Got formal dinner silverware etiquette anxiety? Fear not, because after setting your own formal table (or eating at them) a few times, you’ll never be afraid of silverware again. You may not have all the pieces mentioned here, and that’s OK. Use what you have, borrow what you need for your menu, and omit what you don’t. I include all the pieces here so you’ll know what to do if you find yourself at a formal dinner facing a lot of silverware (which happens to rock stars more often than you might think).
The main thing to remember: table setting is designed for convenience, and that for each course, the correct fork to use is usually on the outside. If you’re at a formal dinner and a course arrives with implements, those are what you should use. Simple, right? Now let’s set your own table:
If possible, try to set the table two days in advance–especially if your home is kid-and pet- free or you can close dining room doors. You’ll be much more relaxed knowing it’s out of the way, and it will look better because you didn’t rush.
After the table cloth and centerpiece, arrange the empty serving dishes on the table where they’ll be on the big day. Once you have the serving dishes where you want them, place under each dish a Post-it note with a description of the serving dish and what will be in it: “white oval casserole–green beans.” Place another Post-it inside each dish telling what goes inside. This reminds you, and makes it easier for guests who offer to help when things get crazy in the kitchen.
Now the plates: if you have charger plates, those go on first. If you’re like the rest of us, the dinner plates go on first–all the same distance apart, about 2″ from the edge of the table. If your plates have a design, place them so the design faces the same way at each place setting (no flowers growing upside down, please).
The folded napkin sits on the plate, with a napkin ring or not. Spring for cloth napkins; guests and post-holiday dates will be impressed. If napkins are large, fold them into fourths (square), then fold in thirds into a rectangle. Then the napkin ring, if you’re using them, goes around the rectangle. Etiquette note: Some old etiquette books have the napkin at the far left of the place setting, but most modern dining tables aren’t large enough, so this changed in the late 1930’s-early ’40’s.
Forks go to the left of the dinner plate. Start by placing the dinner fork next to the plate. Working outward to the left, the second course fork comes next, then the next course fork, ending with either the fish fork (also called the cocktail fork) or the salad fork on the outside. Remember: the fork for whatever comes first on the menu goes on the outside, and the fork for whatever comes last on the menu (before dessert) goes on the inside, next to the dinner plate. If you’re ending the meal with a salad course before dessert, the salad fork is the fork next to the dinner plate.
Cute as they may be, if you’re not serving seafood, leave off the cocktail forks. Etiquette Note: Some people put the cocktail fork on the right, next to the soup spoon. According to the books we consulted, technically either is correct. We prefer the left, simply because it’s less confusing for everyone.
Moving to the right side of the dinner plate… Start with the dinner knife next to the dinner plate, blade facing the plate, unless you want to send an enemy at the table a signal (not recommended for holidays due to Karmic fallout). Working outward to the right, the teaspoon goes next to the knife, then (if you’re serving soup), the soup spoon on the outside. If you’re using salad knives or fruit knives or fish knives, insert them into the lineup so that the correct knife arrives on the outside at the same time as its corresponding fork for that course. The steak knife, if your meal requires it, goes between the dinner knife and the teaspoon.
Dessert forks or spoons and coffee spoons can either be brought in with dessert, as we do, or if your table is large enough, you can place them horizontally at the top of the place setting above the dinner plate, with the coffee spoon closest to the dinner plate with the bowl of the spoon pointing toward the left, handle toward the right. The dessert fork or spoon is farthest up top, with the tines of the fork pointing toward the right and the handle on the left. (If it’s a dessert spoon, its bowl points to the left and the handle to the right.)
Etiquette Note: There are many variations of this in etiquette books, and many older books say that at dinner, there must be no more than three forks per place setting at a time. But that was when people had servants to carry things in, so unless you’re entertaining royalty or a dignitary, do what works best for your situation.
Place cards are optional but are a nice touch, and can be anything from something you print with your computer to a small, clean autumn leaf with the guest’s name written in gold metallic pen. Depending on what kind of place cards you have, they go either on top of the napkin, or at the top of the place setting, above the dessert fork. If you’re bringing the dessert forks and coffee spoons in later, the place card can go where the dessert fork would have been.
Glasses? The water glass goes above the tip of the dinner knife, then working toward the right, the champagne or dessert wine glass (if you’re serving it), then the wine glass for the entree or red wine glass goes between but slightly in front of them, with the white wine glass for the fish or appetizer course being closest to the outside. Tables being small these days, as an option you can arrange the glasses in slightly triangular group, keeping course order as best as you can, with the water glass always above the tip of the dinner knife and shortest glasses up front (nearest the guest) to avoid being knocked over.
Serving after-dinner brandy or cognac? The snifters should be brought in after dinner with the bottle, as you do coffee cups with after-dinner coffee. The same goes for glasses for liqueur served with after-dinner coffee: bring them in when you’re ready to serve.
Etiquette Note: Placement of glasses is another area where etiquette varies depending on when the book was written. Tables were much larger in days past, so some books say to line up the glasses in a straight line from first course to last, with the water glass above the tip of the dinner knife. With people using unmatched glassware these days, what’s really more important that shorter glasses be up front (nearest the guest) where they’re easily seen to avoid spills.
Coffee cups and saucers are brought in with dessert, unless one of the guests is having coffee with dinner (rare these days).
Bread plate? The bread plate goes on the left, above the outside fork. Individual butter spreaders are placed on top of each bread plate diagonally near the top of the plate–handle on the right and blade facing toward the inside of the bread plate. (If you don’t have individual butter spreaders, the dinner knife still remains in its normal place.)
Don’t have enough small plates for both bread and dessert? Skip the bread plate and have your guests put their bread on their dinner plates. At some formal dinners where no butter is served, traditionally the dinner roll is placed directly on the tablecloth at the left of the dinner plate–an old custom that in modern times is perceived as a little gross in the U.S. but is quite acceptable in parts of Europe (it’s done in the best French bistros). Whatever you do, don’t put the roll inside a folded dinner napkin; while it looks cute, it scatters crumbs all over your guest’s laps, leaving them uncomfortable and embarrassed. Not good hospitality!
Soup plate? Since most people don’t have enough plates to have a separate service plate, soup bowls are brought in when the soup is served and placed atop the dinner plate…Or atop the salad plate, if the salad course is after the soup and the salad plate already sits atop the dinner plate.
Salad plate? Technically it goes to the left of the dinner plate. But unless you have a dining room the size of Russell Simmons’, either eliminate the bread plate and place the salad plate there, or place the salad plate atop the dinner plate and serve salad as a separate course. If you opt for salad as a separate course, it can come after the soup, or you can serve the salad after the entree as a refresher, as was done until the late 1920’s or early 1930’s. (When served as a refresher after the entree, the salad plates are chilled and brought in with the salad.) If you have do a dining room the size of Russell Simmons‘, the salad plate goes on the left next to the dinner plate, and the bread plate remains above it, above the outside fork.
If you have individual salt and pepper shakers and have enough for each place setting, they go above the dessert forks. If not, they go between two place settings, placing a set on each side of the table if you have more than one.
Dessert plates are brought in with dessert and coffee, after the table is cleared and any crumbs brushed away. (Remove glasses too, except the water glasses and dessert wine glasses, but don’t quibble if a guest wants to keep their not-yet finished wine glass). The coffee cup and saucer sits where the entree wine glass had been. If dessert forks and spoons weren’t already on the table, the dessert fork or spoon comes into the dining room on the dessert plate (being careful lest it slide off during service and hit Uncle Henry’s bald pate). Ditto, the coffee spoon–if not already placed, it rides in with the cup and saucer.
If your abode is large enough (and your pets well-behaved), serve coffee and dessert in the living room. Balancing and juggling plates can be difficult, though, and the idea here is to relax and enjoy your guests, so moving into the living room to finish coffee after dessert is often preferable…as well as a nice way to finish the evening. (If you’re sending leftovers home with friends, pack and stash their care packages the in the fridge while you’re in the kitchen making the coffee. )
With the last round of coffee, offer decadent chocolates (or, for a vintage touch, after-dinner mints) to send a subtle signal that the evening is over. If you do this every time you have dinner guests, your “regulars” will cue the other guests.