setting a formal table

place setting chart with labelsOur tabletop conventions here in America have their roots in British tradition, where the classical progression of courses is as follows: cocktails/appetizers, soup, fish, meat/fowl, salad, dessert, coffee. The traditional British table setting, including glassware, is set up to follow this progression exactly, as shown in the sketch to the left (click to enlarge).

But let’s be honest – have you ever served a meal in your home that followed this exact parade of courses? I’m guessing not. Americans love to entertain, but very rarely in this fashion. Even at the most lavish of gatherings, we often serve meals in a buffet format, rendering course order less relevant, and we generally start with salad.

So does this mean the rules for setting a proper British table are irrelevant to us? Not at all. In fact, the basic structure of the British tabletop has shown tremendous staying power when you consider the fact that it has crossed continents and been in the hands of us notoriously informal Americans for so many years now.

Bread and butter, for example – still in its classical position above the plate and to the left. Glassware – above the plate and to the right. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. These conventions are so ingrained that for most of us they feel like second nature. It’s only when moving into multiple courses of cutlery and glassware that things start to get fuzzy for many… So here are the modern rules:

If you are serving a formal meal in courses with wine pairings, the most popular modern option is to bring out appropriate cutlery and glassware in conjunction with each course. Set the table only for appetizers, clear the table when that course is complete, re-set with new cutlery for the next course, and then bring out each wine pour (already in a glass) along with the food. This option is favored by fine dining establishments in part because it is less confusing for guests, in part because preparing the table between courses builds anticipation, and in part because it cuts down on unnecessary dish-washing.

The only problem with this method is that it can be time-consuming in the middle of a party. Bringing out cutlery for four is easy, but setting 10-20 places can get pretty time-consuming, so for larger gatherings you may find it more expedient to have all the cutlery and glassware on the table beforehand.

If you choose to set the table for all courses in advance, place the cutlery so that your guest will be working from the outside in. Regardless of whether your first course will be salad, scallops, carpaccio or potatoes – the cutlery for the first course should be on the outside of the setting. The dessert fork and/or spoon may be placed either above the plate or on the very inside position next to the plate. If you will be serving wines with each course, the glassware should be placed in a staggered formation from the lightest to the heaviest: first the water goblet, then the champagne flute, then white wine or rose, then red wine, then port. If you are not serving multiple wines with the meal, obviously some of these glasses can be deleted.

Setting a lavish table like this is clearly not something to do every day, but it does create a beautiful and festive ambience. For additional glamour, consider using a charger between the placemat and dinner plate (in the picture shown, the charger is the gold one – not intended for food, but only for decoration). Experiment with festive napkin folds instead of a simple rectangle. Add placecards or menus if you wish. Don’t worry about matching all the cutlery, mixing it up is more modern and interesting. A thoughtfully decorated table with a sea of cutlery and glassware can become a visual extravaganza –  signaling to your guests that they have a very special meal ahead of them. Have fun celebrating!

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