How to Set a Pretty Table
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Place setting for a special-occasion dinner
Credit: Jonny Valiant
Follow these tips for a special-occasion dinner, an informal lunch, and a Sunday brunch.
For a Special-Occasion Dinner
- A formal setting isn’t meant to be “overcomplicated or just plain pretty,” says Eric Ripert, executive chef of Le Bernardin, a four-star restaurant in New York City. “The order of everything on the table is logical.” This table, featuring handpainted dishes by Pupilles et Papilles at Michael C. Fina, is set for a first course of soup, followed by a salad, an entrée, and a dessert. Use the Place-Setting Cheat Sheet as a guide.
- A charger, or presentation plate (shown under the soup bowl), holds a spot for the dinner plate and should be removed after the salad course. In all but the most formal settings, you can forgo chargers, but etiquette sticklers swear by them, insisting guests should never walk up to a bare table.
- All flatware should be evenly spaced, about a half inch apart.
- People typically reach for water more often than wine, so the water goblet goes above the knife tip, with wineglasses (red above white) to the right.
- If space allows, place the napkin to the far left, so as not to disturb the flatware.
For an Informal Lunch
- A casual afternoon meal offers a chance to relax and have a little fun, so all you’ll need is the basics. Take the opportunity to show a bit of personality by mixing and matching textures, patterns, and colors. This table features a patterned salad plate on top of a contrasting dinner plate. A charger isn’t required for such a casual setting.
- The flatware aligns more or less with the bottom of the dinner plate.
- No matter the occasion, make sure the knife’s blade points toward the plate. “It’s impolite to allow blades to face other diners,” says Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post and the author of Emily Post’s Wedding Parties (Collins, $23, amazon.com).
- Feel free to use tumblers in place of wineglasses. It’s OK for stemmed and stemless glasses to coexist.
- Place salt-and-pepper shakers near the center of the table. If someone asks you to pass the salt, hand her the pepper, too. The pair should always travel together.
For a Sunday-Brunch Buffet
- There’s no one way to set a buffet table, though “there should be a flow and balance, so that guests don’t feel like they’re in a cafeteria line,” says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com). Place a stack of plates at one end of the buffet table so that guests pick them up first. Choose plates with some heft (avoid flimsy paper ones) and a substantial lip: Food will be less likely to slide off. Use the Buffet Flow Chart as a guide when entertaining large groups.
- The food comes next. Arrange it at various heights so that guests can see and reach everything with ease. Shallow bowls and basic platters are the most user-friendly choices.
- Roll silverware inside napkins, secure them with a bit of twine, and pile them toward the end of the buffet, which “cuts down on the balancing act,” says Tara Guérard, an event planner in Charleston, South Carolina. Use sleek flatware, as more decorative styles are often too bulky to roll up neatly.
- Position drinks and easy-to-grip stackable tumblers at the end of the buffet table.