True or false?
Setting a formal table means setting an elegant table.
Setting an informal table means using plastic utensils.
If you answered true to one or both of these statements, then you need to read this article!
Many people think that they are setting a formal table every time they take out their good china but, in truth, it might not always be the case. An elegant presentation and the quality of your tableware are not the only factors included in the setting of a formal table. In fact, many informal settings can be highly decorative and of the outmost elegance. A formal table setting is distinguished by several factors that come together to ensure a decorous dining experience including, a meal composed of several courses, serving is done from the kitchen, and appropriate etiquette for a formal gathering is required. In your table setting, you essentially provide your guests with the necessary tools to adhere to the proper event and its required etiquette.
Although table settings are usually arranged in accordance to the established menu, customary table setting principles (whether you choose to set your table in a formal or informal manner) should be followed. In a formal table setting, dinner plates should be placed in front of each chair (one inch from the edge of the table), and flatware should be placed on both sides of the dinner plate – forks to the left and spoons and knives to the right, with the exception of the seafood fork which, when needed, can be placed on the right side of the soup spoon. The bread plate is added on the far left and, on the far right, the tea cup and saucer; although some prefer bringing this later on in the evening. Dessert flatware can be placed on their respective sides of the dinner plate or placed horizontally at the top of the dinner plate. If placed at the top, make sure the teaspoon faces left and the dessert fork faces right (see picture below). In a formal table setting, you will provide your guests with all the necessary flatware, glasses, and dishes they may require for each of your meal’s courses and accompanying wine. However, since the formal dinner is served from the kitchen, additional flatware can be brought in with the serving to avoid expanding the table setting to more than 3 services on each side of the plate.
In the image below, I have set a basic formal table setting (note that I have included a service plate under the dinner plate for decorative purposes but this is optional).
It can clearly be seen why most people do not set a formal table every time they host a dinner party. A formal table setting requires an intricate meal and wine selection that just doesn’t correspond with contemporary traditions. For example, a classic french meal is comprised of 13 courses. I would have a hard time picturing today’s working families going to such an extent every time they host a Friday night dinner with friends! Nevertheless, I feel that knowing proper manners and etiquette will help you play with the guidelines and ultimately, host better dinner parties.
I have also included a picture of an informal table setting. As you can see, the informal setting can be as elegant and decorative as the formal setting but it is comprised of less flatware and glasses. I could have chosen to place even less utensils by removing the dessert spoon and fork, or place more flatware by adding a salad fork. An informal table setting is appropriate for most meals served at the table or, at times, directly from the kitchen, and is suitable for meals of five courses or less. Note that additional elements can also be added to the informal table setting with each additional service, e.g. steak knives, seafood forks, or sherry glasses.
In summary, when you are planing a dinner party, consider your three main elements. This will help you establish whether you are looking to host a formal or informal dinner. From there, take the time to follow these table setting guidelines but don’t ever be afraid to experiement and set a table that suits you and the event you are looking to create!