How to Set the Table for a Fancy Formal Dinner

How to Set the Table for a Fancy Formal Dinner

Special occasions, such as engagement announcements, anniversary and birthday dinners, and holiday feasts call for something fancier than the traditional place setting. Although today's customs allow for more individual creativity than in the past, there are some basic rules. Once you learn them, you can observe them or bend them as you like.

The Basic Layout

The place setting wasn't devised as a puzzle or a test. It's based on logic and grew out of rhyme and reason. Utensils to be used first are laid on the outside. Diners work their way inward as courses are served and cleared.

The main dinner plate is right in front of the diner. Glasses and stemware are placed above the dinner plate and to the right because the majority of diners are right-handed and glasses are reached for repeatedly. Bread plates are placed above the dinner plate and to the left. The setup makes it easy to eat without much movement, which could lead to spills and breaks.

Setting the Table

Here is the traditional formula for a basic "cover" or place setting, in order of setup. Remember, you aren't just setting the table, you're setting the tone for the event.

1 Charger and dinner plate (or "service plate"). First, put down the charger plate. A charger is a plate larger than the dinner plate and is used to dress up the table. Ideas about when to clear the charger vary. Sometimes, chargers are removed as guests are seated. It is becoming more common for charger plates to remain on the table during the service of soups and first courses, to act as a base on which food-bearing plates and bowls will sit. If the design of the chargers complements the design of the dinner plates, they may remain on the table throughout the courses of the meal. Charger plates are, however, always removed before serving dessert. If your dishware is already formal or pleasing, and you choose not to use chargers, lay out the dinner plate only.

2 Soup bowl. Center it on top of the charger and/or dinner plate.

3 Bread plate. Place this above and to the left of the charger or dinner plate. Lay the bread knife on it, facing the blade tip away from the charger. It should be horizontal, lining up with the edge of the table.

4 Coffee cup. Place this, on its saucer, slightly below and to the left of the bread plate.

5 Forks and napkin. To the left of the dinner plate, working from the edge of the plate outward, lay the dinner fork, the fish fork, and then the salad fork (or rearrange to match the order of your courses). Next to the salad fork, lay the rectangular napkin. Note: All flatware should align with the bottom of the plate.

6 Spoons and knife. To the right of the dinner plate, working from the edge of the plate outward, lay the dinner knife, fish knife, and salad knife (blades facing the plate), and the teaspoon. If you have a soup course, put a soup spoon on the far right. If your courses move in a different order, rearrange so the last knife used is on the inside.

7 Glasses and stemware. Above the spoons and knife, to the right of the plate, set the water glass on the inside (closest to the bread plate) and two wineglasses beside it, grouping the two together. Just above the wineglasses, set a Champagne glass.

8 Dessert spoon and fork. Place these horizontally above the dinner plate, with the spoon on top with its handle facing to the right; the fork sits below with its handle facing left.

When electricity was first invented, not all households could afford it. Even if you could, it was considered polite to avoid boasting. To make guests feel comfortable, hosts kept charred candle wicks on the tables so that no one could be singled out as having more affluence.

A Word on Tablecloths

Like a bedspread, the tablecloth is the icing on the cake. It unifies the table settings and the décor of the room. On a practical level, the tablecloth can protect the table itself and dampen the noise at crowded or lively parties. Here are some points to consider as you choose tablecloths for various occasions:

• Overhang. For a formal dinner, a deep and dramatic overhang is the order of the day. A drop of 10 to 15 inches will allow it to rest in guests' laps. For a relaxed, casual dinner, a drop of 10 inches is appropriate.

• Silence cloth. The silence cloth is used underneath the decorative tablecloth to give it a fluffy, drapey, luxurious effect. Silence cloths are commercially available in materials such as felt, foam-backed vinyl, wool, and quilted cotton, but you can easily make them yourself because they simply require cutting and measuring—no hemming.

• The basic tablecloth. If you buy only one, get it in a solid color that matches or complements your dinnerware and accent pieces. Remember, the more precious the fabric, the more care you'll have to take with spills and splashes. Some very nice tablecloths are sold in poly-cotton blends and are machine washable. For Grandma's heirloom lace or linen, however, you're looking at a trip to the dry cleaner after each event.

At the Center of It All

Nothing indicates the mood of a festive meal more than the centerpiece. If there's a horn of plenty on the table, you know it's Thanksgiving. With centerpieces, you are limited only by your imagination—and the height of your guests. Don't stack anything on the table that might prevent easy eye contact during conversation.

Although you can buy lovely centerpieces at home goods stores, here are some fun DIY alternatives:

• Floating the idea. Use fruit in a glass bowl or large vase. Try using lemons for a cheerful spring luncheon or create a tableau of plums, blueberries, and red grapes floating in water for a romantic deep-winter's dinner.

• Falling for flowers and leaves. Spread apart the leaves of small purple and green cabbages, and plunge stems of flowers into the centers. Or invert various sizes of bowls, drape them with ivy, fall leaves, or bunches of grapes, and place pomegranates or squash on top.

• Stack it. Use a flat platter or plate with a rim, and pile it high with pinecones, palm fronds, or anything that suits the theme.


Hosting can be stressful, but with a few advanced considerations your dinner can be a memorable and enjoyable evening. Here are a few tips (keeping in mind of course that, as with all matters of etiquette, your guests' comfort trumps any rule).

• If you're having more than twelve guests, cater, staff, or provide buffet service.

• Have one or two spares of everything on standby in the kitchen, in case something gets broken or dropped.

• Don't crowd your guests. If you need space, don't set out the coffee cup or dessert flatware until the other dishes have been cleared. If it's very crowded, consider seating guests at two tables.

• Formal tables are beautiful and indicate that an occasion is special and should be treated with honor.