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Jan 18, 2008 02:09 PM

Table Settings – Does this bug anyone else?

I keep seeing pictures everywhere of beautifully prepared and plated food, and then the table is set wrong! In magazines, on TV, on the web, all over the place and it’s happening more and more lately. Does this bug anyone else? Drives me nuts.

So I’ve been wondering about it. Where do people learn this stuff? Maybe they don’t teach it in school any more. I’ve even wondered whether they teach it in culinary schools, because I’ve seen some major goofs on their websites too. All of this started me thinking about all of the people here who cook great food, but it may never have occurred to them to go any farther than to emulate what they see in one of these gorgeous pictures of gorgeous food with the table set wrong. So for anyone interested, I offer the following:

I’ve Googled the web thoroughly for "place settings", "place covers", and “how to set a table properly”. The amount of misinformation available on the web today is mind boggling, but the URL below is pretty close to being spot on. Just don’t think your table isn’t properly set if you don’t have sterling water goblets. These folks are just trying to sell more of what they sell. So I offer a bit more useful information based on U.S. tradition. Since we have so many travelers and people who live in other countries with us, remember that traditions and customs vary from country to country so this may not apply to you. For the sake of a common language, let’s start here:

1. As I said, the above URL is a starting point. The thing they forgot to mention about a formal place setting (they have it wrong!) is that a formal place setting NEVER properly includes a bread and butter plate or a butter spreader. Yup. It sounds really strange, but tradition dictates that you only get a b&b plate for informal occasions. If it's black tie for guests and the table, then you put your bread on the tablecloth. And now you know why God created crumb trays.

2. For formal occasions, the dinner napkin is always folded and placed down the center of the dinner plate unless the first course is to be in place when people are seated, in which case it goes to the left of the forks and no embellishment, such as napkin rings or fancy folds are used. The standard fold for a dinner napkin is spread it open (iron if necessary), then fold in half to form a rectangle, then fold that to form a square, and finally fold the square into a smaller rectangle. That’s it! The napkin is then placed down the center of the plate, folded side to the right, However, if the first course will be on the plate when guests are seated, then the napkin goes to the left of the forks, folded side toward the plate. Do not place the napkin on the plate and then the first course on top of it. This may look attractive, but guests should not be required to move china and food to retrieve napkins. And the same is true of placing forks on the napkin. Everything should be immediately accessible to guests without requiring them to disassemble and reassemble their place setting. Finally, never use a napkin ring for a formal dinner. Napkin rings are for family dinner tables when the napkins may be washed only after several uses.

For informal meals you're free to be as creative with napkin folding as you like. Fan folds. origami folds, blossom folds in the water goblet. Whatever appeals to you.

3. Both wine glasses and silverware should be placed in their order of use, with the exception of the salad fork. Forks always go to the left of the dinner plate, and when the smaller salad fork is to the left of the larger dinner fork, that indicates it is to be used for the starter course. When it is between the dinner fork and the dinner plate that indicates it is a salad fork even though many Americans, unlike Europeans, serve salad before the main course.

4. If a desert spoon and fork are part of the place cover, they should go above the plate. But today's for-the-home dining tables are getting smaller and smaller -- along with the size of dining rooms -- so it will probably mean a less crowded table if you just bring in the dessert silver in with the desert. It’s the same with cups and saucers. While it is proper in some circumstances to include them in a place cover, unless you live in Hearst Castle with dining tables the size of a small ice skating rink, chances are you'll be really crowding your table.

5. FYI: There is a difference between "luncheon size" and "dinner size" (larger) flatware. There is also a difference between European dinner size (larger still) and American dinner size. If you are investing in sterling, be sure you clarify what size you want. It is always best to buy the larger dinner size as it's acceptable on all occasions, whereas the smaller luncheon size is frowned upon for a formal dinner. There was a time (about a century ago) when a “proper” home included sterling service of luncheon and dinner size, as well as every specialized piece of individual utensils known to man. The Victorians thrived on such things. In today's world, starting with a five piece place setting is pretty much the norm for flatware. In those times, twenty piece sterling silver place settings were not uncommon. But they had butlers to polish it!

6. Before you buy your "good" flatware, think about what pieces you want so you can choose a pattern that has them all available. Also think realistically about how you cook and entertain. Flatware pieces still in common use for formal/informal occasions today (in their most frequent placement) include:
Hors d'ouvre ("starter") fork
Fish fork
Salad fork (also doubles as dessert fork except in formal sterling services where there will be a slight difference between the two)
Dinner fork
Dinner plate separates forks on the left from knives and spoons on the right
Dinner knife
Fish knife
Butter spreader
Ice tea spoon
Cream soup spoon (round bowl)
Bouillon spoon (oval bowl, also doubles as dessert spoon except in formal sterling services)
Tea spoon
Demitasse spoon.
Cocktail/oyster fork

A teaspoon is not normally part of a place cover, except at family meals when coffee or tea will be served. For formal and informal non-family occasions they are brought in with the coffee/tea service. The cocktail/oyster fork is the only fork that is ever placed on the right side of the dinner plate, and then it is the last utensil farthest from the plate. While you see it in photographs frequently, desert forks and spoons are best left to be brought in with dessert rather than placed above the dinner plate. And anytime you feel confused as to what fork to use or what to do with something, just follow whatever the hostess does.

Things a formal sterling service may include that I've never seen available in stainless steel patterns are grapefruit spoons, ice cream forks, and other fancy things that are seldom used today. Some things that are available and fun to have and that don't normally match your flatware pattern are escargot tongs and forks, lobster/crab crackers, lobster/crab picks, etc. Dime store nut crackers and nut picks work just fine on both lobsters and crabs. And then there are special caviar spoons, usually made out of mother of pearl, and rarely available with silver hollowware handles to match a sterling pattern. In today's world, there are stainless steel patterns that are available in the larger European size, as well as patterns that offer butter spreaders, cocktail forks, iced tea spoons, and other special service flatware pieces. There is also gold finished flatware available today that is dishwasher safe, though none of the patterns I've seen to date offer butter spreaders or cocktail forks and such.

7. Dinner knives. If you've checked out the diagram at the website above, you know the dinner knife goes immediately to the right of the dinner plate, sharp edge toward the plate. I know. It looks more symmetrical and better balanced aesthetically with the sharp edge away from the plate, but unbreakable tradition says you don't want to do that. Knife edge toward the plate is an unspoken pledge by the host to his guests that no knives will be drawn or blood let during the meal. It's a tradition worth keeping.

8. In European place settings, and this is strictly an FYI thing, the flatware is usually placed "face down," especially in France, and the wine glasses are spread in a straight line above the plate in order of use from left to right, even if there will be nine wines with dinner. If you have a table big enough, it makes a lovely display.

9. Glasses: In the U.S., the water goblet is placed above the dinner knife, and wine glasses go to the right of it in order of use. There's a general rule of thumb in this country that you never place more than three of anything on the table at one time, including forks, spoons, and wine goblets. If you’re serving both a white and red wine with dinner, that makes three glasses counting the water goblet. However, it is acceptable to put the champagne glass above and between the water goblet and red wine goblet where it will be in easy reach after previous courses are cleared.

10. China service. It's always smart to buy an "open stock" pattern, which means the company doesn’t plan on discontinuing it any time soon (but it never hurts to ask if any plans are in the works before you buy your first place setting). Open stock also means you can buy just one saucer or plate if one gets broken. About the only tricky thing it helps to know about in fine china is in regard to soup bowls. There are two styles. The rimmed shallow type often called a “soup plate,” and a cream soup bowl, which is shaped more like a cup with little feet under it and handles on each side. Some even come with a lid and saucer.

11. Place cards are hand lettered and placed on top of the napkin or in a place card holder above the dinner plate.

12. Salts and Peppers. For formal and formally informal meals, small salt and pepper shakers or cellars may be placed individually above each place setting, but in the interest of less cluttered tabletops, it's more usual to set a pair to be shared by each two diners.

And finally, a word about centerpieces and candles. There is nothing more annoying than getting up from the table after a nice conversation with the person seated across from you and not having a clue as to what he looks like! Keep centerpieces low enough that guests can see each other clearly, and the same for candles. Five arm candelabras may be lovely, but if they prevent people from seeing each other comfortably, use another candleholder.

If you're interested in learning more about the subject, my favorite book is "Table Settings, Entertaining, and Etiquette" by Patricia Easterbrook Roberts. The book is unfortunately out of print, but you can order used copies here: They range in price from $4.20 to over $150. Go for the $4.20 copies! It's a small coffee table book with lots of interesting facts and drop dead gorgeous photographs. There are lots of other books on table setting available too. And I sincerely hope I haven't stepped on anyone's toes by posting this. My intent is to share the joy of presenting hard work in the kitchen with all the love and respect it deserves in the dining room.


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  1. Very interesting - good stuff! Thanks for posting. I am a big fan of buying old old hospitality or etiquette books off of Ebay and reading about how things used to be - different types of service, etc. It makes a meal all the better to have it presently nicely (not necessarily the squiggle on the plate thing or stacked food). Let's bring elegance back!

    1. Sorry, but I must say that I am ever so thankful that I grew up in a Chinese household. Chopsticks, soup spoons, that's it for the most part. Communal eating/family style. I think that when eating, the most important thing, besides the food, is the company/conversation.

      11 Replies
        1. re: justagthing

          =) Me, too. But there are some unbelievably convoluted rules about chopsticks placement, how to pass and accept food, and all that good stuff, too. No culture is immune.

          1. re: justagthing

            Try being left-handed and holding your chopsticks crossed, which is apparently taboo for some Asians. My mother used to be slightly embarrassed, but really, I need to eat somehow. A Japanese-American buddy of mine was nagged about it so much that he avoids chopsticks whenever possible.

            It goes back to the whole "hold one stick like you would a pen" thing. I hold my pens differently than righties, so my chopstick-holding ends up different, too. The food gets into my mouth with a minimum of mess, so I'm happy.

            Cimui's right: no culture is immune. With that said, I found Caroline's post interesting. I haven't a clue on how to set a Western table properly and I do believe that that kind of information is important. No, we're not going to have a formally set table every single day, but at least we'll know how it's supposed to look like if the occasion ever requires it.

            Edited to add: I meant to reply to cimui, not justathing... sorry!

            1. re: geekyfoodie

              Oh, good Lord! Who sets a formal table every day? That's not the way anyone lives. But within your culture - Asian, Western, etc. - you have to lay out the utensils you're going to eat with and it's not any harder to place them properly than it is to slap them on the table any old way. Then it becomes automatic to do the simple things properly. Adding anything more complicated when you have guests isn't so challenging.
              My kids were responsible for setting the table from the time they could reach it. We had some pretty creative place settings for a few years but they got the basics right and enjoyed the time in the kitchen with us, participating in meal prep. This was just plates, knives and forks, glasses for milk and napkins, but they knew where they were supposed to go - the same places that formal things go at a fancy dinner.
              They really loved it if we let them light candles. Calmed down the whole dinner scene. No arguing.

              1. re: MakingSense

                Sorry, MakingSense, but perhaps you misunderstood my post? I did say that we're *not* going to have a formal table everyday, but the info is good to know when we do need it.

                Anyhoo, it is true that it doesn't require any more effort to neatly lay out utensils vs. tossing them on the table. For Asians, at least, Justathing has a point in that there's much fewer utensils to work with, so there isn't as much to remember when it comes to what goes where.

                1. re: geekyfoodie

                  You open another interesting question: how do you set a table for dinner menu that includes some dishes that would be eaten with chopsticks (maybe an appetizer) and others using Western flatware? Perhaps sushi followed by chicken served with an Asian-inspired glaze.

                  1. re: MakingSense

                    Interesting, indeed! I haven't a clue, but I can tell you what we'd do at home. If we're having a formal meal, we'll do the whole set-up Chinese-style and include the necessary Western flatware next to the chopsticks. For your example, the absolute minimum would be a fork and a knife, so they would be neatly placed next to the chopsticks.

              2. re: geekyfoodie

                FWIW, my husband (left handed) holds his chopsticks properly, as does my son (right handed) It was just me holding them wrong.

              3. re: justagthing

                Yeah, I like the chopsticks and sometimes the soup spoons, too, along with the whole family-style thing. It makes so much sense to me. I recently (in the past year) realized that I had been holding the chopsticks wrong all these years, and have been relearning many years of chopstick-using to the right way, which is much better once you get used to it. 8^)
                I know there are rules I don't know about using chopsticks, though, and want to learn them so as not to be thought a jerk. I saw a guy at dim sum this morning that had stuck his chopsticks vertically into a pile of (what looked like) fried rice. I knew it was rude but didn't know why.

                1. re: EWSflash

                  It's inappropriate because they resemble funerary incense sticks in a pile of ash.

                  1. re: ricepad

                    Oh my- then my instincts were correct for a change. Thank you.

              4. The original comment has been removed
                  1. I wouldn't want any friends who would lose their appetite if I didn't toss the bread directly on the tablecloth.