HOW TO PROPERLY SET A TABLE

Our comprehensive guide to setting a table like a pro.

TABLE SETTINGS TO MAKE YOUR GUESTS FEEL WELCOME

It’s the twenty first century and how to properly set a table isn’t what it used to be. Whether you are hosting a formal dinner party or casual brunch, your table should be set specifically for the food and drinks you plan to serve.

That means, even for the most formal of occasions, you will rarely set the table with all of your china and flatware. Did you know there are technically 13 pieces of flatware per place setting?  If you aren’t Lady Grantham, can you imagine sitting down to that nightmare?

As much as you may appreciate the beauty and grandeur of that elegant tradition – you don’t want your guests to feel like they should be able to balance books on their heads throughout your party. This isn’t Downton Abbey, so relax.

How you set the table should be straight forward and put your guests at ease. By limiting their plate and utensil choices, guests can easily maneuver between courses and focus on what’s important – the conversation.  It’s a party, right? So, let’s have some fun.

A BASIC TABLE SETTING

A basic table setting consists of the following:

  • Dinner Plate

  • Dinner Knife

  • Dinner Fork

  • Water Glass

  • Napkin 

As you can see in the illustration, the fork goes on the left of the dinner plate and the knife goes on the right facing in – so that your neighbor doesn’t think you intend to stab them. (Yes, that is really why the knife faces inward.) The water glass goes to the upper right of the plate above the knife.

The napkin is more of a wild card. It can go on top of the plate or it can go to the left of the fork. It can also go under the fork, but we’ll tackle all these specifics later in the post.

This basic place setting will get most people through dinner without having to use their fingers. Unless you’re serving Ethiopian food and then fingers are fair game! Now let’s dig into which utensils go with which courses and what gets put where.

AN INFORMAL TABLE SETTING

An informal table setting can take on many variations. As we mentioned earlier, it all depends on what you are serving. In addition to the basic table setting, an informal table setting might feature the following items: 

  • Salad Plate

  • Salad Fork

  • Soup Bowl

  • Soup Spoon

  • Bread Plate

  • Butter Knife

  • Dessert Fork

  • Dessert Spoon

  • Wine Glass(es)

  • Champaign Glass

  • Charger 

Are You Serving a Salad? 

If the salad is being served as pre-dinner course, you’ll need a salad fork and a salad plate. The salad fork is placed to the left of the dinner fork and according to Emily Post, the salad plate goes to the left of the salad fork. 

However, if you are like us and are more focused on presenting a chic, modern table scape, we recommend putting the salad plate on top of the dinner plate. Things just always look better when they are grouped and layered.

As a side note, if you are serving your salad family style and it’s sharing a place on the dinner plate with your other items, then one fork is still fine. Again, no need to confuse your guests. 

Are You Serving Soup?  

Obviously, you will need a bowl and soup spoon. Soup is generally served first or even sometimes in place of a salad. The bowl is placed on top of the dinner plate and the soup spoon is placed to the right of the dinner knife.

If you are setting the table with a salad plate on top of the dinner plate, the soup bowl goes on top of the salad plate.

Are You Serving Bread?

So, here’s the deal, we aren’t personally huge fans of bread plates and butter knives, because they take up a lot of room, and it interferes with all of our pretty flowers and candles and what-nots. 

However, if you can’t resist featuring your mom’s famous dinner rolls, you can place a bread plate to the upper left of the dinner plate above your forks. The butter knife is placed diagonally across the bread plate with the handle pointing towards your plate.

Are You Serving Meat? 

Just a little bit of common sense here. Regular dinner knives are generally fine for poultry and fish, but If you are serving beef, pork, veal, or lamb, everyone will need a steak knife in place of a dinner knife. You don’t want everyone elbowing each other while trying to get through that ribeye. 

Are You Serving Dessert?

There are several options when it comes to setting the table for your dessert course. First and foremost, leave dessert plates off the table until dessert is served. It is also perfectly acceptable to bring the dessert utensils out with the dessert. This is the less confusing option for your guests and keeps the table clutter free.

If want to pre-set your table with a dessert fork, it can be placed to the right of your dinner fork, or above the plate with the handle facing left. If you are using a dessert spoon, it is placed to the right of the knives and soup spoon, or above the plate with the handle facing right. Our advice is to simply choose the placement that looks the best with your table setting.

Finally, on to the Drinks! Are You Serving Wine?

For most parties, one wine glass per setting is fine. Wine glasses go to the outside of the water glass, because we want to make it easiest for our guests to get to their liquor. Afterall, it is a party!

Now we know some of you wine connoisseurs just cringed, but unless you are focusing on pairings or serving different varietals, it really isn’t necessary to take up table space with multiple wine glasses. And even if you are, there should never be more than 3 glasses on the table at any given time.

If you decide to serve both red and white wines, the red wine glass goes to the right of the water glass. The white wine glass goes the right of the red wine glass. 

Are You Serving Champagne?

If at all possible, we always encourage bubbles.  Your champagne glass goes to the right of your wine glass(es.) In addition, if it is being served as a toast at the beginning of dinner or to accompany a specific course, it is removed once that toast or course is finished.

Somewhat off topic, we are heathens and have been known to swig champagne throughout all the courses and well after dinner. So, if you invite us over – do not, I repeat, do not remove our champagne glass!

Are you serving a cordial, specialty cocktail, or after-dinner drink?

We lump these together, because the rise of craft cocktails and small batch distilleries have made it irresistible to serve something in addition to or even other than wine.

If you are serving something special in addition to your wine, place the appropriate glass to the right of your wine glass. If you are serving a specialty cocktail in place of wine, replace your wine glass with that glass. Don’t forget, no matter what you serve, never have more than 3 glasses on the table at any given time.

Are You Serving Coffee?

If you are setting up for breakfast or brunch, you’ll definitely need a cup and saucer for hot beverages. If you are only offering coffee with dessert, hold off on setting it on the table until the appropriate time. 

The cup and saucer go to the right of all the glassware. You will also want to provide a teaspoon, which is either placed on the right side of the saucer next to the cup or to the right of the dinner knives and soup spoon.

Are You Serving Iced Tea or Juice?

Juice and iced tea glasses go to the right of the water glass and generally replace wine glasses. If you need a visual, think of all those social and corporate luncheons you’ve attended.

What About That Napkin?

So now that we’ve loaded up the table with plates and glasses and silver, let’s talk about where to put that pesky napkin.

The options for napkin style and placement are unlimited. In fact, we have an entire post dedicated to it. But before you go down that rabbit hole, here are some of the basics.

Traditionally, the napkin goes to the left of the forks. However, it can also go under the forks or on top of the plate, which is one of our personal favorites, as is placing the napkin over a charger and under a plate. Like we said, it’s all about the layers baby. And since there aren’t really any rules – you can get really creative.

Bear in mind, the type of napkin you choose is probably more important than where it will rest. If you are going to do some crazy awesome folds, you will need fabric that is stiff and structured.

If you want to go with something streamlined and flat, make sure the fabric isn’t too bulky and can be neatly pressed.

If you are using a napkin ring, use fabric that gathers well and doesn’t hold wrinkles. Whatever you decide we are positive it will look fab.

Charge Ahead!

Last but not least, let’s talk about chargers. Chargers or service plates are large plates placed on the table under the plates you use to eat. They are purely decorative and remain on the table throughout all the courses.

Do you have to use chargers, no. Should you use chargers, yes!

First and foremost, they protect your table – especially from hot dishes. Second, they are pretty! Need we say more?

I bet if you browse through this site, you will have an extremely difficult time finding a table scape without them. We can’t stress this enough – it’s all about the layers.

A FORMAL TABLE SETTING

Putting It All Together!

So, if you were wondering what the difference between an informal and formal table setting looks like, honestly, it’s just more “stuff.” That isn’t to say you set out things you don’t need. Formal dinners just tend to feature a lot of courses, which requires providing your guests all the items they will need to enjoy the experience.

A formal table is likely to have many of these items: 

  • Charger

  • Dinner Plate

  • Salad Plate

  • Soup Bowl

  • Bread Plate

  • Dinner Knife

  • Dinner Fork

  • Salad Fork

  • Soup Spoon

  • Butter Knife

  • Dessert Fork

  • Dessert Spoon

  • Teaspoon

  • Water Glass

  • Wine Glass(es)

  • Champaign Glass

  • Tea/Coffee Cup and Saucer

  • Napkin

 In other words, any combination of the items we just discussed could be considered an informal table. But when you use all the items together, then you cross into formal territory. Maybe not Downton formal, but formal none the less.

Sorry for this absolutely necessary pun, but you’re all set! Your guests have plates for food, glasses for wine, and napkins to wipe up any mishaps. Hopefully, this quick how-to gave you all the info you need to properly set the table for your next dinner party. Now what are you waiting for? Let’s throw this thing already.

Cheers!

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