How to set up a formal table

Linens and napkins

A formal table should include at least three linens. First, the tablecloth, preferable damask or linen, should cover the table completely, and hang at least 8 inches down from all the edges. Over the tablecloth, place the silence cloth to protect the table from spills and damage. It should be between 2 to 4 inches shorted than the edges of the table. Finally, cover the silence cloth with a covering cloth, which is used for decoration alone. It should be slightly larger than the tablecloth, and in a matching color or decor.

The napkin should always be placed either to the left of the plates, or directly on top of them. A simple yet elegant fold will suffice, after all it's supposed to be used for more than decoration.

Plates and silverware

Be careful not to overcrowd the table. The settings should be spaced at least 12 inches apart, not only for good comfort, but for easier serving as well.

The base plate, which is slightly larger than a regular dinner plate, serves the purpose of centering the individual place settings. Base plates can be made of copper, silver, stainless steel or glass. On top of the base plate goes the plate for the main course, and on top of that, a soup bowl or sallad bowl. Depending on the type of dessert, a fruit plate may be placed on the base plate beforehand.

Silverware should be arranged according to the courses - the utensils to be used first is placed on the outer side, utensils for the last course nearest to the plates. The bases of the utensils should be aligned so that they form a straight line. Knives, always placed on the right side of the plate, should have the blades facing left.

Glasses should be placed on the right side of the plate, behind the utensils. They should be set up in the following order; Water glass, Red wine or white wine glass, liqueur glass, with the next two placed behind the others; champagne glass and cognac glass.

I was out to dinner last night, at a semi-formal restaurant, and I was rather dismayed to see the surprising lack of silverware on the table. In front of me there was only a plate, a fork, a knife, a napkin, and a glass. Back in the days that romantics like me wish we could go back to, the days of Louis XIV and Don Juan, there were as many as fifteen separate pieces of silverware, all of which would be used in the various courses of the meal. But, as a consequence of having all of this silverware, one must know in which order to use it.

Now, we’ll start at the obvious point: the dinner plate. You should consider the dinner plate to be the sun. It is the center of your dining area. It is the largest and most important item; the item which all other items revolve around. The dinner plate can generally go anywhere, I just advise that it’s…somewhere in front of you. On top of the dinner plate, like the small, fiery core of the sun, is the soup bowl and saucer. Radiating outwards from the plate, there are three pieces of silverware on either side. First, on the right side, about an inch away from the outermost edge of the plate and aligned perfectly to the center, there is the dinner knife – the knife you use for the main course. A half-inch further to the right there is the fish knife, which is aligned with the bottom edge of the dinner knife, and then another half-inch and the soup spoon. On the left side of the plate, we start with the salad fork, then a half-inch and the dinner fork, and then the fish fork – all aligned in the same manner as the right side. The napkin follows an inch further to the left than the fish fork, properly folded and never crumpled.

In order to properly use this array of utensils, I have to mention one of the most important rules of the formal dinner table: one always begins at the outside and works in. This means that the first utensil you should use is the soup spoon, then the fish knife and fork, and then the dinner knife and fork, and the salad comes last. Odd, isn’t it?

So, there is the dinner plate. But, I know what everyone is asking: what about the accessories? Aren’t you thirsty? Don’t you have bread?! Civilized people eat bread! Well you’re right. Now, I like to think that, if the dinner plate is the sun, then it has three different moons. Moons which represent aspects of the meal. Moons that never move.

To the upper-right, aligning about three inches from the top of the knife, that’s the water glass. In a 45 degree angle, about an inch down and to the right, that’d be the red wine glass. If you’re lucky, the white wine glass should follow in the same manner.

Directly above the dinner plate are the dessert spoon and fork. They, unlike all other utensils, are lying horizontally; the spoon, on top, points towards the left and the fork, on bottom, points towards the right. The top edge of the spoon should be aligned with the top edge of the water glass.

Lastly, about three inches above the fish fork is the bread plate. On the top edge of the bread plate is the butter knife, the last of our little tools. The knife should be pointed to the left, arranged horizontally. As a general point of reference, knives should never be pointed towards anyone at the table. Traditionally, if you were to intentionally point your knife at another person, it would be to signal that you wished them harm. As a matter of fact, back in the olden days, it wasn’t entirely rare to see someone grab a knife and leap across the table in a fury. That is why Cardinal Richelieu had the knife points at his table rounded in 1669, in order to prevent more meal-time stabbings.

Additional (obscure) rules to remember:

1. Napkins should be immediately placed upon your lap upon being served and they should never leave unless dinner is over. If there is an emergency, place the napkin on your empty seat in order to signal that the chair is still occupied.
2. Never butter your bread directly from the butter dish. The butter should be placed on the dinner plate, and then transferred to small segments of your bread. Don’t butter the entire piece at once.
3. Never cut anything with your fork.
4. Always pass the salt and pepper together, even if you’re only asked to pass one.
5. Hold stemmed glasses by the stem.
6. Don’t say anything stupid.
7. Have fun!

Spacing and distances should be modified for comfort and for size of the table; figures here are for point of reference.

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