How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

silver and white place setting on blue table
Bryan Gardner

When it comes to entertaining, few things impress quite like a formal dinner table—especially when it's been properly set. More importantly, taking the time to set a formal table shows your guests how much you care. "Knowing you are expected and are an honored guest only adds to the anticipation of the meal and the company," says Jodi Smith, etiquette expert and founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. But between knowing what utensils go where, when certain plates should be cleared (or added) to the table, and how many glasses should be at each place setting, the correct formal table setting etiquette can get a little tricky. That's what typically deters people from learning the rules in the first place.

Although setting a formal dinner table may seem complicated, it's actually not that hard once you've armed yourself with the right tips. Even if you don't have a dinner party or special occasion that calls for setting a formal table, learning how to do it is a skill every hostess should know—and furthermore, it better educates you on being a guest at a formal dinner. "It's important for every adult to know the formalities of a proper place setting," insists Jung Lee, the sought-after event planner and founder of Fête. "For me, it's no different than knowing one's manners. And the structure of a proper table setting isn't a complicated math formula. It's logical; once you know it, it's hard to forget."

Ready to jump in? Click through for the fundamentals and helpful tips on setting a formal dinner table.

01 of 06

Before the First Course

Where to Place Your Napkin in a Formal Dining Place Setting
Emma Darvick

"Once you realize table setting is based on logic, things become less intimidating," says etiquette consultant Pamela Hillings. For example, you begin eating a meal by using the flatware at the outside left and right, and then working your way in towards the plate as the meal proceeds. Forks are placed to the left of the plate, knives and spoons to the right. Stemware is set above and to the right of the dinner plate; bread-and-butter plates sit above the forks, to the left of the place setting.

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, often 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.

"When more than four guests are expected, be sure to create seating in advance," says Smith. "Place cards are a lovely touch, or the host may direct people to their seats." And remember, if you're using place cards make sure you place them for your guests, but not for yourself.

Although it may seem protocol, both Lee and Smith strongly advise against setting a napkin underneath the forks. "It creates quite a bit of noise, and the occasional dropped fork as guests pull their napkins for use," says Smith. "The first thing people do when they sit down is reach for the napkin, and they have to disrupt the place setting to get to the napkin, which isn't gracious," adds Lee.

Also, remember to think ahead when setting the table—if there are going to be toasts, Smith says a champagne glass should be added, and be placed furthest to the right to enable guests to easily raise their glasses.

  • Watch as Martha Demonstrates How to Properly Set a Table
02 of 06

Setting the Table for Soup

Fine Dining Place Setting
Emma Darvick

Soup is served in a heated soup dish, atop a dinner plate, and eaten with the soup spoon, which is placed at the 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.

When soup is served with a plate, the resting place for the spoon is in the bowl. The finished position is across the top of the plate, behind the bowl, between 11 and 2 (think clock-face). When there is no plate, the resting and finished positions are the same, in the bowl. Once a utensil has touched food, it is never to touch the tablecloth again.

Also note, if the salad is served after the main course, the salad fork is placed to the right of the dinner (as shown in the illustration). If the salad is served first, then the forks would be arranged (left to right) salad fork, fish fork, dinner fork.

  • How to Host a Party with Zero Waste
03 of 06

Setting the Table for Fish

Formal Dining Table Setting Illustration
Emma Darvick

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 course, or any other, guests should place their silverware diagonally across the plate—handles at 4:20 and knife blade facing in.

04 of 06

Setting the Table for the Main Course

Formal Dining Table Illustration for Main Course
Emma Darvick

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.

  • Why Florists Are Loving Dried Flowers Right Now
05 of 06

Setting the Table for Salad

Illustration of Salad Fork Placement on Dining Table
Emma Darvick

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 wine glasses will be cleared, along with the salad plate and fork, leaving the table set for dessert.

06 of 06

Setting the Table for Dessert

Dessert place setting on a table
Emma Darvick

A small dessert plate arrives. Use the cake fork and the dessert spoon, which have been 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. "While the other stemware is removed, a formal meal will often have a dessert wine or champagne toast as part of the final course," Smith says.

Both Lee and Smith emphasize the importance of the dessert course. "Guests will graciously forgive even the most atrocious of meal mishaps when something sweet is served at the conclusion of the meal," Smith says. And don't forget to keep the momentum of the party up! Just because the meal is over doesn't mean the entertaining has to be. "If possible, I suggest moving to a sitting area or living room for guests to move around and mingle," says Lee. "No one likes to be at the same spot for too long. If there isn't such a space available, consider switching up the place setting right before dessert. Injection of fresh energy will liven up the dinner party."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles