How to Set a Table: From Formal to Casual Dining

When hosting formal events, which entail a multi-course meal, elegance is of the utmost importance. Supporting pieces, such as chargers, napkin rings, and place cards play a critical role in ensuring a table will shine. On that note, however, do not be afraid to add touches of personality to a more elevated gathering. “I prefer to use vintage water glasses to add some dimension and whimsy to the table,” says Leah Ashley, of Living with Leah. “My go-to [glasses] are a mismatched set of vintage amber water glasses that I’ve collected over the years,” adds the Austin-based interior stylist and vintage decor expert. Ashley also enjoys using vintage china on her formal tables. “There’s no better way to spruce up a table setting than by adding interesting plates,” she notes.

To further enhance a formal table, add a centerpiece. “Make sure not to block the view of your guests sitting across from each other,” Ashley says. Katie Armour Taylor, the cofounder of Trudie, suggests elevating a centerpiece by arranging seasonal foliage, fruits, or vegetables around it. “Clementines, pomegranates, and large walnuts in shells all make for excellent accents,” she says.

The following steps will guide you as you set a table for any formal event, large or small.

Step 1: Decide on a tablecloth

It’s common to see a tablecloth on formal table settings, but it’s not always necessary. Start by considering whether your tablescape could benefit from its inclusion. Crisp white adds pomp, but most solid colors or sophisticated patterns work.

Step 2: Select a charger

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 3: Organize your plates in the appropriate order

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 4: Set out dinner and salad forks

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

Step 5: Place knives, spoons, and place cards

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. Add the guest’s name to 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. Taylor suggests going the handwritten route when it comes to place cards.

Step 6: Put wine glasses and water glasses on the top right

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 7: Place your napkin on top of your plate stack

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.

Photo: Courtesy of Pomp Parties

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