Setting the Dinner Table Posted by on Aug 13, 2020 in Culture, English Vocabulary

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One of the things that I miss the most during the pandemic is dinner with friends. There are few things in life that I enjoy more than a formal or semi-formal dinner party. Spending a long afternoon or evening seated among friends, leisurely eating a delicious meal, sipping wine, and talking about whatever is on everyone’s mind might be when I’m most at ease. The whole experience, from the food to the conversation, offers me most of the pleasures of life in one place – the dinner table.

Adding to that pleasure is the way the dining table has been set. Before the food arrives, the table has been set in such a way as to excite your expectations. Fine plates, sparkling crystal glasses, and gleaming silverware promise that something special is about to happen. Add flickering candles, linen napkins, flowers, water pitchers, and bowls of sauces all perfectly laid atop a perfectly ironed tablecloth, and you immediately feel special.

Let’s take a look at what you can expect to see as you sit at a formal dinner table.

Formal tables are covered with a tablecloth, slightly longer than the table, and draping a few inches over the sides. At each setting is placed a charger plate, a large plate on which is then placed a dinner plate. To the left of these plates is the linen napkin. Sitting on the napkin will be the forks. These are arranged from left to right on the napkin according to the order in which they will be used. Most American dinners are served salad before the main course, so the salad fork will be found to the left of the dinner fork, which will be the longest fork on the table. If a fish course is served before the main course, there may be a fish fork for that course found between the two forks.

Just above the forks, you will find a bread and butter plate and a butter knife. It is the only knife found to the left of the plates. All other knives are placed at the right of the plates, with the blade facing in toward the plate, again according to when they will be used as the meal is served. Generally, the dinner knife is served closest to the plate, with the salad knife to the right of that. All spoons are set to the right of the knives. The soup spoon sits to the right of the knives.

Just above the knives, you will find the water goblet. If wine is to be served, the red wine goblet is placed to the right of the water goblet, followed by the white wine goblet and, if it’s a really special meal, a champagne glass (or flute) is on the furthest outside right.

When it’s time for dessert, a dessert napkin will be placed above the charger and a dessert fork and dessert spoon will be placed on that napkin. Coffee or tea will be served in a cup and saucer in place of the wine glasses. A port or sherry glass may also arrive.

Table linens:

  • Tablecloth
  • Napkin
  • Dessert napkin
  • Placemats – Less formal settings may replace a tablecloth with this smaller, rectangular, more colorful table linen


  • Dinner fork
  • Salad fork
  • Fish fork
  • Dessert fork
  • Dinner knife
  • Salad knife
  • Soup spoon
  • Dessert spoon


  • Charger
  • Dinner plate
  • Salad plate – Goes on top of the dinner plate if a salad is served before the main course.
  • Bread and butter plate


  • Water goblet
  • Red wine goblet
  • White wine goblet
  • Champagne flute
  • Sherry or port glass

Please keep in mind that this is simply a guide to how formal tables are supposed to be set. Most people don’t have all these items. There are also things like oyster and steak forks, salt cellars, which are very small bowls with tiny spoons used to sprinkle salt over your food, and even finger bowls, small bowls of water which are presented separately to each person after the meal to dip your fingers in.

When I serve a formal meal, I like to serve salad after the main course, so the salad fork and knife are placed differently than at the conventional American table. Also, my wife is very skilled at folding napkins, so a napkin in the shape of a swan or a flower petal may sit on top of the plates rather than beside them.

If you’re going to go to all this trouble, plan to stay at the dinner table for hours. You won’t want to leave.


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