How to Set a Table: Formal
You know the Three Simple Rules, table-setting basics, and when to set for an informal dinner. Now it’s time to tackle the Big One: the formal dinner setting. As etiquette maven Emily Post put it, “To give a perfect dinner of ceremony is the supreme accomplishment of a hostess!” But no need to let the pressure get to you. We’ve made this one a snap for you, too.
As mentioned in our guide to setting an informal table, a dinner is usually determined to be formal if the meal is to be served from the kitchen, as opposed to having the serving vessels on the table or a buffet. Historically, decorum also looked to the hour for the level of formality: A formal dinner never began before 7:30PM, but this also depended on the custom of the region. While we’re a bit more lax in our rules nowadays, if your event is an afternoon affair, you might want to opt for an informal setting.
The purpose of the event can also determine whether to go formal or informal. Weddings are almost always formal, unless, as mentioned above, they are afternoon affairs, or the bride and groom explicitly desire a more casual vibe. If you’re unsure about how decorous your event should be, you can’t go wrong by erring on the side of formality, especially if you have a guest of honor of great esteem.
To ensure a formal ambiance, take all the info you learned about informal settings and crank it up a notch. That means that linens should now be lightly starched and pressed, place cards should be used whenever possible, and tableware alignment should be meticulous, with settings equidistant and utensils balanced by aligning bottom edges or an invisible meridian. Yes, OCD comes in handy when you go formal.
While it is recommended that you opt for place cards, you can forego them if the host is comfortable and practiced in verbally seating guests. If you choose to go this route, you should already have the seating arrangements in mind so that an awkward silence doesn’t make attendees fidgety as you decide whether or not Fred can handle sitting next to Fran.
As for the settings themselves, if the meal requires multiple glasses, only set five at any one time, arranged from largest to smallest, left to right. Likewise, no more than three of any one utensil should be on the table at a time, so if you have seven courses to serve, the silverware will need to accompany the later courses as they are served. The one exception to the utensil rule: the oyster fork, which can be set even if there are three other forks and which goes, oddly enough, to the right of the spoons. (Note that the oyster fork is the only fork that ever gets placed on the right side of the plate. Lucky fork!)
And that’s the formal setting in a nutshell. Yes, there are tomes written on the etiquette that goes into the proper table setting, but if you heed the above etiquette, as well as the rules shared in the previous posts, you can feel confident inviting even the most genteel of guests to your table.