I started writing this blog post thinking that I knew pretty much everything one should or needed to know about table settings (outside in, right?), but let me tell you...boy, was I wrong. Which is why it makes sense that there are a lot of guides out there. But as I was looking around, I kept noticing subtle differences without any proper explanations.
I decided that knowing how to set a table correctly for any occasion could come in handy, and I think that everyone (yes, even the men out there) should host a dinner party at least once just to appreciate how much effort and thought goes into planning a truly memorable event. When it comes down to it, it’s nice to know the “rules” so if you want, you can break with tradition and do it your own way. We know, we know. We’re SUCH rebels, we surprise ourselves sometimes.
Okay, so here’s the deal on setting a table--there are a lot of “it depends” situations, which is why I think people get confused when comparing these diagrams all over Pinterest and the Internet. So let’s start with some general rules that we feel will help clear up some confusion right away.
Utensils are placed in order of their uses, from outside in.
Only set the table with utensils that will be used during the meal.
In general, a good rule of thumb is forks are placed to the left of the plate, and knives and spoons go to the right, with the exception of the oyster fork, dessert fork and dessert spoon (we’ll address where exactly these exceptions later).
Knife blades are always placed with the cutting edge facing toward the plate.
There should never be more than three of any implement on the table at once.
If there are more than three courses served before dessert, the utensils for any additional courses are brought in with the food (such as salad and dessert utensils).
Glasses are placed on the right above the knives and spoons. There can be up to five glasses, arranged in order of when they will be used, from left to right. When there are more than three glasses, they can be arranged with smaller glasses in front.
Now that we have the basics down, let’s start with the most formal setting.
Appetizer: Shellfish of some kind
First course: Soup or fruit
You can see that all of the utensils are placed according to how the meal will progress. If the salad also needed a knife, it would be placed to the left of the dinner knife.
Here are some important things to note:
The charger/service plate remains in place remains in place for all courses as an underplate until the entrée is served, at which point the two plates are exchanged.
This meal has more than three courses served before dessert, which is why you don’t see any dessert utensils--those will come out with the dessert course.
In the US, we most often serve salad before or alongside the entrée, but in Europe the salad is often served after the entrée. It is considered cleansing before cheese and dessert. If the salad is served before the entrée, the salad fork would be placed to the left of the dinner fork.
Here’s another formal setting that is a bit more common, especially here in the US:
First course: soup
Salad or first course
Here are some important things to note about this table setting:
• The salad fork is to the left of the dinner fork, according to the order of the courses.
• There is also now a dessert spoon (f) next to the dinner knife. However, the dessert fork and/or dessert spoon can also be placed horizontally above the charger/service plate. The dessert spoon would be placed on top with the handle to the right, and the dessert fork would be placed below the spoon, with the handle to the left (see below). For weddings, dessert/cake will most often be served from a dessert table with utensils.
• The coffee cup and saucer are often placed on the table when a large group of people will be served (for instance, at a restaurant). When that is the case, the coffee cup, saucer and teaspoon are placed to the right, above the knives and spoons. However, in most cases, the cup and saucer will be brought to the table when it's time to serve the coffee.
And finally, the more casual table setting:
This place setting is the most straight-forward, and probably the one that is most often used. Just a reminder that the bread and butter knife always go to the left, above the dinner plate, and any drinks always go to the right above the knives and spoons.
If you are stressing about a particular piece of table etiquette, we suggest checking out the original Queen of Manners, Emily Post. Or you can say to hell with it, and do it your own way. At the end of the day, gathering people around a table and enjoying a meal together isn't about the table setting--it's about spending quality time with family and friends, good conversation and delicious food. Oh, and the wine...can't forget the wine.