How to Set a Table for a Formal Dinner

Place setting at a dinner table
A formal dinner party is a fun reason for everyone to dress up and be on their best behavior. Mark Lund/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Are you intimidated by the very thought of hosting a formal dinner? Do you worry that you'll reverse the proper order of forks or put the bread plate where the water glass is supposed to be?

Stop fretting. It's not as difficult as you might think. All you have to do is follow a few basic guidelines, and your guests will think you've been doing this all your life.

Dispel the Stuffy Image

When most people think of a formal dinner party, an image of men dressed in stuffy tuxedos, stiff butlers with sour looks on their faces, and miserable guests who would rather be anywhere else often come to mind.

But that's not the reality. Anyone can host an event with people minding their manners while sitting at a table during a nice meal. 

Keep it Simple

Formal dinner parties don't have to be intimidating or awkward. In fact, they can be quite fun if you know what you're doing. Start with the place settings. The etiquette rules for setting the table are simple and very straightforward. If this is your first time, familiarize yourself with a few rules and tips,  and your guests will have no idea that you’ve never done it before.

Own It

Remember that this is your dinner party, and you may need to tweak some of the rules to make it work for your table or meal. Don’t make an issue of it unless someone asks about it. Many people have no idea how a formal dinner table is supposed to be set, so the guests are likely to look to you for guidance on proper etiquette. Discreetly take the lead. If anyone makes a mistake, do whatever you can to cover.

You don’t want anyone to be embarrassed by not knowing what to do.

Tablecloth

Although a white linen tablecloth isn’t essential for a formal dinner party, you can’t go wrong with one. The elegance of a starched white tablecloth and matching napkins sets the stage for your meal.

Even the simplest of foods will look nice against the white background.

Off-white is another elegant option. You may also use contrasting napkins for a more dramatic effect.

Dinner Plates

The first item to place on the tablecloth is the dinner plate. Position it right in the middle of each setting, equally spaced and with enough room for the rest of the setting. You may use napkin rings or fold the napkins elegantly. Place them in the middle of the dinner plate.

Utensils

The eating utensils should be placed in order of how they are intended to be used, starting with the outside and working toward the plate. The forks go on the left, and the knives and spoons go on the right, with the knife closest to the plate. Always position the knife with the cutting blade pointing toward the plate.

Butter knives should be placed on the bread plate. If your guests will need a dessert spoon or fork, place it above the plate. You don’t need to place any utensils that are not needed for the meal.

Other Dishes

You will need to make sure you have room for additional plates for bread and additional courses you will be serving. Position the bread plate just beyond the tip of the forks. Soup bowls and salad plates should be centered on the dinner plate, one at a time, and removed before the main course is served.

Glasses and Stemware

To the right of the plate, and toward the center of the table is where you should place the water glass. If you are serving wine, the wine glass should be next to the water glass, just beyond the tip of the knife. You may choose to put the wine glasses on the table in advance or wait until you serve the wine.

Dessert Setting

After the dishes from the main part of the meal are cleared, position the dessert plate directly in front of each guest. The only glass that should remain is the water glass. Coffee will be brought with the dessert, so this is the time to add the coffee cups which should be placed about an inch beyond the top right of the dessert plate or bowl.

Centerpiece

A formal dinner calls for an elegant centerpiece. Use candles, fresh-cut flowers, or any other decoration that enhances the table without distracting from the meal.

Make sure it isn’t too tall. The top of a centerpiece for any dinner party should be below eye level so guests can see everyone else at the table.

Formal Wedding Reception Dinner

If you are setting the table for a wedding reception, you may choose to add the party favors. These may be placed on the plate or just beyond the plate toward the center of the table. Favors that don’t enhance the setting may be given at the door rather than placed on the table. You may also choose to cluster the favors in a decorative arrangement in lieu of a centerpiece.