A Visual Guide to Setting the Table for Any Type of Gathering, From Casual to Formal

table setting
Photo: Corinne Mucha

No matter how casual the dinner party is, it's always nice to arrive at a beautifully set table. And even if you don't know all the formal rules (we can help, but more on that later) or have a complete set of china, don't be afraid to take some liberties and create a thoughtful tablescape with what you do have on hand. After all, the way a table is set contributes to the ambiance of a meal as much as the food and wine.

Whether you want to throw a formal dinner party that takes place around a traditional table or just want to feel more confident prepping for any gathering, here are some guidelines to help you establish the tone for every course.

01 of 07

Where to Place Glasses

setting the table glasses
Corinne Mucha

When setting a table, it's important to avoid going overboard. "Only set the table for the pieces that your guests will need to enjoy the meal," says etiquette expert and coach Myka Meier of Beaumont Etiquette. Each place should be set with all the glasses that will be used during dinner (except dessert-wine glasses, which may be brought out when the dessert is served).

The water glass belongs to the right of the plate, just above the main dining knife. Wine glasses should be set to the right of the water glasses in the order in which they will be used. For a trick to remember where your glasses go, Meier suggests this: "If you put your index finger to your thumb on both hands, the left hand creates a lowercase b (for bread), while the right hand creates a lowercase d (for drinks). This way you can remember the bread plate always goes on the left and the drinks always go on the right."

02 of 07

Before the Meal

setting the table
Corinne Mucha

The only pieces of china that should be part of a table setting before the meal starts are the bread plate and a charger, if desired. A service plate (also known as a charger in America) is a purely decorative, oversize plate used to add texture, color, or pattern to the table. Chargers may be made of just about anything—china, pewter, and brass are all common, but even straw or papier-mâche will do.

Remember that food is never served directly on the charger, but a first-course soup bowl or salad plate can be set on top of it. The charger should be cleared along with the bowl or plate.

03 of 07

How to Place the Silverware

setting the table silverware
Corinne Mucha

A proper silverware setting follows one simple rule, no matter how formal or relaxed the event is: Set the silverware on the table in the order it will be used, from the outside in. The fork for the first course is the one farthest to the left; to the right of the plate, the knife for the first course is the farthest to the right. Any spoons needed before dessert (say, a soup spoon), should be placed to the right of the knives.

"Set all the silverware up so that each piece lines up at the bottom; one piece of silverware should not be higher than the next," Meier says. "Remember that there is no actual distance silverware should be set apart; it's more important that each piece is equidistant from one another. So, if you have two forks on the left side of the plate (perhaps 1.5 inches apart) and two knives on the right, each piece of silverware is the same distance apart on both sides of the place setting."

Dessert utensils should always be placed horizontally above the plate (depending on the level of formality), or they can be brought in with the dessert course. "Even for a multi-course meal, the maximum number of pieces of silverware that should be on the table is eight pieces, with the exception of the oyster fork, which would make nine pieces," Meier says.

04 of 07

Mix and Match China

setting the table plates
Corinne Mucha

Although a formal table has a certain level of uniformity, if you're having a more relaxed party it's fun to mix and match china, flatware, glassware, and linens. Playing with different colors and patterns to create tablescapes that feel unique to you and your party can heighten the sophistication of your table if done properly.

Just keep in mind that something should tie the elements together: If you combine dishes and flatware from different periods and styles, make sure that they share similar proportions or complementary lines. If you mix patterns, make sure they have similar color palettes that relate to one another.

05 of 07

Everyday Table Setting

setting the table everyday setting
Corinne Mucha

When it comes to a modern, everyday place setting, there's more than one way to set the table. "I like to remind people you don't need to set a table with formal china or crystal to be considered good etiquette," Meier says. "A table can be set in a more casual way with disposable cutlery and paper plates, and that's absolutely fine, too!"

If you're going for a classic, informal place setting, these are the rules: Dinner plates are not on the table when guests take their seats if there is no first course. (Begin with a dinner plate only when soup or another first course is served). Of the five basic flatware pieces, only the teaspoon is left off the table; it will arrive with coffee or tea, placed at the saucer's edge. A water glass (placed over the knife) and single wineglass are set, suggesting that one wine will accompany dinner.

06 of 07

Special-Occasion Place Setting

setting the table special ocassion
Corinne Mucha

This formal place setting includes a charger and is set for European dining, where the salad follows the main course. From the left, forks are for fish, main course, and salad. From the right are the soup spoon, fish knife, and dinner knife. Above the charger are a dessert spoon and dessert fork.

Stemware forms a triangle: The water glass sits above the dinner knife, the white-wine glass is to its right, and the red-wine glass is above them. The bread-and-butter plate and butter knife sit above the forks. If you're choosing to use place cards on the table, Meier says to remember that you should put them at all of your guests' seats, but not at your own.

07 of 07

Dessert Place Setting

setting the table desserts
Corinne Mucha

When dessert is served, all wine glasses (except dessert-wine glasses), bread plates, and salt and pepper shakers should be cleared from the table. Dessert flatware can either be set above the dinner plate or charger at the initial table setting, or it can be carried in on a tray at dessert time, along with coffee cups and saucers. The bowl of the spoon faces the forks and is always on top of the fork when placed horizontally on top of the place setting. Water glasses remain on the table for the duration of the meal.

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