Table Setting Etiquette for Formal Occasions

Reinaldo Páez

Etiquette at the table is a set of basic principles adopted by each culture to ensure good manners for group dining.  “Etiquette” when having a formal meal or dinner at home, it’s not just about the way both us and our guests must dress, or how we must introduce ourselves as hosts; it’s also about the correct use of flatware and glassware as we eat etc., and the way we set our table.

Let’s remember people always notice other people’s manners, especially when eating; and what a better way to show our best manners than hosting a dinner at home.

In short, “Etiquette” is measured both by the way in which we set our table as by the manners we observe while sitting and eating at the table. This time we’ll just focus on the basic etiquette rules for setting a formal dinner table.

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table Following Etiquette Guidelines

We must first decide about the table we will use for the occasion and the number of guests we’ll have in order to evaluate the space needed. Usually, you need between 50-70 cm between each diner to avoid bumping elbows and to properly fit the amount of flatware we’ll use to comply with etiquette rules.

We must also be sure that all flatware is in perfect condition, very clean and always from the same set: flatware, glassware, and dinnerware with the same patterns, designs and materials  guarantee overall harmony.

How to Place Flatware, Dinnerware, and Glassware?

Dinner-Table

  • Charger Plate: The charger plate is a large decorative base setting for other dinnerware placed on top. It’s placed at a two-finger distance from the edge of the table and as its name suggests, marks the place setting for each diner. We can cover it with a lace cloth to ease the sound made when placing the dishes on top. The charger plate helps to meet a dinnerware golden rule: never present a bare table; it provides elegance, enhances the table setting décor, and pleases guests.
  • Napkins: It’s common practice to place the napkin folded -as a rectangle or triangle- in the center of the charger plate. If the charger plate has a design, place the napkin in a corner. “Fantasy” -fan-shaped or any other fancy type folds- are not for etiquette occasions; these designs can be used for family meals or less formal dining.  If at the time of inviting your guests to the table the first course is already served,  the napkin will be positioned to the right of the knives.
  • Flatware: The knives, forks, and spoons can be positioned using two styles. British style sets the fork tines and the spoons upwards. French style sets them downwards. Forks are placed to the left side of the charger plate and the knives -always with the edge inward- to the right. If soup or cream are on the menu, the spoon is placed to the outer right of the knives. Keep in mind flatware is used following the “outside in” rule: always start with the flatware on the outside and work your way inward towards the plate. Appetizer flatware is the outermost to the plate and the Main Course flatware, the innermost. In all cases, flatware must be perfectly parallel and aligned with the base of the charger. Flatware for dessert should be placed above the charger plate. The dessert fork to be used with the left hand, is placed with its tines facing right and the dessert spoon to be used with the right hand, is placed with the handle facing left.
  • Glassware: Glasses would normally be positioned above the dessert flatware and arranged from left to right following the order in which they will be used: from the largest glass to the smallest forming a slight diagonal line. We start with the Water glass, to follow etiquette accordingly always set this glass on the table and never serve sparkling water. Follow with the Red Wine glass and  finally the White Wine glass. If we are going to accompany the dessert with Champagne we must place the flute behind the glass of White Wine, but slightly to the right. It’s the perfect drink if the occasion calls for a toast.
  • Other Details: The bread plate must be placed above the forks. Place cards must be located between the dessert flatware and the glassware. If menus will be included they should be placed to the right side, next to the soup or cream spoons, or over the napkin on the charger plate.

Following these rules will help you comply with table setting etiquette and to surely become the finest host!