Formal Table Setting

If you love entertaining, there’s nothing quite like setting the dinner table and pulling out all stops! One of the best parts about creating amazing tablescapes is using old-fashioned or “fancy” extras. Here’s some of the essentials you need to set a formal table and a few formal table setting pieces you might be missing!

A formal table setting

Let’s talk about what we mean by a formal table setting. First, here’s what it doesn’t have to mean – a stiff, impersonal table covered with a bewildering assortment of forks, spoons and little bowls with inscrutable purposes. Yes, the formal table setting has a lot of items and they’re arranged with deliberation and method. But setting a traditional, formal table doesn’t mean creating a dinner scene that is cold, unwelcoming or confusing. Instead, think of formal table setting as a way to create a roadmap for an elaborate meal. The formal table should be a tool of hospitality and graciousness, not a way to show off or make anyone feel out of place.

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formal place setting for dinner

Table setting for a formal dinner

The formal dinner table is, when done, well a delightful place to host friends and family and put the focus on good food and good company.

Here’s what you need to set a formal dinner table.

An appropriately sized tablecloth and placemats

The tablecloth (or bare table top) provides the setting for the entire meal, so choose carefully. White damask is a classic and traditional way to cover the table. It makes a clean, crisp and neutral field and lets the rest of the tablescape shine.  You absolutely cannot go wrong with a white or ivory table cloth.

But you don’t have to limit yourself to white or damask. Whatever tablecloth you choose should compliment the china and other table linens, not compete with them. Bold colors are fine, if they’re supported by the rest of the table aesthetic. Patterns can be great, as long as they’re not competing with the dishes or centerpieces.

Or no tablecloth

And you don’t have to use a tablecloth at all. Use placemats alone if you don’t want to cover the entire table. Like the tablecloth, the placements should complement, not compete with, the rest of the table setting. When using both placemats and a tablecloth, be sure the color, texture and weight of the two is harmonious or contrasts successfully. For example, use a medium weight linen in complementary colors for both OR layer a delicate linen placement over a heavier damask tablecloth.

Clean, crisp cloth napkins

Here again, white damask is traditional. They can match the tablecloth, even, for the most formal and matchy table. Whatever they’re made from should be comfortable to touch – scratchy napkins are very unpleasant. Napkins made with polyester or a poly blend are more resistant to wrinkles and stains but don’t feel as nice or fold as well. Linen napkins look and feel lovely but wrinkle enthusiastically and stain easily. I like to split the difference with a cotton-poly or poly-linen blend because I find pressing table linens very stressful.

Napkins can be white or ivory but, like the tablecloth, they can also be colorful or patterned. Just make sure they support the rest of the table scape rather than compete with it.

What you need for each individual formal place setting

Water and wine glasses

In general, a formal dinner includes at least one type of wine. Dinners with multiple courses may have multiple varieties of wine. However many courses you’re serving, plan to have a clean wine glass for each new wine. Wine glasses are set to the upper right of the place setting, in order from first to final use. Each place setting should have a water glass, which also goes on the upper right. The water glass can live above the wine glass(es) or to the side, depending on how much room there is at each place setting.

If you aren’t serving wine, skip the wine glasses. Likewise, if a guest isn’t going to drink wine, you can remove their wine glass at the beginning of the meal. If you’re serving beverages other than water and wine, provide a glass for those, too. Except for brunch, coffee cups and saucers are not usually placed on the table at the beginning of the meal, by the way. And glasses for after-entree drinks like port, sherry or cognac should also not be on the table.

Plates for the formal table setting

The plates you’ll need for your formal dinner depend a bit on what you’re serving. But in almost every situation, use a 9″ or 10″ dinner plate. If you’re serving bread or rolls, you’ll also need a 6″ bread plate, which goes on the upper left of the place setting. At one point, the most formal of formal dinners actually did not include bread or bread plates but here in America, at least, it’s pretty typical to serve some type of bread with dinner, unless the entree precludes it.

If a formal dinner and place setting is your goal, the plates should be a matched set and the bread plates should either match or be ‘neutral’ like silver or glass.

Cutlery for the formal table

This is where most people’s mind probably goes when they hear ‘formal dinner’ – they picture an enormous row of ever-smaller forks with mysterious uses. They’re not completely off the mark. One of the joys of setting a formal dinner table is getting out all kinds of fun things like ice cream forks and asparagus tongs and fish knives. But….as fun as it can be to serve a complex meal with lots of courses and silverware, it’s not a requirement of a formal dinner.

Essential silverware

The only cutlery you need for a formal place setting is a dinner knife, a spoon and a dinner fork. Those are the absolute essentials. The knife and spoon go on the right and the forks go on the left, by the way. But if you’re serving salad or a fish course or some other starter, you’ll need a fork for each of those.  Remember what I said about a formal table setting serving as a roadmap for a dinner? That’s the kind of thing I was talking about – put the first fork guests will need in the first position. It communicates which fork to use for each course or dish.

Related: How to Clean, Polish and Store Silver 

The dinner spoon doesn’t really get used that often, since very few dinner menus include food that’s eaten with a basic spoon. But it still needs to be on the right side. If you’re serving soup, the soup spoon goes on the right, too. And guess what? Like the forks, the first spoon of the meal goes on the outside.

There should be a butter spreader, if you’re serving bread of some sort. The spreader lives on the bread plate and is there to make sure your guests have a clean, dedicated utensil to handle their butter. The butter itself may either be arranged in small pats on the bread plate or passed around from a single dish. If the butter is passed, it should be passed with its own spreader or knife. Guests use the master spreader to take their serving of butter and their own spreader to put the butter on their bread.

Serving pieces

Each menu item should be offered from its own dish or platter unless the preparation calls for dishes to be served together. Provide an appropriate serving utensil for each dish. Serve any sauce or gravy separately from a sauce boat or ewer. Condiments should be served from individual bowls or dishes or portioned out in advance in a small dish at each place

The food can either be passed around the table or guests can serve themselves from a sideboard. Passing is the second most formal way to serve food (the first being for a servant to walk around the table offering each guest the dish but….if you’re not living in Downton Abbey, that kind of service is hard to come by)

An elegant buffet arrangement has a few things to recommend it. First, it can be challenging for some guests to pass heavy dishes and sending hot dishes around can be a little difficult. Second, some guests may not be completely comfortable asking for a dish to be passed to them since it inevitably interrupts someone else’s dinner. Third, even large dining room tables may not have enough room to accommodate guests and all of the food. My dining room  table seats 8 very comfortably but if we’re dining as a party of 8 there’s not much room left for the food.

Got a big shindig coming up? Whether you’re planning an intimate dinner party for six or a big fete, be sure to grab a copy of Co-Host, my party planning workbook.

Use this simple but very effective tool to keep track of every task, chore and dish. You can even use it to plan your cooking schedule.

A formal buffet dinner on the sideboard
Other dishes or cutlery

A formal dinner might have a soup or salad course to start things off. There may also be a series of small plates, an appetizer or a fish course. Here’s a few more dishes and cutlery you may need for your formal dinner table.

Serving salad or soup at a formal dinner

Soup needs to be served in a soup bowl, either bouillon or cream, depending on the soup. Ideally, include an underplate or saucer with the soup bowl. This can rest on the dinner plate and be cleared once the soup is finished. Salad, if there is one, should be served on a 7″ salad plate, which can also be positioned on the main dinner plate. If you’re serving soup and salad, you’ll need to include the appropriate spoon and fork, respectively.

Any other course should be served on an appropriate plate, platter or bowl and the necessary utensils should be placed in order as part of the place setting.

formal soup bowl and place setting

Using a service plate

If you have the china to spare, and you’re serving a soup, salad or other starter course, you have the option to place a service plate at each place setting. The soup, salad or other early course dishes are placed on this, as though it were the main dinner plate. The difference is that it’s cleared away and a fresh, clean dinner plate is presented before the main course. A large, ornamental plate called a charger can also be used as the service plate. It should be cleared before coffee and any dessert course.

Serving dessert at a formal dinner

In general, use small plates to serve desserts like cake, pie, or other similar items. It’s ideal to place dishes served in a bowl or other vessel on a small plate or saucer when serving. Provide a clean dessert fork or spoon. If you wish, you can place the dessert fork or spoon (and demitasse coffee spoon) above the dinner plate before the meal begins. You can, however, set the dessert cutlery out as you serve the dessert course and pass coffee or after dinner drinks.

More formal place setting items

Using knife rests in formal place setting

I first experienced knife rests at a friend’s dinner party and found them delightful! Not only are they a nice way to add some sparkle to the place setting, they’re actually very practical. It’s really nice to have a spot to park your knife during the meal and using knife rests keeps food from getting on the placemat or tablecloth. We use ours at every meal because they’re THAT useful. They are without a doubt one of the best table setting pieces you can add.

Knife rests are placed on the upper right, above the knife and spoon.

And by the way, that’s the truth about many formal table setting items. Yes, on the surface they may seem like fuss and bother (and there’s NOTHING wrong with that), but a lot of ‘fancy’ table items actually serve useful purposes.

What to look for when buying knife rests:

Seek out pieces in good condition with minimal cracks or chips. Most knife rests are crystal or silver, but there are some china or ceramic knife rests, too.  It’s pretty easy to find these in sets of 8 or 12 but you can also mix and match if you like. Like many table items, there are options for every taste – formal, traditional, playful or holiday themed.

If you are serving a large cut of meat and carving it at the table, consider adding a larger master knife rest to the tabletop. It’s the perfect spot to park the carving knife.

formal table setting.

Individual Salt Cellars and Pepper Shakers

The general rule of thumb for dinner parties is to have at least one pair of salt and pepper shakers for every two people. To take it up a notch, use individual salt cellars and pepper shakers instead. Salt cellars  (also called ‘open salts’) and individual pepper shakers should be set at the top of the place setting.  If salt and pepper will be shared between guests, place it above their place settings an equal distance from each person.

You can use tiny salt spoons for each cellar or you can leave guests free to pinch salt. Like the knife rests, these add a fun detail to the table but are also practical. Guests can easily salt or pepper their food without bothering their neighbors.

What to look for when buying open salts and individual pepper shakers:

Cellars are often crystal or glass, but they also come in silver or silver with a glass insert. The cellar should be able hold a tablespoon of salt easily. Look for a cellar that’s free from chips or cracks. Be sure the dish is not so narrow it’s difficult to pinch or spoon salt from. It’s pretty easy to track down matched sets of small pepper shakers intended for individual place settings. They come in silver, glass, crystal and china. Though harder to find, there are also individual pepper mills, which are a wonderful addition to the meal.

Salt cellars are also useful if you want to serve a smidgeon of sauce or some other condiment.

Setting the Table with Napkin Rings

Napkin rings are one of the most versatile table decorating items. It’s easy to find a style that reinforces your table design and adds personality to both the table top and each setting. Whether you choose a matched set of silver rings for a formal table or make them from ribbon, they’re sure to help your table shine.

For a formal table, it’s hard to beat a matching set of sterling or silver plated rings. These can match your flatware pattern or be a separate pattern. Most are round but there are also some fantastic square napkin rings. To keep the formal feel of silver but loosen things up a bit, use an assortment of silver rings. It can be really fun to add to your silver napkin ring collection, too.

If you want to set the table in a less traditionally formal style, use napkins rings made from wood, bamboo, glass or acrylic. Or any of the other multitude of materials. There’s a tremendous range and you’ll be sure to find just the right pieces to complement your theme.

For a more casual look, use pretty ribbon, twine or cording to create loops or bows. It’s easy to add things like greenery or baubles to these to add more pop to your place setting. With this style, you can also easily incorporate a place card. For example, plaid ribbon with a bit of holly and a Christmas tag is a lovely way to adorn the Christmas breakfast table.

Think of napkin rings as table jewelry. Use them to establish or expand your theme, or even gift them to your guests as a lovely memento.

What to look for when buying napkin rings:

If you’re seeking out silver, the pieces should be in good condition and free from nicks or scratches. For other materials, the sky’s the limit. You can find wonderful options in vintage or antique shops or new at most retailers.

Consider that your napkin rings are also a great way to reflect the individual personality of your guests, too. In our family, my mother-in-law collects antique silver napkin rings. Whenever she hosts, each guest gets the napkin ring she feel best suits them. Some of them happen to have monograms that line up with family members’ names and others are just interesting or unique. This idea works well for just about any style of ring and is a fun way to personalize each place setting.

Table setting with place cards

You might read this and think.. ‘but place cards so so stuffy and formal”.  I hear you, but they don’t have to be. It’s true that when you use a seating plan for your dinner party, it does add more structure to the event. But structure doesn’t have to mean dry and boring or tediously formal.

There are practical reasons to consider using a seating plan and place cards.

Why you should use place cards at dinner parties

First, many guests feel more comfortable when they know where you want them to sit and who they’ll be sitting near. Designated seats take social pressure off guests.

Assigning seats makes your job as host easier. You can ensure you (and your partner or co-host) can easily get up and down from the table during the meal. You can also plan where to place food dishes or items that need to be passed.If you have a very hot dish on the table – you may want that close to your chair so your guests can pass their plate to you. Or you may have elderly guests or guests with limited mobility. Assigning seats means you can take their needs into account more easily and provide them with accessible seating options.

From a social standpoint, organizing your guests around the table can be the difference between a convivial evening and an exhausting slog.  This is a great thing if you are hosting people who aren’t well-acquainted or family members that you KNOW push each other’s’ buttons. Don’t think of assigned dinner party seating as tiresome formality – think of it as helping to ensure your guests are as comfortable as possible for the meal.

Arranged seating also gives you the chance to put a guest of honor, if there is one, in a prime spot.  And finally, knowing who’s going to be sitting where will make pouring beverages or plating food a snap before guests come to the table.

The aesthetic value of place cards

Gone are the days when place cards were simply plain white rectangles with the guest’s name in formal script. Though you can absolutely still do that if it fits with your event or meal. Today, place cards can be pre-printed with designs that match your tablescape or event theme. They can be simple or quite elaborate. You can use actual single-sided cards or folded note cards. You can even use objects, like a tiny pumpkin or a Christmas ornament! Like napkin rings, place cards offer a chance to inject personality and personalization onto the table.

What to look for when buying place cards:

Just about the only requirement I can think of is that the cards be large enough for the guest’s name to be easily read and not so large that the obscure your guest’s faces. Beyond that, make sure you spell everyone’s name correctly and that the names are legible. It’s not absolutely essential, but it is nice to use card holders to secure them. These can also support your table theme or be holiday specific if you choose.

I’m not affiliated with them in any way but I adore the personalized place cards and menu cards from the Punctillious Mr. P. They’re gorgeous, they come in a huge range of styles and Mr. P. even offers complimentary digital calligraphy.

extra table setting items

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Adding menu cards to your formal table

Printing the dinner menu, in the order of consumption, is an elegant and considerate touch. When planning a dinner menu, always check with your guests in advance to make sure you’re not serving prime rib to vegetarians or wheat to those who can’t eat it, etc. It’s also nice to ask if there’s any foods guests simply cannot stand or prefer not to eat. Having said that, a dinner party isn’t a restaurant and the menu might not suit everyone’s individual tastes exactly. And even a diligent hose might not know about a guest’s allergens or food needs. Letting your guests know what’s coming can help someone avoid a food they truly don’t care for or can’t eat before it’s on their plate.

You can make your own menu cards or order them pre-printed. While you can put a menu card at each place, one or two for the entire table, or on the sideboard, is perfectly fine. A nice way to present the menu card is to put it in a small frame.

Formal dinner table for 8

Place setting for a formal dinner

If you focus on the essential table setting items, your dinner party is bound to be a success. Don’t feel like you must have very fine or expensive linens, china or silver in order to have a formal dinner, either. A fun and successful formal dinner isn’t about the price of the table settings, it’s about a delightful shared experience. If you’re looking for china, linen, silver and other home decor items, check out Splendor on a Shoestring, my free guide to tracking down lovely things on a budget.

I covered the bare minimum essentials you need to set a formal table, along with some fun extras. While I focused primarily on place setting for formal dinner most of it would apply to lunch, brunch (see a photo below of formal brunch setting) or other meals.

formal brunch table setting