Dreaming of a Butler’s Pantry?


Are you dreaming about a butler's pantry in your future home? Maybe you moved into a home that came with a butler's pantry. Or maybe, to your surprise, you discovered that a storage room in your house really had a former life as a butler's pantry. How exciting is that? 

In any of these cases, you are here to learn more about butler's pantries. This article has everything you need to know about this very special support room near the dining room.

What is a butler's pantry?

A butler's pantry is a room designed to support the activities of the dining room. It is a storage place for the dinnerware, but may contain a sink for washing delicate china and crystal. A formal butler's pantry is intended as a staging area where food is placed until served, and dishes removed from the dinner table in between food courses. Historically, a servant called a butler would handle food and dishes, thus the name "butler's pantry."

For practicality, a butler's pantry is designed to be adjacent to a formal dining room. Besides storing tableware, wine and other liquors may be stored there. It makes sense that specialty crystal and glasses are kept there as well for serving alcohol.

A butler's room is an expanded version of the small Butler's pantry space. It performs the same duties of storage of tableware and linens, but on a larger scale.

The photo below displays the china room of the White House in Washington D.C. It is complete with a minimal set of appliances for necessary duties. It beautifully displays the White House china in all of its glory, and the dinnerware remains easily accessible at the same time.

China room of the White House 2020

Why is it called a butler's pantry?

A butler's pantry name is derived from the butler that traditionally was in charge of the space, overseeing the storage and use of the china and other tableware used for setting up the adjacent formal dining table. In the early Victorian era, the butler would spend quite a bit of time in the space, since he was actually guarding the silver articles. In fact, he would even sleep there.

Why do you need a butler's pantry?

A traditional butler's pantry is needed to provide storage of tableware. It also fulfills an important role of keeping humble food tasks away from the eyes of guests. A modern butler's pantry also provides space away from guests where food tasks can occur.

A butler's pantry more specifically supports a formal dining room. Only the most wealthy of homes today employ butlers. Middle and lower-class families have now moved into the old Victorian homes. Where past servants carefully handled treasured dishes, current residents now enjoy the unique specialty space.

Today's trends are to remove separate, formal dining rooms in favor of the "open concept design." In open concept living, the kitchen, dining table, and even living room can all be in one room, with no dividing walls. This style has been eagerly adapted because of the open and airy feeling it imparts, especially in smaller homes.

In addition, the trend of using formal china is less and less. A china cabinet or hutch can serve a similar purpose in homes that can't afford butler pantry space. These cabinet hutches remain a fine option for providing china and glass storage near the dining table.

The difference between a traditional butler's pantry and a modern butler's pantry

A traditional butler's pantry is in a formal setting, supporting a formal dining room. Crystal, fine china, and silverware are stored there. A modern butler's pantry serves a more supportive role directly to the kitchen. Not only does it contain dishware, but a large second sink, dishwasher, refrigerator, and wine cooler. It also can provide non-formal service, such as a coffee or snack bar in the house.

So, the modern butler' pantry has morphed into the second kitchen of the house. Thank you to  W Design Collective for explaining that. They even went on to describe the modern butler's pantry as a "back kitchen." I have to say that I feel that some mislabeling is going on -I still hold hope that a better word can be substituted.

Requests for a butler's pantry when buying or building a home remain strong, but what the user is asking can be vague. There is no getting over the romantic idea of having a butler's pantry adjacent to a formal dining room, but is that what they want? Or do they want an extra drop zone in the house, or side juice bar for the kids? Ultimately, there are many different "flavors" of butler's pantries. Some can be as small as 2' wide and just enough space to keep some specialty dishes... or the prized coffee center.

In the photo below, the butler's pantry is out in the open, complete with a wine cooler. The counter can even be used as a serving buffet. This is a wonderful compromise and way to provide dishware storage that works well in the open concept plan.

butler pantry open

Hardwood flooring in empty dining area and butler pantry section of home, ready for move-in

Modern butler's pantries have become another opportunity for storage space in new homes. As homeowners turn their backs on open concept design, sub-divided and more private spots to stash stuff are favored.

Whether the consumer wants a charming notch a step away from the kitchen or something specific to fit a busy lifestyle, butler pantries can fill the need.

When were butlers pantries popular?

Butler's pantries were popular in the early Victorian age. According to Practical Preservation Services, "...the butler’s pantry emerged in the 19th Century England and America and saw the greatest popularity in the latter half of the century. This special pantry acted as a food prep and storage area for silver and china. In wealthier homes, it was the domain of butlers or other staff, hence its name."

The photo to the right display a traditional Victorian-era butler's pantry. Note the convenience of the china storage, at-the-ready for the daily setting and removal of the dining table. The fine glassware has its own cabinet. This inn was formerly known as Jonah Place Bed & Breakfast Inn in Sussex, NB, Canada, but is no longer in business. 

Victorian butlers pantry example

Photo used by permission of former owner on original EverythingPantry.com website.

What do butler's do?

In a formal setting, a butler is responsible for serving the family living in the house. This traditionally male position can take many forms, such as assisting with the serving of a meal or managing the clothing and dress needs of the men of the household.

The butler would be at the beck and call of the owner of the home, ready to assist in miscellaneous duties that were asked of him. As mentioned earlier, butler's slept in the pantry to guard the silver dishware that was stored there. This is actually true. Silver was a precious metal and kept locked up in the butler's pantry. Guarding it was one more special job the butler was asked to do.

The role of the butler depends on the size and wealth of the home. To have dedicated servants is a luxury. In very wealthy homes, the butler may strictly be delegated to formal serving of a meal and doing special favors for the family.

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Butlers would not necessarily assist with cleaning or kitchen work, as those jobs were assigned to other servants of the household. Butlers may be asked to perform small, random tasks such as carrying things to assist other servants. This made sense to utilize help where it was needed.

Butlers could also assist with special events, such as hosting dinner parties or outside events. In a situation such as an outdoor sporting event, they could be asked to handle equipment and gear for the owner of the house, although there was likely a special servant for outdoor activities.

Butlers usually had an elevated role of prominence in the home and seen as the senior member of staff. They had the privilege of directly interacting with the wealthy owners. Lower-level servants rarely engaged with the owners or guests.

The butler's pantry in relation to other rooms of the house

Obviously, the butler's pantry is just one part of the team of rooms that support a kitchen. It's natural to confuse the role of the butler's pantry with other specialized kitchen support rooms. Let's look at the differences between each.

What's the difference between a pantry and a butler's pantry?

A butler's pantry is used primarily for the storage of tableware and the act of staging the food for serving in the dining room; its main function is a support room for the dining room. A pantry is a storage room primarily for food that will be used in the preparation of meals; its main function is a support room for the kitchen.

What is the difference between a scullery and a butler's pantry?

A scullery is a room primarily intended for the purpose of washing dishes, especially pots and pans used in preparation of the meal. The Butler's pantry often had a sink, too. This smaller sink may have been made out of copper. Copper is a soft material that is ideal for handling the hand-washing of fine china and crystal.

It's easy to see why people get confused about the difference between a scullery and butler's pantry, since they are both used for washing dishes. Not every butler's pantry is equipped with a sink. dishes may easily be carried back into the main kitchen for cleaning.

In modern homes, especially smaller ones, washing dishes takes place in the kitchen. There is no separate dish room (scullery) or butler's pantry.

What can you do in a butler's pantry?

A butler's pantry is for the storage of dishware, and handling and cleaning the dishware. It has also been traditionally used for the staging of food between courses in the dining room. Some people use the butler's pantry as a bar in their home to serve their favorite alcoholic beverages. Others have turned them into snack stations for kids to help themselves and even pet centers.

Coffee or juice bars are other popular ways to use a butler's pantry. Some people have parked their electronic devices, turning the butler's pantry into a charging station.

People do not normally cook in a butler's pantry. However, electrical outlets are supplied and are useful for an electrical hot beverage server.

Things to put in a butler's pantry

In a traditional butler's pantry, there would be a sink to wash fine china. Preferably this would be a soft copper sink to protect the dishware from breaking. A sink is not necessary in a butler's pantry, especially if you are near the main kitchen and don't mind transporting dirty dishes. If you don't entertain often, it may not make economical sense to build in a sink.

Some people treat a butler's pantry as a "wet" bar. A wet bar just means a bar with a sink. The bar is used for mixing and serving alcoholic beverages (a "dry" bar means that there isn't a source of water). If that is what you envision using your butler's pantry for, then a sink will be useful.

A modern day butler's pantry has morphed into a catchall, not even making sense to call them butler's pantries anymore. Some are becoming a snack bar, coffee bar, or even designed to be one step away from an outdoor grill center. The inclusion of a fridge may not be for entertaining, but simply extra cold storage for the kitchen.

In a perfect case scenario, a butler's pantry refrigerator would be used for storage of hors d'oeuvres for guests and entertaining. In some homes, that is common, especially as charcuterie boards are all the rage. As modern homes embrace a more casual lifestyle, the formal needs of a butler's pantry would seem outdated.

It's neat to see the creative ways people are adapting the pockets and side nooks of the kitchen.

butler's pantry

Building or remodeling a butler's pantry questions

How do you attach a butler's pantry to an existing kitchen? That is a question for a carpenter and I can't get into the specifics here.

How do you turn a pantry into a butler's pantry? Turn a pantry into a butler's pantry by adding a counter. Dishes can be stored on open shelving or add cabinets to the previous pantry space. Food storage would be removed from the pantry if the focus was to create a fine china and dishware dedicated space.

What is a good size for a butler's pantry? Butler's pantries don't require much space. Consider dedicating 25 square foot space, or even smaller. This could include a run of 3-5' of cabinets with 24" deep base cabinets and 36" space in front of the cabinets to access the contents. A "good size" would be slightly more than this.

Does a butler's pantry need a window? A window in the butler's pantry is optional. Most butler's pantries don't have windows because they are located in small, carved out spaces adjacent to a formal dining room. Often, there isn't room for a window.

Is a butler's pantry a waste of space? A butler's pantry takes away from other space. A china hutch or buffet could be provided in an open room and supply the same benefit as a special side room, taking up less space. The charm of having a special place for the family china adds a unique touch of distinction to any home. The pros and cons will have to be weighed by the homeowner. Storage is always in demand, and that space can always be used for another purpose later.

Can you combine a butlers pantry and laundry? There is no reason that you can't combine a butler's pantry and laundry. 

However, would you want to? To preserve a level of unique and distinctive class a butler's pantry is known for, that they should remain separate. The two spaces serve very different purposes and it doesn't make sense to combine them. If you are in a small home or apartment and feel you need a butler's pantry, than the laundyroom can be discreetly added behind a door. A stacked wash machined/dryer would be ideal for such a scenario.

Cost of a butler's pantry

How much does it cost to put in a butler's pantry? The cost of a butler's pantry would include cabinets, counter, an optional sink, electrical/plumbing and the addition or removal of walls during a remodel or new addition. A rough estimate is $1,500-$4,500+ for a small butler's pantry. There are many variables, including quality of materials and size of the space, that affect the end cost.

Does a butler's pantry add value? Pantries are in demand and add value to a home. However, a butler's pantry is a specialized space. Considering that storage is always a key seller of a home, than the home will sell well with a butler's pantry. The space can always be used other than for that purpose.

Are butlers pantries worth it? A butler's pantry is worth it if it fulfills a need for you. Storage space is in such high demand in homes, that the space will always find a use, even for the next owner. If it's not a budget breaker, go for it! If it affects your building or remodeling budget, you may have to decide if it's an item to forego.

About the author 

Renee Matt

Renee is an Iowa farmwife with a background as a former kitchen designer. Supporting the family farm with hearty meals has been key to Renee's pantry readiness. She uses her professional IT background and expertise to bring the Everything Pantry website to life. Read more about this farmwife on her about page.

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