Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

Formal dinner with the good china, crystal and sterling silverware--who does that anymore?!! Well, I do. Now, I don't do it that often. I probably do it once every month or two on average. In fact, as I noted in Tuesday's post, we just recently hosted a formal dinner party for 34 people. We had two adult tables with nine people at each of them, a long folding table on the patio with 12 teenagers sitting at that, and then a card table adjacent to one of the adult tables for four young children.

You may be thinking, "Wow! That's a lot of people!" Truly it was. Not all of our formal dinners are that large, but that one definitely was. Still, it wasn't a stressful evening for me. I actually relaxed and enjoyed myself during the meal. Hopefully our guests did too. There is just something really special about sitting at an elegantly-set table with candles, a fresh flower centerpiece, and pleasant music playing in the background. That's not something most of us get to do everyday. For many people, it only happens for business gatherings and on holidays, if then.

Probably one of the reasons people don't often host formal dinners anymore is for some of the reasons I already addressed in previous blog posts: everyone is just s-o-o-o-o-o busy nowadays. Entertaining can be time consuming enough just doing it casually with paper plates and disposable tablecloths. But when you're hosting a formal dinner, not only do you have all the food prep, there's also a lot of "extras" you need to set at the table--candles, placecards, cloth napkins and tablecloths, charger plates, cups and saucers, bread plates, and on and on. It can be a lot of work to get all these items out of the china cabinets, iron the table linens, and polish the silverware. Oh, and when the meal is over with, the china, crystal and silverware can't usually be put in the dishwasher; it all has to be hand-washed. So all the work alone can be a deterrent.

And then for other people, they may simply not have the "nice” china or crystal they think is necessary to host a formal dinner. Or, perhaps they're not sure exactly where everything needs to be placed at the table. I mean, there's a lot more to set down with a formal dinner than just a plate, glass, fork, knife, spoon and paper napkin. According to dinner etiquette, everything has a certain place it needs to be placed on the table. Of course, it may be many years or even decades since you've taken a Home Economics class and learned all this kind of "stuff." You may not remember where to put the wine goblet in relation to the dessert fork.

I just happen to have several good friends who teach Home Economics, either in high school or at the college level. I’ve gleaned a lot from them over the years. I've also got hundreds of books on entertaining and cooking, each of them with information in them on how to set a formal table. I've distilled a lot of the formal table setting basics below. I'm hoping that even if you haven't hosted a formal dinner time in a long time, or even in your lifetime, you might decide to try it. It's really doable, and you don't have "fancy" bone china table settings to create a very special dinner ambiance. You can have a beautiful table with inexpensive white Corelle dinnerware. However, you need to keep certain important steps in mind:

1. Start with a clean and ironed white linen tablecloth. You can also use a solid color table cloth, but I don’t think anything’s as elegant as a white tablecloth. White is especially nice if you have colorful china; that way your plates really stand out. But if you have plain white china or ceramic plates, a solid pastel or other colored tablecloth can be nice. Personally, my favorite tablecloths are those made from linen, damask and lace. Your tablecloth should hang 10 to 12 inches evenly around the table.

2. If you are using charger plates (which are used only for decorative purposes and food is not served on them), those are the first items to go on the table. The dinner plates would then be centered on top of the charger plates. But probably most people, like myself, don’t use charger plates. In that case, the dinner plates are the first thing on the table. Place them about 2 inches away from the edge of the table.

3. If you are serving a salad course before the main entrée, the salad plate goes directly on top of the dinner plate. If you are first serving a soup course—before the salad course—the soup bowl goes on top of the salad plate. This means you would have a stack of three—a dinner plate, salad plate and soup bowl—at each setting, with the first course on top. Now for my recent dinner, we didn’t have a soup course, so I skipped the bowl. (If your guests aren’t going to need certain plates, utensils, etc., there’s no reason to set them out.) Alternatively, if you have enough table space (which I don’t unfortunately) salad plates can be placed to the left of the dinner plates. Bread plates can be placed on the upper left of the dinner plate (above the salad plates)—again, if you have room at your table. You may place individual butter spreaders on top of each bread plate. (Since my dining room table is relatively small, I just have my guests put their bread directly on their dinner or salad plates.)

4. To the immediate left of the dinner plate (and below the bread plate), put the salad fork and dinner fork (in that order, from left to right). On the right side of the dinner plate, place the knife (with the blade turned towards the dinner plate), teaspoon, and soup spoon (if you’re serving soup; there’s no reason to set out soup spoons if soup isn’t on your menu.). Silverware should be set on each setting, in the order it will be used. This means the flatware needed for the first courses (i.e. soup and salad) will be farther away from the dinner plate than the dinner fork, knife and teaspoon (which will be used for the main entrée.)

5. Put stemware on the upper right of the dinner plate. The water goblet should be placed above and to the right of the dinner plate, just above the top of the knife. The wine glass should be placed just to the right of the water goblet. If your guests will have both red and white wine glasses, put the red wine glass directly next to the water goblet, and the white wine glass to the right of the red wine glass. If you’re also setting out champagne flutes, those should be placed just behind the wine glasses.

6. Place a folded cloth napkin across the top of the rim of the soup bowl (if you’re setting out soup bowls) or on top of the salad plate (if the salad plate is the top of the stack). Folded napkins always add a nice touch of elegance to your table setting. I have a favorite napkin fold which I like to do—which resembles a Saguaro cactus and is held together with a napkin ring. It takes me several minutes to iron and fold each napkin. What I really like about this fold is once it’s inside a napkin ring, it’s not going to become undone. These napkins can be folded several weeks in advance—which is a wonderful time saver. For this recent dinner party, I folded the napkins in mid-March (It was my computer break when I was in the midst of a big writing deadline!) and then just stored them in a box until I was ready to set the table.

7. For another touch of elegance, put a place card at each setting, next to the top of each dinner plate. I have a collection of various placecard holders which I’ve collected over the years (many of which I’ve purchased from wedding supply stores). I’ll write out each guest’s name in calligraphy with a calligraphy pen on a small rectangular-shaped piece of white card stock, and put that on each placecard holder. Not only is this an elegant touch, it’s also I good way to plan out who’s going to sit where. That way I can have guests sitting next to people who I think they’ll enjoy talking to. (Usually this is something I need to think through, so I’d rather figure out the seating ahead of time rather than wait until after all our guests arrive.)

8. Allow at least 24-28 inches of table space for each place setting. You want a cozy, intimate atmosphere, that’s for sure, but you don’t want your guests to literally be “rubbing elbows” with each other either.

9. Some hostesses like to include coffee/tea cups and saucers, and dessert forks and spoons in their formal dinner settings as well. Again, not everyone has the space to do this. I sure don’t. If you do, however, the cup and saucer would need to be placed just above the teaspoon and soup spoon, and below the wine goblets. The dessert fork and/or spoon would be placed horizontally above the dinner plate. Nowadays, though, what’s more typical is to clear the table after the main entrée is finished, and then bring out the coffee cups, dessert spoons and desserts on plates for everyone to enjoy at the dinner table. That’s what we do at my home. Or, sometimes we’ll serve up dessert, coffee and tea in the living room, on the coffee table, next to the fire place.

10. Don’t forget centerpieces. I have favorite vases I like to use for fresh flower centerpieces. Sometimes I’ll buy fresh flowers and make my own floral arrangements. Other times I’ll take my vases down to a florist and ask them to “fill it up” with particular colors to complement my china. That’s what I did this past week with our recent dinner party. I also like to have tapered candles out on the table. Sometimes, I’ll make floating candle centerpieces to use instead of floral centerpieces. Make sure whatever centerpieces you use do not block the faces of guests sitting at opposite sides of the table. Centerpieces should be relatively short. That is why I usually order floral centerpieces in advance (rather than just go down to a florist the day of a party and just hope I am going to find something I like). Typically the arrangements already made up at a floral shop are too tall for a dinner table.

These are all general steps to take to set a formal dinner table. Every etiquette book you read will include variations for how to set a formal table. I tried to include the basic steps though.

One other point: sometimes you may have families with young children coming over for a formal dinner. What I like to do—and this is what I did with the dinner we just hosted—is to have the parents at the main table and then set up a special kids’ table for the younger guests. After all, you want it to be a special evening for the children too. (Remember, if the children are enjoying themselves, the adults will be much more likely to be able to have a nice evening!) I have special plastic plates and salad plates with whimsical designs for kids to use. I also like to put small gift bags on the place setting for each child. I’ll find games, puzzles, etc., from the dollar store to put in these bags. This keeps the children occupied and happy during the meal! Here’s a photo of the children’s table I set for our recent dinner:

Here’s a pic of some happy teens at the teen table:

Here’s another photo of one of the adult tables:

One more point before I close: There’s still the issue of all the dinner clean up after the meal. Most of the time, my guests volunteer to help clean up. But sometimes it’s so late by the time the evening is over, and I hate to ask my guests to stay late to clean.

One solution that a friend brought up this past weekend is to hire a trustworthy high school or college student (ideally one in your neighborhood) to take care of cleanup for you. Most will be happy to help you out with washing dishes for $10 an hour. They can clean up your dishes for you and clear your dinner table while you’re sipping on coffee and eating dessert in the living room. I really like that idea! Paying someone else to do the cleanup for you may be money well-spent. To me, it makes an enjoyable evening even more enjoyable.

Okay….that’s it for tonight. Happy table setting!


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful blog on
    Formal dinner candles Really amazing.
    Keep up the good work.
    Thanks for sharing such information....