Set a Table
The Necessities
Matching placesettings (plates, glasses and utensils) for every person at the table 



A clean towel 


A decorative centerpiece-- 
perhaps some flowers? 

At least a half-hour before guests arrive 

Flatware: a set of matching knives, forks, and spoons. It's usually silver, but many stainless sets, and even gold-plate sets, are also used. 

Placesetting: a space on the table for each guest. This includes flatware, water glass, wine glass, and napkin. 

Helpful Tips
Try not to set out any flatware that diners will not be using; this only creates confusion. The one basic exception is the spoon, which completes the basic knife-fork-spoon combo. Place a spoon whether the meal requires one or not. 

When multiple courses are served, have the plates and flatware removed from each placesetting before bringing out the next dish. 

Don't drink from the fingerbowl!

You've just invited the boss to dinner at your house, and TV trays just won't do. Or you want to impress that special someone with a hot, home-cooked meal, but can't remember which side the fork goes on.

Never fear. Here are some basic guidelines and rules of etiquette to setting tables from intimate tête-à-têtes to banquets for a crowd. Some forethought and organization will allow you and your guests to spend the dinner hour enjoying food and conversation rather than navigating the flatware.

Before You Begin

The basic placesetting discussed here has been developed over centuries of European and American dining. Some differences exist from country to country and even family to family and are often argued with remarkable passion. Still, a few basic guidelines are generally accepted and will be adhered to in most American banquet halls.

We'll talk about three types of placesettings: a basic setting, a formal banquet setting and variations on folding the napkins.

Step 1Check what you have

Take out the flatware, dishes, glassware and tablecloth or placemats that you intend to use. Are they dusty? Soiled from the last time you used them? More often, the worst culprit will be a little dust. Take a clean dish towel and rub the dust from glasses and plates. Use a polishing cloth to shine up your flatware. 

If you use a tablecloth, make sure it's clean and pressed. You do not want any stains to remind visitors of last year's Christmas dinner. Inspect your tablecloth, placemats and napkins early to be sure they are presentable. Give yourself time for a last-minute wash if needed.

Step 2Understand the basics

Rule 1. Everyone at the table gets a placesetting, whether or not they intend to eat. Anyone can change their mind at the last minute, and only a careless host or hostess would be caught unprepared.

Rule 2. Flatware is placed evenly on either side of the plate in a manner comfortable to use by a right-handed person (sorry lefties, this one never varies). Forks go on the left, knives and spoons on the right. The cutting edge of the knife should point towards the plate. Spoons go to the outside of knives. 

Rule 3. Place the flatware in the order it will be used, with the first utensils set furthest away from the plate. The idea is to avoid rooting around for the appropriate fork or confusing your guests. 

Step 3Master the standard placesetting

It may take a bit of fussing around the first few times out, but nothing impresses a guest so easily as a perfectly set table. Chalk it up to the communal nature of mankind, or synchronicity or tribalism or whatever, but a precisely set banquet of multiple settings creates a wonderful atmosphere. Even if it's just you and a guest, a placesetting helps you feel important on that special occasion when you turn off the television set and eat in the dining room. 

  • If you have placemats: set each one square to the edge of the table where each chair will be. The bottom of the placemat (the side closest to the chair) should be about an inch (2.5 cm) from the edge of the table. Although this distance may vary from occasion to occasion, every placesetting at a table or banquet should be exactly equal to every other placesetting. 
  • The dinner plate (the big one) goes dead center in the middle of the placemat, or put the bottom of the plate two inches (8 cm) from the edge of the table if you are using a tablecloth. The napkin goes lengthwise on the left side of the plate. Fold square napkins once to make them rectangles, then lay them in the same direction the utensils will go. The crease goes next to the plate. 
  • Each utensil should be about a half-inch (2 cm) away from the plate and from each other. The fork goes on the left, tines up (the pointy ends), on top of the napkin; the knife goes on the right, cutting-edge towards the plate. Place the spoon next to the knife, parallel and to the right. 
  • The drinking glass goes above the knife, about two inches away from the tip.

Step 4Master the formal placesetting

Generally, the more formal the occasion, the more courses are served, which of course means more flatware. There should be a different set of utensils for each course: salad fork, dinner fork; dinner knife, bread knife; and so on. 

Some special dishes such as oysters have special utensils. These can be served at the presentation of the food, but generally are placed on the table in order of course. When oysters are served as an appetizer for example, set the oyster fork to the right of the spoon. 

Building from the basic set-up (see above), the following utensils may be added.

  • On the left side of the plate put the salad fork to the left of the dinner fork. On the right add a soup spoon to the outside of the dinner spoon if soup will be served. Place the soup bowl above the soup spoon and to the right. The bread plate goes to the left, about two inches above the fork. Place the butter knife across the bread plate at a diagonal, upper left to lower right. Small salad plates go to the left and a little below the bread plate. Dessert spoons, or in some cases knife and fork, are placed about an inch above the top of the plate with the handle(s) on the right side. 
The largest glass on the table is the water glass (see above for basic placement). It may be filled and iced when guests arrive or left empty to be filled at each diner's request. If wine or some other beverage is served, set the appropriate glass to the right and a little down from the water glass. 

Step 5Master the napkin variations

One way to vary table settings is through napkin folding -- an art in itself -- and placement. Try one of the following simple and exotic variations when you really want to show off.

Two simple, effective techniques:

  1. The Fan: Open each napkin completely and lay it flat on the table. Fold napkin back and forth like a fan, then press it down so the creases are sharp. Fold the long rectangle in half and place the center in an empty water glass. Open the two ends of the napkin sticking out of the glass in fan shapes. Set the glass in its original placement (see above) or directly in the middle of the dinner plate. 
  2. The Triangle: An even easier method is to open the napkin flat and fold one corner on top of its opposite corner. Take one of the other corners and fold it over onto its opposite. Fold these corners on top of the other ones and crease. Take the corner of the resulting triangle (which used to be the center of the napkin) and place into an empty water glass. Or you can open up the folded triangle a little and set it directly on the dinner plate.



    Step 6Adapt to your circumstances

    Uncommon utensils: If you have some specialized pieces of silverware that you're dying to show off, think up a dish you can use them for, and add it to the menu. Got shrimp forks? Use them for shrimp, not fondue.

    Left-handed diners: If formal arrangements are awkward, try to seat left-handed guests at the left end of a long table. The informed host should make this allowance for lefties, but please don't insist upon it. The result could mean an embarrassed guest.

    Small tables: Sometimes, small tables and numerous guests make crowded gatherings. If you find you are running out of room for your placesettings, rearrange each setting with the utensils grouped more closely together. The most important thing is that each setting looks identical to every other setting.

    Tablecloths versus placemats: Placemats seem to be a matter of taste and convenience rather than convention. An attractive set of placemats can add color to the table and initiate an enjoyable conversation, but if you are showing off with a fine white linen tablecloth you may find placemats unnecessary.