Divine Dinner Party

Formal Dinner Table Setting:
Tips to Set a Formal Table

You have a very special event planned, but may not know anything about formal dinner table setting. If so, join the club! While many people grew up setting a family table, learning how to set a formal table for a more formal affair can prove to be a bit overwhelming.
For most events, a nice basic table setting should suffice. But if you really want to impress, there's nothing like a formal table. How do you set up a table to make sure that your guests are comfortable, you follow the rules of table setting etiquette, and there's still room to serve the and eat the meal? Read on!

Or find more table setting and decoration tips at:


How to Set a Formal Table in 5 Steps

Setting a formal table for a dinner party
The basic idea behind traditional formal dinner table setting is that the items you will be using first are furthest from you, with other items less used being placed progressively inward towards the center point (namely: the plate).

In other words: "Start out and work your way in!"

Ready to learn how to set a formal dinner table? Starting from the center outwards, here's how to do it.

Also check the diagram at the bottom of this list.

1. Placemats

If using placemats, place them one inch from the end of the table. While not a required part of a formal dinner table setting, placemats can be a good way to add style to your table.

2. Plates/Tableware

Most formal dinner table settings will simply include a dinner or service plate, though others will include an optional salad plate at the center of the service plate. For a formal dinner, the plate for each course is brought directly to the table and laid on top of the service plate.

Tableware Components (see diagram):

  • 2a: Service or Dinner Plate
  • 2b: Bread and Butter Plate

3. Silverware

The silverware you use will depend on the courses being served. If only serving 2-3 courses, the silverware you use when you set a formal table should suffice. If more than 3 courses are served, you'll need to bring out new silverware with each course after the initial set of silverware has been used.

Silverware is placed according to when it's used, from the outside in, as follows.

Silverware Components (see diagram):

  • 3a. Salad Fork: outside and to left of the plate
  • 3b. Dinner Fork: inside and to the left of the plate
  • 3c. Dinner Knife: Inside and to the right of the plate
  • 3d. Salad Knife: Middle and to the right of the plate
  • 3e. Soup Spoon (optional): Outside and to the right of the plate
  • 3f. Butter Knife: Laid diagonally across bread plate
  • 3g. Dessert Fork: Inside and above plate
  • 3h. Dessert Spoon: Outside and above plate

All knife edges should be facing the plate. The most important part of setting up silverware for a formal dinner table? Be sure everything is perfectly evenly spaced!

4. Glasses/Glassware

Depending on how many different wines you plan to serve at your formal dinner party, you'll need anywhere from 2 to 4 glasses: one for water, one or two for wine, and perhaps one for champagne or dessert wine.

Glasses/Glassware Components (see diagram):

  • 4a. Water Glass
  • 4b. White Wine Glass
  • 4c. Red Wine Glass

5. Napkins and Tablecloth

When setting a formal dinner table, napkins can be placed on the service plate, to the left of the silverware, or on your bread plate. They can be left plain or given a fancy fold-- your choice!

When putting together your formal dinner table setting, be sure to set your plates up 2" from the edge of the table, or 1" from the edge of the placemat.


Diagram of A Formal Table Setting

Diagram of a Proper Formal Dinner Table Setting

Setting up Each Place or Seat

Now that you know how to set up silverware, glasses, and plates, the next thing to do to set a formal table is putting together each place or seating within the entire tablescape. There are lots of elements involved with this!

Spacing Your Place Settings

How far apart should place settings be? In making up each table space, make sure there's plenty of elbow room. Chairs shouldn't be crunched together. Otherwise the chances of spillage increase, as does awkward bumping when someone leaves the table. A good guideline? Two feet from plate to plate is generally ideal.

Name Cards

Many times a formal dinner table setting will include name cards, or place cards. This allows the host or hostess to set up a suitable seating arrangement where guests don't feel awkward (or wonder where best to sit). It also gives you the chance to put any special guests in a place of honor. The name cards go center above each plate (or sometimes on the plate itself).

Gifts or Dinner Favors

For a wedding reception dinner or other special occasion, it's not uncommon to give gifts or favors to your guests. These can be placed in the center of a plate, used as part of the name card, or placed on the table to the left of the place setting.

Centerpieces

Centerpieces for a formal dinner table setting are about more than just style... you've also got to consider your guests! Look for centerpiece ideas that are low enough to hold a conversation over... and that won't potentially bother your guests. Check out these pages for some ideas:


A Compromise: The Semi-Formal Table

The first thing you need to know is that you can make a table look formal... whether or not you have the time or space to do a formal dinner table setting around the traditional "rules."

However, if you've got limited space, or only a small amount of tableware, it might become very difficult to get every single nuance.

When this happens, think about the visual impact of your table. Use the basic ideas behind formal table setting etiquette, but limit them to the table's real estate space and your personal resources with china, glasses, serviceware, and silverware. There's nothing inelegant about using a basic table setting with the items you have-- but with a lot of visual appeal.


Dining in Style: Tablecloths, Decorations, and More

Fancy Table Setting- Set a formal table with pretty centerpiecesSome people will tell you that the only way to set a formal table is to use white linen. There is no question that white linen screams pristine elegance... but it also shows every last drip and stain very badly.

Having Fun with Colors Want to skip the white? One way to switch this up is by using very plain dinnerware (maybe cream colored) and a patterned or brightly colored table cloth and napkins. These will hide some of that wear and tear. The only caution here is to avoid mixing and mingling too many hues. To much color will detract from not only the formal feel, but also the visual impact of your lovingly prepared food.

Keeping it Together. In the end, the key to having a successful formal dinner table setting is continuity. It's very likely that many of your guests will not know if you haven't put every fork and spoon in the exact, traditional location if you've paid attention and made each setting the same way.

Remember: formal is about the details. When you get those right, it helps the whole meal flow more smoothly!


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