Think all wedding meals are created equal? Think again.

Ah, wedding dinners. The butt of many a joke, the phrase brings up certain unpleasant tropes: rubbery chicken, under-seasoned side dishes and never-ending buffet lines. These pervasive ideas about wedding food have come about because catering is often a side concern to couples planning a wedding, if it's a concern at all.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

“[Catering] is probably one of the more important things going on. All of your guests are going to interact with it,” says Larry Clark, president and CEO of Made From Scratch Catering. “The food is the only piece of the wedding … that they actually have to interact with, with all their senses.”

So how does one create a menu that will impress their guests? Local caterers agree that it all starts with presentation.

“The first thing [people] do is, they eat with their eyes. You look at the food first,” says Clark. “Then you get into [eating] it.”

Bob Selhorst, president of Bosc + Brie, agrees.

“Frankly, you can always tell a good caterer from a bad caterer [based] on how they do buffet tables,” he says. A good caterer will have stainless steel chafing dishes, not wire stands and aluminum pans, say Clark and Selhorst. Staggering food trays on tiers, instead of placing them all directly on the table, “makes it much more interesting, more elegant-looking,” adds Clark.

“We do a lot of layering and tiering with our displays,” says Krystin Van Horn, event sales manager with Cameron Mitchell Premier Events and The Ivory Room. “From an aesthetic standpoint, we don't like flat displays.” When designing a buffet or food stations, Van Horn likes to add vases and other elements along with the tiered serving dishes. This setup “elevates the eye, so that as guests are going to the buffet, their eye level isn't just on one plane,” she says.

For plated meals, presentation is just as important.

“If you have eight people sitting at a table, have eight servers that walk up behind them and lay the plates down at the table all at the same time,” Clark suggests. “That's a very, very gracious way of presenting.” For an added flourish, you can have plates covered with domes that are all removed simultaneously as well.

If hiring scores of servers isn't in your budget, you can make a visual impact with the plate itself.

“If someone comes to us and they are wanting to have a really elevated plate set, we have a lot of examples—whether it's a plate smear or an edible flower, or a glaze on a dessert,” says Van Horn. “With a plated meal, [we can] send plates out looking as beautiful as what someone may see in a picture … that's [possible] because we're taking the time to practice our craft. So if someone sees something on a plate in a magazine or just created in their minds, we'll take the time to at least dive in and see what's truly executable and what isn't.”

Another option is to plate your food on an alternative piece of china—say, a nontraditional-shaped plate or bowl, she adds. “Those things impact the visual experience as well.”

Of course, a gorgeous display won't mean much if the food itself is forgettable—or worse.

“One of the things we've been known for is, we take a traditional item … but we put a twist on it,” says Clark. “Put a little more refinement into it … with the menu items where it's easy to do that.” That could be something simple, like truffled macaroni and cheese, or it could be more elevated, like flank steak with a hollandaise sauce.

This juxtaposition of rough and elegant works well together, Clark adds, as evidenced in now-ubiquitous décor styles like shabby chic and rustic glam.

Another way to make your food memorable, of course, is to make sure it's delicious. The chef-driven, custom menus at Cameron Mitchell Premier Catering aim to do just that, often working items from Cameron Mitchell restaurants into the mix.

“People get very excited when they find out that … [they can] have an interpretation of the meatballs from Marcella's or a sushi roll from Hudson 29,” says Van Horn. “The opportunity to create, from the ground up, a never-before-had experience entices a lot of people.”

But Selhorst emphasizes that glitz and flare fall flat without the fundamentals. “You just have to focus on the basics,” he explains. “Keep the hot food hot, keep the cold food cold. If you say you're going to serve at 7 o'clock, be ready at 7 o'clock. Do the basic things right.”

Bosc + Brie often prepares food in its own kitchen, shipping the items out to the venue as needed. Selhorst says they typically ship twice: cold food goes first, then hot food goes as close to the serving time as is practical.

“You understand, if you've been cooking for a while, the things that hold temperature,” he adds. “If you put lasagna in a hot box, you may still burn your finger an hour from then when you take it out. It just retains heat better.” Other items, like fish, lose heat quickly—or overcook if kept in a warmer for too long.

In the end, everything has to come together just right, says Selhorst, and your catering coordinator is the person who will make that happen. So when you're researching caterers, pay attention to reviews about the person who will be on-hand to orchestrate the evening—he or she will ensure that your event runs smoothly.

“We're the conductors,” Selhorst says of catering coordinators. “Our servers, the guys who deliver the food, the chefs—they're all part of the orchestra … [the coordinator] has to make it all work so that in the end … the concert that is your wedding reception … comes out to the denouement of the evening, when the food is presented at the table.”