Dining Etiquette: How To Set A Formal Table

A few tips on how to set a formal dining table, where to arrange the dishes and silverware, and proper dinner etiquette.

When it's important to impress a client, your spouse's boss, or your mother-in-law, do so with a formal dinner. You'll look like the ritziest of the ritzy when they see a perfectly set table of fine linen, crystal and china. Be sure the tablecloth is spotless and free of wrinkles, and the same goes for the matching or coordinating linen napkins. Make sure the tablecloth fits well and won't hang down on your guests' laps. Don't choose a tablecloth with a bold design for a formal dinner. White linen with white lace or something similar is a better choice. Select real flowers for your table, but nothing that will stand taller than your guests while they're seated. The guests should be able to freely see one another without having to lean to one side or stretch their necks. Choose one floral arrangement for a round or square table and two to three arrangements for a rectangular table, depending upon how long it is. The vases shouldn't take up too much space on the table, but should also not be small-based and easily tipped.

Choose your best china, and set the table, placing the plates an exact distance apart from each other, making sure any patterns on the plate are turned appropriately. Many foods look the most appetizing if they are served on a plain white plate, but all-white meals like chicken with rice are best served on a black plate for a formal dinner. If you have a table that seats 6, but only 5 will attend, remove the 6th chair and spread the others a little further apart. There are many different ways to fold the napkin or use napkin rings to make the napkin more attractive, but place it, ring or otherwise, in the center of the plate.

Use your best silver and place the knives on the right side of the plate, blade side facing the plate. There should be a knife for each course except dessert. One knife for the salad, one for the entree and one for the main course, and so on. The spoons should be placed beside the knives, one spoon for each course where they will need one. So, there should be a spoon for the soup, another spoon if you're serving melon or a course that requires an additional spoon. The dessert spoon is placed horizontally, above the plate.


Above the first knife should be the water glass and beside it, the wine glass. If you'll be serving a third beverage later, such as champagne, set another glass to the right of the wine glass. Never set a bowl of butter, purchased from the supermarket, on the table. Scoop the butter out into a small crystal bowl, or purchase sticks, set on a butter dish and let soften slightly. Gravy should be in a gravy boat, not in a bowl with a spoon. Rolls should be placed in a covered basket on the table, and if the table is large, two or three baskets of rolls might be needed. Desserts are served with the fork on the plate, and afterward fingertip towels or fingertip bowls can be served.

Proper etiquette at the table is just as important as the layout itself. Never use your knife to tap the glass for attention, don't speak to others while food is in your mouth, remember to say please and thank you when food is passed, never reach in front of someone for the food, and never, ever, pick your teeth, blow your nose or belch audibly at the dinner table. Follow these tips and your dinner will go off without a hitch.

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