OK. The boss is coming to dinner, and you have to learn how to set a table the proper way. (Alternatively, you’re out to dine with the boss, and good grief, which spoon is for that bisque?!)
We’ve got you covered. Here is everything you need—from flatware, glassware and tableware—to the proper etiquette for its placement on the table. Setting a beautiful table is one of the best ways to welcome your guests to the table or simply something nice you can do for yourself. How closely you want to adhere to the table setting standards is up to you. Most basic settings come down to a mix of menu consideration and aesthetics.
Flatware! First, consider your menu and gather only the utensils you need. Most flatware sets include 5 utensils: salad fork, dinner fork, dinner knife, soup spoon and teaspoon. For simple meals, you may need only a fork and knife— maybe a spoon. For more formal gatherings, you may need to add a soup spoon, perhaps a seafood fork, and extra utensils for dessert.
For flatware placement on the table, the best rule of thumb is: The flatware for the first course will be on the outside. (Think: “Outside in.”) Forks always live to the left of your plate. So if you’re having a multi-course feast, the appetizer course fork will be to the very left, followed by the salad course fork, with the main course fork most to the right, alongside the plate. The one rule-breaking time? Occasionally a tiny seafood fork (like those used for oysters or crab) will live to the right of the spoons.
Knives live to the plate’s right and follow the same rules. A sharp steak knife will appear in the order that the courses do; it’s usually closest to the plate. Fun fact from Emily Post: Knife blades are always pointed towards the plate because in olden times, when knives were a weapon, too, it was a sign of non-aggression to be sure they weren’t pointed towards other diners. (That goes for the bread knife you put on the bread plate, too!) Again, if you’re confused, just look at the menu to decipher the order of courses. (A fish knife might sneak in there for a fish course prior to your steak.)
Spoons live to the right of the dinner knife, and to the left of a seafood fork, on the formal occasion when there is one. Again, it’s “outside in.” There may well be an appetizer or soup spoon to the right of the “dinner” spoon on the rare occasion you’re having, say, a bisque appetizer and cioppino entrée. The one exception to spoons and forks is dessert. To wit…
Dessert So tricky, but so sensible: Though it may be tempting to reach for the tiny, adorable spoon and fork living just above your plate, there’s a reason it’s harder for you to reach them: They’re for dessert! Set them crosswise as opposed to lengthwise, as in our diagram. The base of your dessert spoon should be to your right, and the base of a fork to your right, each one ready to slip down into its place on the right (for the spoon) and left (for the fork) just before dessert is served.
Specialty utensils are available in some flatware sets (such as in the Robert Welch Kingham Collection above), and can be used when the menu or occasion benefits from the addition. Butter knives should rest on a diagonal on small bread plates, espresso spoons on the saucer of the espresso cup. Serveware such as the serving fork and spoons, pastry server and serving ladles do not belong on the table, but can accompany the related bowls, platters or plates for which they are needed.
At the fanciest meals, one sits down and there seems to be an impossible amount of glassware on the table. (Usually, in such a scenario, a waiter is there to fill one’s glass by the course, eliminating confusion.) At home, place each guest’s water glass about an inch above the tip of the dinner knife. The red wine glass goes to its right, followed by a white wine glass, and then a Champagne flute or cocktail glass. The glasses follow a sloping pattern to the right and down towards the diner, for ease of access. Again, notice that it’s “outside-in”: The Champagne or cocktail glass for the pre-dinner or first course goes on the outside.
Crunched for space? It’s fine to make a diamond shape of the glassware, with the wine glasses farther away and the water glass and cocktail glass closer. Consult our glassware guide for concise explanations of all the glassware options for your table.
For your pizza party, one plate will suffice. Otherwise, you may be looking at an appetizer plate and salad plate layered on top of a charger and/ or dinner plate, as in our diagram (above). At the finest restaurants you’ve been to, an appetizer and salad plate sit on top of a charger, a plate that isn’t used, but is whisked away when the plated entrée arrives dramatically at your seat. Check out our dinnerware guide for all of the options to consider.
Napkins can go to the left of the forks, under the forks, or on the dinner plate or charger. If to the left, the fold should be nearest the plate. If on the dinner plate or charger, a napkin ring or special fold is a nice touch. Table runners and tablecloths are always optional, and are a lovely look.
Extras: Place cards, always lovely (and often appreciated when guests gather at the table), go above the dessert fork and spoon. Candles, flowers and centerpieces are always a delight. Try to line up your flatware an inch from the edge of the table, and in line with the bottom of the dinner plate. You’ll want 15 inches of space between place settings, so people don’t elbow each other.