Ideas & Inspiration

How to Set a Table, 3 Ways

Basic Table-Setting Etiquette Tips
A person setting a table with grey dishes and flatware.

No matter how you set your table, these basic rules will help you figure it out.
 

  • The napkin always goes to the left of the dinnerware...unless you’re using cloth napkins and napkin rings or folding the napkin into a special shape. In that case, the napkin goes on top of the plate. 
  • Place your flatware in the order they will be used, with the items that will be used first on the outside. 
  • Forks go to the left of the plate, and knives and spoons go on the right. Knives should always face inward towards the plate. If you’re not serving soup, you don’t need a spoon.
  • Always line up the bottoms of the silverware.
  • The water glass should be placed directly above the knife. 
  • If you’re serving wine, include a wine glass. This should be placed to the right of the water glass.  
How to Set a Casual Table for Dinner with Friends
Four casual place settings at a breakfast table with pancakes.
  • You’ll need: A napkin; a fork, knife, and spoon; a dinner plate; a water glass; and a wine glass (if serving). If you’re serving a salad before dinner, you may want to add a salad fork as well.
  • Place the dinner plate in the center, and the napkin to the left of the plate. (Alternately, you can opt for the napkin on top of the dinner plate to mix things up.) 
  • Add the fork on top of the napkin or to the right of the napkin, and the knife and spoon to the right of the plate. 
  • Place the drinking glass directly above the knife, and (if using) the wine glass to the right of the drinking glass.  
How to Set a Table for a Seated Dinner Party with Multiple Courses
A place setting for a seated dinner.
  • You’ll need: Everything from the last set up, plus a mug and teaspoon (if you’ll be serving coffee and/or tea); a bread plate with a butter knife; and a bowl (if you’re serving a soup course).
  • Start just like you would for set up number one, except if you’re planning on serving from a buffet, leave the dinner plates stacked by the food instead of the center of the set up.  
  • Place the mug to right of the wine glass. 
  • Place the bread plate at the top left corner of the set up.
  • Place the soup bowl to the left of the forks. 


How to Set a Formal Table for a Seated Dinner Party
A formal place setting with the napkin on top of the plate.
  • You’ll need: Everything from the last set up, plus a charger, or service plate; a salad plate or first course plate; a fish fork, oyster fork, and fish knife if seafood will be served; multiple wine glasses if you’ll be serving multiple wines. 
  • Place the dinner plate in the center, with the salad plate and then napkin directly on top. 
  • Arrange the silverware in order of use, from outside-in.
  • Arrange the wine glasses in order of serving, from left to right and place them to the right of the water glass. 
  • If you’re serving dessert, you can wait to place dessert forks and plates on the table until dinner has been cleared.  
How to Make a Sit-Down Dinner Special
A group of people gathered around a dinner table

In addition to using a casual, semi-formal or formal place settings, there are some other tricks you can use to make any sit-down dinner feel special. Candles can help create a cozy, convivial atmosphere. You can opt for clusters of pillar candles or tea lights in votive holders scattered around the table or go a little more traditional with a few sets of candlesticks.
 

Another way to wow your guests is to go the extra mile with a centerpiece. These can be as elaborate as a purchased flower display or as simple as a bowl of fruit or scattered cuttings from your garden. A favorite trick that set designers like to use: You can use gold or silver spray paint to turn everyday organic items—think acorns, oranges with leaves attached, or pretty leaves from your backyard—into a baroque tableau. Mix in some of the natural items without spray paint to add some color to the table. 


For a large dinner party, you may want to consider creating a seating plan with place cards. A lovely extra touch: Include an ice-breaker on each place card to get guests talking to one another. Last but not least, don’t forget about the music. Creating a playlist or selecting a radio station helps to set the mood, which is as important as setting the table. 

Before You Set a Table, Get the Right Tools Together
An elaborate dining table set with white dishware.

For the absolute best-looking table possible, you want to start with the best building blocks. Here’s everything you need to set the perfect table, explained—from dinnerware to flatware, wine glasses to water glasses, table linens to napkins, and everything else in between.

  

  • Dinnerware Set: For a casual table, you’ll want dinner plates plus salad plates. If you’ll regularly be throwing dinner parties with multiple course settings, consider getting a set that includes dinner plates, salad plates, bread plates, bowls, and mugs. Stark white plates or white-and-blue china can help make a dinner feel more formal, while earth tones create a more casual vibe. 


  • Chargers: A charger is basically an over-sized dinner plate that is not meant to be eaten off of. It goes underneath the dinner plate on a very formal table to help create a lush, layered look. It can also denote where a plate should be placed for a buffet-style table arrangement. Chargers can be made from all kinds of materials; look for lacquered wood or metallic chargers for a glamorous vibe, or woven chargers for a more casual atmosphere.


  • Flatware: Look for forks, knives, and spoons with a nice weight to them. For a more formal table setting, you’ll need a flatware set that includes a fish fork, oyster fork, and fish knife in addition to the usual suspects. Shiny flatware should be polished before setting the table so it doesn’t show fingerprints or water marks. (An easy way around this? Go for matte silverware.)


  • Wine Glasses: For a simple gathering, short bodega glasses or works-with-everything stemless wine glasses work perfectly. For a formal occasion with multiple types of wine, consider buying a wine glass set that includes a red wine glass, a white wine glass, and a dessert wine glass. Alternately, you can purchase sets specifically designed to increase enjoyment of your favorite varietals. 


  • Water Glasses: Even though it might be crowded with multiple wine glasses, having a water glass on the table is essential. Simplicity is key—opt for something small and low key that won’t compete with the rest of the table setting. 


  • Napkins: For a formal dinner, cloth napkins are a must. Look for a color or design that complements the rest of your table setting. For a more casual affair, paper napkins are A-ok. For ideas on napkin-folding techniques, see our guide to folding napkins into fun shapes like swans, hearts, and roses. 


  • Napkin Rings: You can opt to place your napkins underneath the silverware as directed above, or for a more layered look, pull your napkins through napkin rings and place them on top of each plate. 


  • Table Cloths: Many people choose to skip a tablecloth altogether, taking a cue from five star restaurants that no longer use the starched white cloth. (Some say it creates a stuffy vibe.) If you prefer using table linens, there’s nothing wrong with that! It can help create a color story for your table, not to mention smooth out the look of things if your dining table requires leaves to be added to accommodate all your guests. 


  • Serveware: Consider purchasing serving platters and bowls in the same set as your dinner plates for a cohesive feel. If that’s not possible, opt for colors and materials that complement your dinnerware. 


  • Candle Sticks: As a finishing touch, don’t forget the ambiance. Mid-century modern style brass candlesticks and tapers add drama to a formal dinner table. Don’t have candle sticks? Don’t sweat it. You can stick tea lights in mason jars for a homey-but-sparkly addition to the table. 

Your dinnerware sets look even better when you learn how to set a table. Even an everyday meal takes on a sense of occasion with a great table setting.