setting the dining table

Table Setting Etiquette: 8 Rules For Setting The Dining Table

who this class is for

Waiters and restaurant staff, Restaurant guests, House-party hosts and guests

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About this micro-class

Table setting etiquette is the set of rules to properly set a dining table before a meal. It includes how to set the tablecloths, seats, cutlery, dishes, glasses, and decorations.

1. Set the tablecloth and placemats

Cover the table with a clean tablecloth. You can add placemats to delimit the place setting for each guest. Use placemats without a tablecloth only on informal occasions.

2. Set the seats with the appropriate spacing

Set the seats to allow as much elbow room as possible for each guest.

A normal seat is around 80 cm wide (30 inches). The ideal space is about 1 mt wide (39 inches), while the minimum space should be 60 cm (24 inches).

3. Set the dishes

Main dishes

Place one main dish for each seat. In general, the standard dishes for a main course are around 30 cm in diameter (12 inches).

On formal occasions, you should change dishes and utensils after each course. Thus, you should plan one dish and one pair of clean utensils for each course. On informal occasions, it is acceptable to use the same fork and knife for more than one course.

If you serve soup or pasta, set a shallow bowl on each place setting. Place the bowl on top of the main course dish.

Dessert, cheese, and fruit dishes

Dessert, cheese, and fruit are eaten on smaller dishes. The standard measure is around 20 cm in diameter (8 inches). 

Do not place dessert, cheese, or fruit dishes on the table before the meal. Bring them to the table when you serve dessert, cheese, or fruit.

Bread and butter side dishes

In formal restaurants or on formal occasions, table setting etiquette requires one or two smaller side plates.

The bread dish is placed to the left of the main course dish.

The butter dish could be shared or individual for each guest. When the butter dish is individual for each guest, it is placed to the left of the main course dish, close to and above the bread dish.

4) Set the utensils

Regular utensils

Place forks to the left of the main course dish, and knives and spoons to the right.

For multiple-course meals, place a pair of clean utensils for each course. Guests should use utensils out-to-in. Thus, the utensils on the exterior of each place setting are the first to be used.

Follow this link to learn the full micro-class on cutlery etiquette.

Dessert and fruit utensils

If you are going to serve dessert, place a fork and a knife for dessert too. If you are serving a soft dessert, such as ice cream or sorbet, a small spoon is more appropriate than a fork. 

Place the dessert utensils on the table before the meal, above the main course dish. Alternatively, you can present the dessert utensils on the individual plates when you are serving dessert.

Follow the same rules to set the utensils for fruit.

Special utensils

Some foods may require special utensils. Such utensils are similar to regular ones but designed to eat a specific type of food. Examples include:

  • Butter spreaders or knives.
  • Meat knives to eat some cuts of red meat.
  • Fish forks and knives.
  • Picks or two-pronged forks for seafood, such as crab or lobster, or snails.
  • Teaspoon to stir tea.

Set special utensils according to the same table setting etiquette as the regular ones. Limit their use to the specific food they are designed for.

5. Set the drinking glasses for water and wine

Set glasses on the right side of each place setting. Set them slightly above the position of the main course dish and above the knife and spoon. Place wine glasses to the right of the water glasses. The most common glasses for water and soft drinks are tumblers. Wine glasses are usually stemmed glasses or in the shape of a chalice.

Guests should drink only one beverage with each glass. Thus, you must set one glass for each type of beverage you are going to serve. If you are serving two red wines, you should set two different red wine glasses for each guest. Do not set a single glass for more than one beverage. 

Follow this link to learn the full micro-class on glass etiquette.

6. Set the napkins according to the local etiquette

Set napkins folded or rolled. In European etiquette, you should place the table napkin to the right of the main course dish. In North American etiquette, the napkin is usually to the left of the setting.

In restaurants or on formal occasions, the napkin can be placed on the main course dish or on the butter dish. If you set the napkin on the butter dish, you should present it rolled.

Follow this link to learn the full micro-class on napkin etiquette.

7. Set the decorations

Set the decorations last. Decorations include centerpieces, flowers, candles, place cards, or other decorative elements. Choose the appropriate decorations for the occasion and theme of the event.

Ensure that the table decor does not overcrowd the table, leaving enough space for dishes, glassware, and comfortable dining. Ensure that decorations do not obstruct your guests’ ability to comfortably eat, drink, or engage in conversation.

8. Items that should not be placed on the table before a meal

When setting the dining table, there are some items that should not be placed on the table before the meal to ensure a clean and organized presentation. These items are typically reserved for later use or should be provided as needed during the meal.

  • Food.
  • Salt and pepper shakers. They should be provided upon request or made available once the food is served.
  • Beverages. Unless it is a casual meal with self-service, beverages like water, wine, or other drinks should not be pre-poured and left on the table.
  • Condiments and sauces. The condiments should be brought to the table if they are relevant to the dishes being served or provided upon request.
  • Desserts.
  • Serving dishes and utensils.
  • Warming trays.

Table setting etiquette mistakes

Avoid the major etiquette mistakes for setting the dining table:

  • Placing the seats too close to each other.
  • Placing utensils or glasses in the wrong order.
  • Not using a tablecloth.
  • Placing napkins in the wrong way.

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Shop for etiquette, behavioral, and contextual signs

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