A refresher on dining etiquette

Story by Meredith Coopman
In today’s hectic world, we’ve become pretty laissez–faire about how we set the table. It can be a little nerve-wracking. There seem to be so many rules – who can keep track of them all and who has the time? With the season of hosting upon us, let’s refresh our memories, or learn all over again, and break down the art – or science – of setting the table.

I will warn you that a lot of this sounds stuffy and boring, and it is! This only serves as a guideline for “proper” etiquette, whatever that is. By no means am I saying that you can’t deviate. In fact, I encourage creativity. Take into consideration the meal you are serving, your guests and your time. Break the rules and create a unique dining experience. Just know the basics.


Basic setting

Basic setting

Basic Setting

The “basic setting,” the one with which we’re most familiar, is suitable for most occasions and is a good starting point. And as the need arises for more formal table settings, you can add pieces to this basic setting by bringing additional plates, silverware, glasses and other serving pieces to the table. The basic setting is what most of us would use for meals during the week and with family. Simple and straightforward, yet correct.

The basic table setting includes:
• a dinner plate
• a fork, knife, and spoon
• a drinking glass and napkin

The dinner plate is positioned in the center of the place setting, and everything else is placed around it. To the left of the plate is the fork. To the right of the plate is the knife and spoon. The knife is placed directly next to the plate with the sharp edge toward the plate. If the main course is meat, a steak knife can take the place of the dinner knife.

To the right of the knife is the spoon. A drinking glass goes above the knife. (I remember this by putting my thumbs and pointer fingers together and the side that looks like a ‘d’ gets the ‘drink’). The napkin is very versatile. It can be folded or put into a napkin ring and placed either to the left of the fork, under the fork, or on the dinner plate.

Think of FORKS as an acronym to help remember the order. From left to right: F- Fork, O- for the shape of the plate, K- Knife, S- Spoon. (If this is a casual weeknight affair, and you aren’t serving a dish that requires a spoon, I won’t tell anyone if you leave it off the table.)


Informal setting

Informal setting

Informal Dinner or Luncheon

The “informal setting” is proper for a fancy brunch, luncheon or a nicer dinner with three or more courses. Start with a basic setting and add to it. According to Emily Post, this meal has a soup course, salad or first course, entrée and dessert.

In this setting, you have:
• a napkin resting where your dinner plate will go
• a salad fork and a dinner fork, arranged according to which dish you’ll be eating first
• a soup spoon (if you’re serving soup), a dessert spoon, and a dinner knife, in that order
• a salad bowl to the left of your forks
• a bread plate and butter knife above the forks
• a water glass, a wine glass, and a tea or coffee cup

Forks 101: The dinner fork, the larger of the two forks, is used for the main course; the smaller fork is used for a salad or an appetizer. The forks are arranged according to when you need to use them, following an outside-in order. Think of the dinner scene with Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” If the small fork is needed for an appetizer or a salad served before the main course, then it is placed on the left (outside) of the dinner fork; if the salad is served after the main course, then the small fork is placed to the right (inside) of the dinner fork, next to the plate. It’s okay to eliminate the salad fork if no salad is served or place it to the right of the dinner fork to use as a dessert fork if appropriate. The dessert fork can also be brought to the table when dessert is served or sometimes positioned above the dinner plate horizontally.

If soup is served, set the bowl on the plate and a soup spoon to the right of the beverage spoon. Salad or bread and butter plates go to the left of the forks. If salad is to be eaten with the meal, you can forgo the salad plate and serve it directly on the dinner plate. Position butter plates above the forks with the butter spreader placed across the plate, handle on the right side and blade facing down. The cup and saucer go above the spoons with the handle toward the right. Wine or water glasses can be positioned to the left of the coffee cup. Whew! No wonder this is so hard to remember.


Formal setting

Formal setting

Formal Dinner

For the “formal setting,” begin with the setting for an informal dinner or luncheon and add to it using the following guidelines. This is the setting for a holiday feast or any other show-stopping meals you might serve. The more silverware, the fancier the meal.

Your setting will typically need:
• a charger, or service plate, resting under the dinner plate
• a salad fork, a fish fork, and a dinner fork
• an oyster fork (which is the only fork that sits on the right of the plate), a soup spoon, a fish knife, and a dinner knife
• a bread plate and a butter knife above the forks
• a water glass, a white wine glass, and a red wine glass

The big plate in the center is the charger. Food never touches it. Etiquette dictates that it’s a proper part of the formal table setting. The white and red wine glasses (if necessary), along with the water glasses, are positioned to the left of the coffee cup. The beverage, soup and/or dessert spoons are to the right of the knife or can be brought to the table when soup or dessert is served. After dinner, dessert and coffee or tea will be served.

The 19th century saw the arrival of dining according to rigid rules of “service,” so many practices were developed for the large variety of flatware, glasses and plates described in the first etiquette books. When it started out as a convenience of plates and utensils, directed by the common-sense practice of “outside-in,” it was science. But there’s something about a nicely set table that is artful and attractive, before we even get to the centerpieces.

Meredith Coopman of Meredith Coopman Design Studio has a background in architecture and interior design. You can reach her at meredith@meredithcoopman.com.