Mostly in respect to period service within an SCA context (with much babbling)
What I am thinking here is sideboard and other service (during feasting hours, whatever they may be) for the head table being more show than anything... in a way to provide entertainment for everyone as well as nourishment. Considering the practical, it would not just be the guests of honor who receive this fare but everyone. At least that is where my head is situated (in thought, not on a platter to be eaten :P).
Basically starting via cold things. Today we would have things quite cold, though originally I would take this to simply imply not hot and hate to say it but many foods taste better at room temperature. This is why I don't make some items ahead of time, because they taste good cooled down but not cold from storage.
In the list of cold things would be some salads, cold pies and meats such as cured meats... also jellies (noticed Brawn showing up for first courses fairly often).
Then a course/s of main dishes... mostly meat or many things with protein in some form or another. Though many dishes contain vegetables (really, they are not that hard to find), many include some sort of meat product or are in conjunction with a meat product... considering vegetarians who are likely to show up, it would not be difficult to throw in a vegetable dish including a protein vegetarian friendly dish.
Lastly... cheeses, olives, fresh or otherwise prepared fruit on it's own, nuts and sweet things. If one wanted to serve a dairy based drink, this would be the best time, not before or during a meal.
Authentically, it would make sense to serve courses full of variety and copious amounts of food but in an SCA sense, this doesn't often work so well.
One of my largest frustrations are being able to get the variety out but can not seem to get it out all at once, instead things seem to end up crawling out bit by bit.
What has made this tricky, in my experience, has been getting people to try something different (baby steps, I must be patient) and being able to have enough space and tables for table settings that allow it. Double seated tables, which is very common, is great for table conversation but very difficult for servers to do a full out job (more on that later) and steals space for food delivery.
Food as entertainment! This is often made impractical with our cramped halls and seating arrangements. It is just a nature of the beast and hard to avoid... how many can really find that perfect hall at that great price? Unlikely in many cases, I know. However, if space allowed it... the best seating plan to take care of historic functions and the modern needs of the SCA would be the classic U formation (in a disconnected sort of way) with the kitchen and buffet/sideboard being at the 'open' end almost forming a disconnected (and squared off) O type shape.
What this should do is allow the servers contact with the kitchen and the unseated side of all of the tables as well as being about to walk around and behind the tables discretely.
The use of a first cold course is basically the same as it always have been, buying the kitchen staff some time while being able to have food out in a timely manner with little stress on the kitchen. Of course there are humor related reasons for many dining practices but literature of the time does stress the practical nature of this arrangement. A few texts seem to mention this as a dayboard, but not like how many of us SCA-eastern diners see dayboards, it is used as a feasting/storing implement for the main event (feast) rather than a midday meal in itself.
On serving... We, in the SCA, are really hard up on servers and carvers so it isn't uncommon to have pre-carved roasts being offered or to have entire roasts plunked upon tables and left for the diners to handle. We see this as perfectly acceptable, not to mention easing up the, pinched for resources, kitchen. In a more historic sense, while it may be acceptable to have pre-carved roasts sent to the table, it was not always the ideal from anything I have read on carving. A whole roast sent to the table was very good, but it should also be sent with someone to carve it for the diners... this way people can choose how much and what they wish from the roast and in modern considerations... the remaining bits can swiftly be brought back to the kitchen to be refrigerated. (I just dislike tossing food when it can be useful for stock, soup, etc.)
Note: I wonder if it would be carved at table... I imagine so, would make little sense otherwise, esp. if carving was so particular (should read some of these manuals), it seemed almost more like showmanship than just making cuts for diners.
Baked foods (such as food cooked in pastes) are also well handled this way.
Small things can be fancy too! Most feasts I've attended... even my own, lacked a certain amount of presentation. I've only started making some effort in more recent ones and not even those come close to what I'd like to do!
Ever consider making things people might not eat? Dunno why not, we do it all the time :P Thing is, some of these things can be nearly free or at least very very cheap... like an aspic. Executed well, it can look quite impressive but is also incredibly inexpensive to make. Blancmange, on the other hand, is quite expensive to make (with the cost of almonds), however, if one must make it... do make it pretty, it would be a shame to go through the trouble, and cost, without making at least one display dish.
Chuets/chewets, however one may spell it... I never see these and don't know why? Possibly due to the difficulty of making them? though they are not much more difficult than making empanadas or pasties, which also takes some time on behalf of whomever is in charge of doing up pastry.
Garnishes, not uncommonly mentioned... though some I have come across have certainly read bizarre... like chicken bones? But things like lemon slices and other fruit bits, sure... also nuts (but not worth it if there are such reported allergies among diners). I've even noticed pastry as a garnish... hey, why not? it can be pretty.