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The Rules: How to Set a Formal (or Not-So-Formal) Table

Because between hunting down Grandma's famous meatloaf recipe and making sure your pesky neighbors don't show up uninvited, there's enough to worry about without adding table-setting questions into the mix. We've enlisted etiquette expert Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick to help us make sense of things. Read on for her best tablesetting tips; plus, a guide to both formal and informal settings.

Things to Know

The famous 20th-century etiquette expert Emily Post devised a genius mnemonic device for remembering the order of everything on your table. Simply think of the word "FORKS." From left to right: The "F" is for forks, followed by the round "O" shape of the plate. Forget the "R," and move on to "K," which represents the knives. The "S" stands in for -- you guessed it! -- the spoons.


But beyond just knowing where everything goes, it's important to keep in mind why you're putting so much effort into your dinner party in the first place. According to etiquette expert Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder of The Etiquette School of New York, each guest's experience relies just as heavily on the look of the event as it does on the taste of the food. And the atmosphere of a party can affect their manners, too. As Patricia explains, "The setting sets the tone for the dinner party. When we're aware that it’s going to be a more elegant affair, we’re going to be on our best behavior."  


Thinking of adding candles, flowers, or other decorations? Patricia has a few suggestions where those are concerned, too. "Flowers should not be so overly fragrant that they overpower the food," she advises, and adds that "centerpieces appear low enough that diners can see each other across the table." As for candles? "These should not be lit until it is dusk or later, though you might be able to get away with lighting them earlier on overcast days." Traditionally, formal dinner candles are white or ivory, and fragrant candles are a definite no-go. Keep in mind that the food should always be the main event.


The Formal Table Setting

The utensil placement is arguably the most important aspect of the formal table setting. "For whatever course comes first, you'll need that utensil in the extreme right or left, far away from the plate," explains Patricia. "The next course's utensil will sit next to that, and so on, until you reach the last course's utensil, which will sit closest to the plate," If the first course is salad, for instance, you should place the salad fork on the outer edge of all the utensils. Note, too, that in the traditional formal dinner, the server (who is likely the host or hostess -- that's you!) will remove any forks, spoons, or knives that are deemed unnecessary after each course.


Next, with Emily Post's helpful acronym in mind, recall that the forks always go to the left of the plate, and the knives and spoons go to the right. Dessert utensils can either be placed above the plate as shown, or they can be brought out with the dessert plates at the end of the meal, when everything else has been cleared away. Traditionally, the butter knife is placed on its plate, blade down, diagonally across -- and that plate sits to the left of the entire place setting, above the forks.


Made it this far? You're ready to think about dishware. The "charger," or "underplate," remains under the various main plates throughout most of the meal, even as the courses come and go. It's only when the entrée plate is placed on the table that the charger is replaced and finally taken away. And the napkin is to be placed on top of the charger or directly to the left of the forks. Play around with different napkin folding techniques to add even more pizzazz to your formal table.


Just as the silverware is placed in order of use, so, too, are the glasses. The water glass should remain on the table from the very beginning to the very end of the whole soirée, and it's typically placed closest to the plates. Take the example of a dinner that begins with a soup course paired with sherry. In this situation, the sherry glass would be on the right, closest to the plate. Now, imagine the soup course is followed by a fish course paired with white wine. You’d preemptively place the wine glass next to the sherry glass, further away from the center of the setting. After that, perhaps you'd like a toast at the end of the meal. In that case, the Champagne glass would be placed at the rightmost corner of the setting, to the right of all the other glasses.

Photography by: Eric Piasecki

With a more formal table setting, symmetry always matters. "Silverware should be lined up evenly from the very ends of each utensil," Patricia tells us. "It shouldn't look haphazard. And the bottom of each utensil should be approximately an inch from the edge of the table."


The Informal Table Setting

First, lay down your main plate -- this will be your home base. As you might suspect, it sits in the middle of the entire setting. The napkin can be placed virtually anywhere you'd like in this setting -- on the center plate, but also to the left of the plate under the forks, or even to the left of the forks all on its own. If you'll be serving bread, the bread plate can sit to the left of the entire place setting, above the forks, just as it does in a formal setting. A specific bread and butter knife, however, is optional. 


Next come the utensils. The fork goes to the left of the plate, and the knife and spoon go to the right. Remember that knife blades traditionally face the plate, and, just like in the formal setting, utensils are placed in the order in which they will be used, with the one that is to be used first placed in the outermost position. 


Any drink glasses or stemware should be placed on the right of the setting, above the knife.


The way Patricia sees it, these pre-arrangements and geometric patterns should be as much of a social concern as they are a logistical one. "The alternative, you see, is that you'll be left worrying the whole meal about which utensils they've got to procure for the next course. Whether you’re setting a table for a casual or formal meal, if you prepare properly with all the utensils that are necessary for the meal, it becomes easy for you as a host or hostess to join in and have a good time yourself."