If you learn the essentials of a well-set dinner table, you can apply them or break them with confidence.
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How to Set a Formal Dinner Table
Special occasions, like Christmas, require a more formal table than the traditional five-piece place setting. Luckily, the modern art of table setting is quite simple once you understand a few basics.
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Before the First Course
"Once you realize table setting is based on logic, things become less intimidating," says etiquette consultant Pamela Hillings, author of "Manners in a Minute: Dining." For example, you begin eating a meal by using the flatware at the outside left and right, and then work toward the plate as the meal proceeds. Stemware is set above and to the right of the dinner plate; bread-and-butter plates sit above the plate and to the left.
Flatware should align with the bottom rim of the charger, a large plate, which will be removed after everyone spreads his napkin on his lap (napkin rings, customary at family meals, may be used as a festive decoration). The water glass stands above the dinner knife, white wine to its right, and red wine top center.
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Setting the Table for Soup
Soup is served in a heated soup dish, atop a dinner plate, and eaten with the soup spoon, at outer right. When every guest has finished and laid his spoon, bowl up, across the upper right hand corner of the plate, the plate, bowl, and spoon will be removed. The bread-and-butter plate and butter knife remain.
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Setting the Table for Fish
A midsize plate arrives bearing the fish course. Use the short, broad fork at outer left and the fish knife at outer right. When they have finished this, or any other, course, guests should place their silverware diagonally across the plate -- handles at 4:20 and knife blade facing in.
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Setting the Table for the Main Course
Course two has been cleared, leaving the table set for the main course. The large dinner plate may be brought in either bearing a portion of food or empty, if food is to be served at the table. In either case, the plate should be preheated unless the main course is served cold. Eat with the dinner fork and knife.
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Setting the Table for Salad
Salad is served on a midsize plate and eaten with the remaining fork, which has a broader end tine than other forks and can be used for cutting. After this course, the bread-and-butter plate, butter knife, and both wineglasses will be cleared, along with the salad plate and fork, leaving the table set for dessert.
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Setting the Table for Dessert
A small dessert plate arrives along with a coffee or teacup and a teaspoon. Use the cake fork and the dessert spoon, laid across the top of the setting before the meal began (note that the fork's tines are set facing right and the spoon's bowl facing left). The water glass is the only stemware still on the table.