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 How to lay the table when a TV supper just won’t do!


November 2017

formal dinner place setting

Do you know exactly which knife should go on the outside; where the spoon and fork for desert goes? Or should it be called pudding anyway?

The last few decades have been a time of fun informality but as always the trends are moving on, and increased formality is slowing coming back.

In Victorian days rules were set even to the point of placing people at a meal table in order of importance rather than who they might get on with; but today when so many families eat informally and often separately, suddenly being confronted with having to lay up a proper table for a celebration meal can cause all sorts of problems.

Obviously for a special occasion we still don’t need to go to the formality shown at the banquets at Buckingham Palace, but it is still lovely to get it right.

For a start, you really don’t want to crowd people together. Generally allow around 15 inches between place settings; or around 2 feet between the centre of one setting and the other. Better to put another table on the end for additional guests rather than crowd them too much.

The overall rule for cutlery is outside in, so you place the knife or fork you are going to use first on the very outside. If the bread rolls and butter is available from the beginning of the meal, then the small butter knife can be laid on the very outside, although often it is placed on the small side plate as in the diagram above.

Then really in modern times we simply follow the courses in. If you are starting with soup, then the soup spoon goes on the outside; if you are having a salad with the meal and want a special fork for that, then that goes on the far left. Otherwise you just come in from the outside to follow the order of the meal.  Desert spoons and forks are laid above the place setting and always the same way, whether the guest is left or right handed.

Spoons for coffee are not put out until coffee is served.

The placement of glasses is interesting. Today we rarely lay up a range of glasses but even with just a water glass and a wine glass, there is a formality that can be observed. The red wine glass should be placed just a short distance from the tip of the main dinner knife and any other glasses placed in position against this one i.e. a water glass or champagne glass will go on its left. A white or sweet wine glass should be positioned on its right.

Traditionally dinner plates should never be on the table ready but should be brought in just as the main course is served. There are two reasons for this. First because in the past when rooms were cooler great importance was given to serving main meals on hot plates; and secondly because no one wants to eat soup or a fish course with one’s main plate waiting underneath. That would mean if you spill a drip of soup or anything else, you will have a dirty main plate even before the hot meal is served.

Butter can be waiting on a table, and the water glasses filled before the guests sit down, but everything else should be served once the guests are seated.

Napkins today can be laid formally in triangles on the bread plate, or made into a range of fabulous shapes to greet the guests. There are lots of tips online on how to do this or you can visit our own feature about napkin shapes here.

Today of course unless the occasion is incredibly formal, most table setting rules can be adapted. The key really is to ensure the guests feel relaxed and have everything they want to hand to help them really enjoy the fabulous meal you have organised for them.

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