Formal Table Place Setting Basics: Dishes, Silverware, Glasses And More

Understanding a few basic rules can make setting an elegant, graceful formal table easy and enjoyable.

In today's era of fast food, jammed schedules and eat-on-the-run routines, the mere mention of formal dining often evokes visions of the British Royal Family or remembered scenes from the worn pages of old English mystery novels. Formal table settings, with their dizzying parade of utensils and china pieces, can seem overly elaborate and oddly complex when judged by today's rush-rush mealtime habits.

But 21st century formal dining can still retain the traditional luxuries of unhurried comfort, abundance and elegance. With a few basic guidelines, you can demystify the confusing tangle of platters, spoons, forks, knives, plates and glasses that gives formal dining preparation such a formidable reputation.

A place for everything:

The basic rules of formal table setting etiquette still apply in the 21st century, even if they're seldom required. They're rooted in two tradition-bound concepts: first, cutlery is laid out in order of food presentation, so guests shouldn't have to guess which fork or spoon is appropriate to the course before them; and second, most diners are right-handed. There was a logic and rhythm to formal dining and its accompanying table settings in its 19th century heyday. Soup spoons were placed to the far right of the main attraction -- the plate -- because soups (usually two soup courses!) were served first. Knives were placed next to the plate at right, because the right-handed diner carves his food with his right hand, sets his knife down and then picks up his fork with his other hand: hence, forks to the left.

So the easiest formal dining rule to remember, and the most flexible depending on menu choice, is that forks (except fish forks) line up on the left and knives and spoons line up on the right. Tiny fish forks always line up with the spoons. Knives are placed with their blade-sides facing in for safety's sake. Since exactly where each piece falls in the line-up depends on what you're serving, always set your table with your menu in hand. Be sure to include on your list everything you're serving, from Melba toast and tomato juice to meringue desserts and demi-tasse.

Cutlery Basics:

A good basic rule to follow when laying out your cutlery setting is to work from the outside in: soup spoons, usually used first, on the far right; salad forks on the far left. No more than three pieces of silver should be laid out on each side of the plate at any time during the meal. Never present tarnished silver.

If you're planning to open your meal with a shrimp cocktail, remember to place the little fish forks to the far right, next to the soup spoons. Some hostesses choose to serve sweet compote with the meat course, instead of a pre-entree salad. In that case, skip the salad fork altogether and place a compote spoon to the right of the dinner knife. Simply adjust your place settings as you walk through your menu. Be sure to give your plan a last-minute review before the guests arrive, to cover any last-minute changes in menu or serving order.

The opening act:

In formal dining situations, you'll always begin with a service plate, sometimes called a charger, that anchors each guest's table setting. In a formal setting, only the service plate, glasses, linens, floral arrangements and up to six pieces of cutlery for each setting will be on your table when your guests arrive. Put your place cards directly above each service plate. The extra-large service plate is often more ornate than the serving china, and sometimes is not china at all, but a flawlessly polished silver or gold. Immediately to its right, you'll have your dinner knife, blade-side in.

Your water glasses should be placed directly above the dinner knife, and they'll be two-thirds filled when your guests enter the dining room. To the right of the water glass and just below it, you may place a sherry glass, if fish is among your first courses. To the right of the sherry glass, and just above it, and completing a triangular shape, place a white wine glass. If you won't be serving sherry, then you may adjust your setting and add a second wine glass, for red wine.

If you're opening your meal with traditional ice-chilled shrimp cocktail, you'll place that course on each service plate in special, stemmed cocktail glasses. (Later, you'll also serve the flat-bowled soup course atop the service plate, and then remove the decorative plate with the empty soup plate.) You'll add other china and cutlery as the meal progresses, always being sure that a plate -- either with food on it, or without -- is before each guest at all times.

Those odd little pieces:

One little-used dish that sometimes adds confusion to formal place setting plans is the crescent-shaped bone dish.This little dish should be presented directly to the left of the dinner plate when the fish course is presented, and removed, used or not, when the fish dinner plates are taken away. Most formal settings also include individual salts (and peppers) along with a salt spoon. Place these above and to the left of the service plate, with the salt spoon placed horizontally beneath the salt.

The bread plate, while not usually used in formal dining, may still fit in with your dinner plans. If so, place it above and to the left of the service plate, just below the salt. If offering a butter knife, lay the knife, blade-side in, horizontally across the bread plate. Used plates and utensils are always removed from the right, and clean ones replaced from the left, in an almost seamless presentation. In formal dining, never stack dinner plates.Remove them one dish at a time, or use a large serving tray to remove several at a time.

You may crumb the table between courses, if necessary, using a little silver hand-held crumber as unobtrusively as possible. Another basic rule is that the guests' napkins or linens are always placed to the far left of the table setting ... unless you're serving a light meal with no introductory soup or shrimp cocktail. With nothing else to burden the service plate or charger, you may place the napkin -- and the guest's place card -- atop it.

Why the Rule of Threes?

In the more rigid days of our ancestors, a formal meal was extraordinarily lush and complex -- literally hours of soups, salads, alternating entrees of fishes and meats interspersed with releves of flavored ices, followed by cheeses, and hot and cold sweets and fruits.

Each course was punctuated with a glass of a complementary wine; the event consummated by separating the sexes for a serving of brandy, liqueurs and finally, coffee or demi-tasse. There was a very good reason not to deviate from the inflexible dictates of tradition: well-trained servants knew the order of meal progression and therefore learned quickly what silverware and china would be required for each course.

In traditional formal dining, it simply wasn't practical to load up the table with all the requisite utensils, plates, bowls and glasses the guests needed to navigate such a large meal. So the traditional formal table was set with only enough silverware for the first few courses, up to six pieces, with no more than three pieces on each side. That's a formal table-setting rule still followed today. As described above, with water, sherry (often served with fish) and a first-course wine on the traditional formal dining menu, 19th century hostesses would array up to three appropriate glasses in a triangular shape above and to the right of the dinner plate. Your formal table setting today would adhere to that guideline as well.

A few more tips and tactics:

1. Remember that although the quantity of food served and the number of meal courses required for formal dining have diminished the order of progression remains roughly the same today and guides your table setting plans: soup, salad, entree and dessert. (The more courses, the daintier the portions, is always a good rule to follow.)

2. Keep your china selection as simple as possible, so that you have the greatest flexibility in choosing varied linens, flower arrangements and additional serving pieces. A plain white or eggshell with a simple one-color trim or understated design is most versatile for formal dining.

3. Make it easy on yourself. Your guests won't enjoy themselves if you're miserable. Have a few extra hands to help in the kitchen and dining area to keep the meal moving. And it's fine to serve dessert and coffee together these days, without the Victorian segregation of the sexes after meals.

4. Guest convenience -- then and now -- is the overriding logic dictating table settings. Once you understand that how you set your formal table is linked logically to what you're serving, and in what order, the rest of the process will fall into place.

Once you've captured the essential logic of formal dining, it's easy to create table settings in your own home that would make Emily Post proud. You needn't own a fortune in bone china, mirror-polished silver and imported crystal ... and you can adapt, to suit your menu and lifestyle, the elaborate array of china, flatware, table linens, crystal and glassware that a formal dinner's extensive menu often dictates. And remember, formal doesn't mean uncomfortable and stiff. Grace and elegance, however simply presented, will never be out-of-date and always be appreciated by your guests.

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