How to Set a Table: Informal
Your decision is made for you if the serving dishes will be placed directly on the table or a buffet: This constitutes an informal affair. However, if the food will be served from the kitchen, the dinner can be either formal or informal, depending on the atmosphere the host wishes to impart. If you still can’t decide, keep in mind that because informal dinners often have only three courses, less silverware is required, making the settings themselves simpler.
In fact, with an informal dinner, placemats aren’t even necessary, especially if you’re using a charger (a large decorative service plate), which is generally removed before the entrée but should always be removed before dessert. Linens can reflect the more informal atmosphere and be unstarched and unpressed, depending on the wrinkle factor of the fabric. Napkin rings, with or without the silverware bundled together, are commonly set for informal affairs, rarely for more formal ones, and napkins may even be elegantly arranged in the water glass. Unless you’re serving an entrée that requires a steak knife, the dinner knife can be used for all courses, further simplifying matters.
Bold colors and imaginative arrangements are more acceptable for informal affairs, so feel free to get creative with your tablescape by using square plates, tinted stemware, and other accents that showcase your personality and the theme of the party. While place cards aren’t required in an informal setting, doing so allows for extra artistic flair and even a souvenir of the occasion, with the added bonus that the host has more control over where attendees sit, which can help the flow of conversation or enable the introduction of guests to each other.
Aside from the above-mentioned factors, when to host an informal versus formal dinner is entirely up to the atmosphere the host wishes to set, but some of the more common occasions to serve an informal dinner are holiday meals, a celebration of a personal milestone, or simply to indulge in the experience of dining at a pleasantly arranged table. Whatever the occasion, take a tip from the Europeans by savoring the luxury of a long meal with good company.