end of this market is around £350 at the top end, nearly £2,000.
However, what you get for that investment is a top end piece of kit. These are used in the kitchens of top chefs around the country. They’re built to be used multiple times a day, to be easy to clean, ultra-efficient and easy to use and to be a real work-horse of your cooking efforts.
Depending on your view they’re often not the most aesthetic looking things but bear in mind these are made to be ‘front of house’ in restaurants too so though they can look a little ‘monolithic’ their sleek, chrome or brushed steel finish means they can blend into the background of any room or kitchen.
Take the starter product the Falcon Pro-Lite Pedestal Hot Cupboard LD115. At £359.99 an accessible price and at a slimline 300mm wide, could fit unobtrusively under your worktop ready when needed.
It can warm from 0-80°C so plenty to keep a dish (or a whole course!) warm as you work on the next:
If you need something larger, the Victor Earl Hot Cupboard HED90100 is around £399 and can hold up to 18 plated meals anywhere up to 95°C. This one comes with a two year warranty and can even be wall-mounted if you’re short of floor space.
Need something mobile? So you can cook up a storm in one room, then coast into the room like the perfect host/hostess that you are, to seamlessly serve up a magnificent dinner? Then the Parry Mobile Servery with Bain Marie Top 1894 at £779 (or the 1888 model without the servery top at just £669) should be just the ticket.
With the bain marie top you can have your potatoes in one dish, two different types of vegetables in another and your turkey (or whatever your main course is!) can take pride of place on the table without fear of cluttering up space.
Best of all, as chef you can take the weight off and let your diners serve themselves whilst you actually get to enjoy your meal too, before it’s lukewarm.
Parry’s have even made this great video walking you through how they work and the various features:
Told you they were serious bits of kit!
Need it big, mobile and with a servery element on the top (so guests can serve themselves and/or go back for seconds… or thirds!) then towards the top end of the range is the Lincat Panther Hot Cupboard and Bain Marie Top P8B5PT.
At £1999.99 this comes with all the bells and whistles, as you might expect. Temperature control from 31°C to 110°C, heats up in just 30 minutes (it’s fan assisted), a two year parts and labour guarantee… there’s no messing about here:
In short, check out the full range on Nisbets’ website. They have more than 80 different sizes, shapes and models and will price match if you can find them cheaper too.
Food cupboards and serving trolleys
If all that is a bit of an overkill perhaps you’re just after a serving trolley? Some way to help you transport all that food from one room to another, without it being a disaster or an undertaking so arduous the food is cold by the time it gets there.
In which case, there are a great range of this sort of thing on Amazon:
This great Lakeland plate-warmer can heat up 12 plates in a matter of minutes and — at £49.99 — is a lot cheaper than a hostess trolley.
Tabletop Food warmer
Keeping it simple if you want a way to keep a couple of dishes warm while you serve up then probably best to save your pennies and opt for this budget option, a tea-light tabletop dish warmer.
This simple design (often seen in your local curry house) uses three tea-lights to heat the metal top and keep your dishes or plate hot:
Another great option for keeping a couple of dishes warm at a time is a rechargeable hot plate. Simply charge it up and it can be placed in the centre of the table and will keep food hot for one hour, with no trailing cables.
Tabletop Hostess Trolley
If you want to be able to keep vegetable side-dishes, curries or casseroles hot and allow people to serve themselves then perhaps a tabletop hostess trolley, also known as a side-server is a better option.
These are designed to sit on a sideboard or table, plugged in, keeping food warm in built-in glass pyrex dishes.
Side servers are like mini-hostess trolleys but without the wheels so they take up less space but on the negative side they need space to be stored away when not in use as they are not a separate piece of furniture like the trolley.
Invero® Large 3-Section Stainless Steel Food Buffet Server and Warming Hotplate
- Large capacity buffet warmer - features three 2.5L per tray warming pans / serving stations with clear lids - remove the warming pans and transform the buffet server into a large hotplate
- Adjustable temperature thermostat allows you to easily control the temperature of the food - maximum temperature of 70 - 80°
- Handles either side of the tray for easy manoeuvre and transportation with non-slip feet
- Perfect for functions, dinner parties, events, family meals and more
- Quality stainless steel construction - Dishwasher safe - Product Dimensions: Approx. 69 x 40 x 13cm.
Bella Cook and Serve 3 Pot Slow Cooker BES001
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A further time-saving device: this Bella Cook and Serve side-server has three separately controlled slow-cooking pots so you can cook three different dishes from curries to casseroles and then keep them warm once they’re done.
Alternatives to a hostess trolley?
If you are not keen on investing in a hostess trolley then there are a number of tricks you can use to keep food warm before you’re ready to serve, but be warned they won’t keep food warm for more than an hour at best.
Simply wrap your hot dishes in layers of foil and tea-towels. This will help keep the heat trapped inside the dish. This is especially effective if you have cast-iron pans such as Le Creuset which can hold heat for longer.
Use a large deep baking tray full of recently boiled water to stand your side dishes in. The hot water will keep the food warm for about an hour.
If you have space you can keep food warm indefinitely in the oven at a low setting (about 100 degrees), but make sure you keep the dishes covered or the food will dry out.
Top Tips for using your hostess trolley
- To get the most out of your hostess trolley or side-server turn it on at least twenty minutes before you need it. This will allow it to get up to temperature.
- Make sure all the pyrex dishes are clean and dry.
- Food can be kept for at least two hours in a hostess trolley (roast meats and cooked breakfasts) or up to four hours for wetter dishes like curries, chillies and casseroles.
- You don’t have to just use the glass dishes that come with the trolley, if you have heat-proof serving dishes and plates these can also be used in the trolley. For best practice use flat-bottom dishes as this helps with heat transference and ensures your food stay evenly heated.
- Stack your plates in the hostess trolley when you turn it on to pre-heat so the plates will be nicely warmed when people come to serve their food.
- Food does not need to be undercooked, as it will not continue cooking in the trolley, merely be kept at the perfect serving temperature.
- When you have filled the trolley with food leave the doors of the trolley closed and the lids on the dishes to keep it working efficiently — don’t be tempted to keep peeking, you’ll let all the lovely heat out!
- Keep any wet dishes, such as curries, chillies, casseroles and side vegetables covered as this helps them to stay moist.
- Any food meant to stay crispy, such as roast potatoes, crackling, pies or chips should be kept in the dishes with the lid off as the lid will cause condensation to form making your crispy food go soggy.
What are the best dishes to cook when using a hostess trolley?
The options are endless but hostess trolleys come into their own when you are cooking for a crowd — Christmas dinner, Easter lunch, dinner parties, BBQs, full English breakfasts.
Because food will stay nice and hot for at least two hours it means you can stagger the cooking to free up space in your oven. So if you are cooking a roast dinner you might want to roast the meat first and then transfer it to the hot cupboard section of your hostess trolley to stay warm while you go on to cook the vegetable, potatoes and side-dishes.
Likewise if you are making a selection of curries, you might want to cook all the meat dishes first and then transfer them to the trolley while you cook up the rice and vegetables.
The beauty of the hostess trolley is that you can manage the timing of the food as it can be kept perfectly warm and ready for serving for a number of hours. This means you can cook all the main course and leave it in the trolley while you prepare the starter and pudding. This means you can all sit down to eat together without the chef having to constantly keep popping to the kitchen to cook the next course.
Cleaning and maintenance
After the guests have finished eating the trolley should be turned off and left to cool. The glass serving dishes can all go into the dishwasher for cleaning and can be returned once clean and dry. When the trolley has cooled wipe up any spills and leave the doors open to let it fully cool down.
If you rarely entertain then the cheapest to keep food warm is by using foil or a bain-marie.
If you entertain every now and then, or host smaller gatherings then a table-top hostess trolley or side-server could be a more budget conscious option.
But if you have a large family or love entertaining then a hostess trolley could be the perfect bit of kit to take the stress out of hosting, allowing food to be kept warm and free you up to socialise.
Last update on 2021-06-11 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API