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How to Set a Table: A Guide to Holiday Parties and Casual Dining

12/11/2022

A well-appointed table—from linens and china to glassware and centerpieces—strengthens a chic setting. But the beautiful accessories are useless if you don’t know how to set a table properly, even if you can fold a napkin in six different ways.  A Google search might even confuse you further, since arrangements will vary depending on what you’re looking for, whether it’s Thanksgiving table setting ideas or a casual dinner party table to enhance a wine night. Sure, at first glance the setup may look complicated, but once you break things down, it actually makes perfect sense.

To help clarify, we’ve distilled this dizzying array of flatware, wineglasses, and plates of every size to the essentials for three different occasions: a formal table setting, a casual soirée, and an everyday dinner.  Once you know where everything goes, you can add a dose of creativity by mixing and matching plates, using colorful glassware, or adorning the tablescape with elaborately folded napkins.

 

How to set a table for formal events

Interior stylist Leah Ashley knows how to set a table for a dinner party.

Interior stylist Leah Ashley knows how to set a table for a dinner party.   Photo: Madeline Harper

Step 1: Start with a charger in the center of a place setting. “Chargers instantly set the tone of the table,” Ashley says. “Personally, I like to use two chargers [one just smaller than the other] to create texture and added interest.”

 Step 2: Place the dinner plate in the middle of the charger, followed by the salad plate on top of that. “For space saving reasons, I like to place the bread plate on top of the salad plate as well,” Ashley notes. More traditionally, the bread plate would be placed in the upper left hand corner of the table setting. The butter knife can be placed horizontally on the bread plate. If you’re serving soup, the soup bowl will go on top of the salad plate.

Step 3: A dinner fork is placed directly to the left of each plate, with the salad fork then added further to the left.

Step 4: The knife goes directly to the right of the plate, followed by the spoon. The dessert spoon lays horizontally above the plates. Add a place card above the dessert spoon. Write the guest’s name on both sides so they can find their seat, and so the guests on the other side of the table will know who they are talking to.

Step 5: Place the wine glasses and water glass in the upper right hand section, with the water glass placed closest to the table and the wine glasses behind it. Red wine glass on the far right corner, and white wine glass to the left of it, slightly lower. You can choose to add a coffee cup and saucer under the wine glasses, but Ashley generally steers away from this when setting a formal table to reduce the appearance of clutter.

Step 6: Place the napkin in the middle of the plate stack. “I prefer a napkin with a napkin ring over folded napkins in a formal place setting, because I believe that a chic napkin ring is like jewelry for your table,” Ashley says.

 

How to set a table for a casual meal

Creative director Tracey Rezak of Pomp Parties encourages whimsy when it comes to casual table settings.

Creative director Tracey Rezak, of Pomp Parties, encourages whimsy when it comes to casual table settings.   Photo: Courtesy of Pomp Parties

Casual tables are ideal for parties of eight or less, explains Tracey Rezak, creative director of Cleveland-based Pomp Parties. “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean you can’t go all out on design, details, and style,” she adds. “The great thing about a casual table is its emphasis on intimacy and enjoying the people you’re with.” Best of all, a smaller group allows ample opportunity to create intricate place settings. “Because it’s an intimate affair you can spoil your guests with detail,” Rezak adds. For example, she says, place cutlery in a decorative glass or consider crafting custom menus and placing them atop each place setting.

Here are the key steps to ensure that your casual place settings is arranged properly.

Step 1:  “Skip the formal tablecloth and choose a runner,” Rezak suggests. “A bolt of cheesecloth, velvet or an interesting cotton print helps tie the table together giving it a cohesive look,” she adds, noting that place mats should be simple enough to not overpower the table runner.

 Step 2: Set the dinner plate in the center of the table setting. If you’re serving salad, set the salad plate atop the dinner plate. “The placement is place mat, dinner plate, salad plate, then soup bowl,” Rezak notes.

Step 3: Place the fork to the left of the dinner plate. If you’re serving salad, set the salad fork to the left of the dinner fork. “The fun of a causal table is you can experiment with design,” Rezak says. She suggests thinking outside the box when it comes to displaying cutlery and napkins. “Flatware can be crossed and tied with a satin ribbon; napkins can be gently draped, tied, or placed under the salad plate to create texture and interest,” Rezak advises.

Step 5: Set the water glass in the top right corner, above the knife. Place the wineglass (either a red or a white wineglass, depending on what you’re serving) to the right of the water glass. Rezak suggests adding color and charm to the tabletop by using pressed glass water goblets, which are available in a number of styles and sizes.

Step 6: The napkin can be placed on the plates or underneath the fork.

 

How to set a table for an everyday dinner

Atelier Saucier encourages a mixandmatch approach for everyday dining.

Atelier Saucier encourages a mix-and-match approach for everyday dining.  Photo: Courtesy of Atelier Saucier

When it comes to everyday dining, setting a table is a relatively simple process. Below, Staci Inspektor and Nikki Reed of Los Angeles–based table linen company Atelier Saucier share their tried-and-true advice to ensure that even weeknight dinners at home feel special. Of course, feel free to add your own finishing touches, whether in the form of patterned linens or a dose of plant life. “A single stem in a bud vase can make any meal special without feeling over-the-top or costly,” Inspektor says. “Step outside and cut a local leaf, branch, or flower for an adorable floral moment.”

The following steps will set you up for an everyday dinner that is far from ordinary.

Step 1: Lay out a place mat, if you’re using one. Inspektor likes to use a table runner too.

Step 2: Place the dinner plate in the center of the table setting.

Step 3: The fork is placed to the left of the plate. Place the knife to the right of the dinner plate and then set the spoon to the right of the knife.

Step 4: Set the water glass in the top right corner, above the knife.

Step 5: The napkin can be placed on top of the dinner plate or beneath the fork. “Mix and match for an extra pop of color, depth, and a personalized touch,” Reed says of table linens. “Don’t be intimidated to use what is available in your linen drawer, even if you don’t have full sets.”

 

From Architectural Digest

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