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Setting a nice table for a dining occasion can be as formal or informal as you wish to make it.  There are a few things that should be taken into consideration when you plan a table setting. 


1.   Will I be setting a formal or informal dining table?

2.   Do I have all of the appropriate silver or flatware and dishes to accommodate the type of table setting I desire?

3.   What kind of centerpiece will I be using?

4.   What kind of candles will I be using?

5.   What kind of linens will I be using?


Formal or Informal


A true formal dinner will require several types of dishes and silverware.  Chargers may or may not be used.  Several courses of small amounts each will be served and removed along with several wines.  Unless you plan to be bouncing up and down during the dinner, you will need to have serving people and additional help in the kitchen to do last minute cooking and serving of the food for each course.  The help needs to be schooled in formal entertaining.


China and Silverware


Decide on a menu and then do an inventory of your china and silverware.  Do you have all of the appropriate pieces?  If not, you may either decide to change the menu or purchase additional pieces to accommodate the menu of choice.  If you have determined a date, begin by making certain you have made arrangements to have the additional help you will need for kitchen and serving.  A catering service might be the answer to all of your needs.  They will prepare the meal, set the table and serve the meal.  In many cases they even clean up after the meal.  Sometimes they even provide some serving pieces, but usually it is up to the hostess to provide china and silverware. 


The Table Centerpiece


This can be flowers, a piece of sculpture, a bowl with floating candles, fall leaves or spring vines, arrangements of fruits, vegetables or both.  Just keep it low so that a tall floral arrangement doesn't prohibit conversation across the table.


Candles for the Table


Keep it simple because as the flowers can block the view of the person across the table, so can the candles if you use a large candelabra.  There are so many beautiful candles that you can do wonders.  A small cluster of round or square candles next to the centerpiece would be very nice.  An individual candle in front of each diner would also give some indirect light.  I still like a medium taper in a small holder on either side of the centerpiece.


Table Linens


If your dining table is wood finish, you must protect it with table pads made for the size of your table.  If that is the case, you will be using a full tablecloth to cover the table pads.  For a formal dinner, white is usually used, but for special events you certainly can use pastels or subtle patterned cloths.  If the event is less formal or is a breakfast or luncheon, bring in color to compliment your dishes and silverware.  You can even tailor the mats or tablecloth, dishes, flatware and glassware to the type of cuisine you are serving.  For instance, if the dinner is to be a meal of Asian cuisine, you might want to have a plain tablecloth with bamboo mats, silverware with bamboo handles, dishes and glassware with an Oriental flavor.  Napkins should also complement the décor. 


Exactly what is a formal dinner?


A formal dinner would have just the table setting with the napkin laid onto the plate. Photos. The service begins with the appetizer Photo followed by both clear and thick soups. Photos. Then there is an alternation of courses, each with its accompanying vegetable.  They begin with lighter fare and progress on to hefty joints and whole fish.  Next the classic entrée is served and consists of timbales, seafoods and variety meats served in rich pastes and with delicate sauces and elegant trifles. Photos. Then will come the salad unless you choose to serve this as I did, prior to the entrée. Photos . This would consist of seasoned cooked vegetable as opposed to greens, which would be relegated to garnish only.  After this course the cheese selection would arrive.  Finally the hot or cold sweets would be served followed by both hot and cold fruits.


I have shown a formal table setting with a couple of changes to accommodate a less formal dinner.  I did use chargers, but you certainly may eliminate them.  I moved the salad fork to the left as it is often served prior to the entrée.  You can pretty well follow the picture, but feel free to make the changes to conform to your own version of a formal setting.  I did not use a fish knife or fork, but you could use them if you are serving a fish course.  I did use the individual salt and pepper shakers.  It is best not to clutter the table with too much silverware, but rather bring additional pieces as the course is served.  According to my Joy of Cooking, a formal table setting would also include an ashtray, cigarettes and matches.  Well, in this day and age, that would be taboo.


Now between each course, dishes have to be removed and there is an order in which this should be done.  Plates should be removed from the right of the diner and the next course presented from the left.  The server should serve the offering by holding the plate on a folded napkin on the palm of the left hand and steadied with the right.  When the table is cleared prior to dessert, the server can use a silent butler or a clean folded napkin and brushes the crumbs onto a plate.


If you wish to use finger bowls, they would be placed in front of each guest.  The setting would consist of the dessert plate, a doily and a bowl partially filled with water and a floating lemon slice, fragrant herb or a flower.  The dessert fork and spoon would rest on the dessert plate also and are then placed on either side of this setting by the guest. Photo. The guest removes the doily and bowl and places it in the upper left side of his place setting, opposite the water glass. Photos. Then the dessert is served.  The exception to the finger bowl being served with dessert is if fruit is served after dessert.  Then it will accompany the fruit course in the same manner


My Formal/Informal Dinner


When I have what I refer to as a formal dinner, I try to set the table as I have in the picture because it accommodates our lifestyle and that of most middle class Americans.  An appetizer would await the guests at the table, so the napkin would be placed to the left of the forks.  Photo.


Forks are placed to the left of the plate in the order served and since I serve the salad prior to the entrée it will appear first, followed by the fish fork if a fish course is served and then the main-course fork.  Next will be the charger (if one is used), topped by the dinner plate.  On top of the dinner plate will be the liner plate on which the first course will be served.  The silver to the right of the plate will consist of the main-course knife (cutting edge toward the plate), fish knife (if fish is served) or in my case a steak knife (cutting edge toward the plate).  Next will be the soupspoon and a seafood fork if seafood is served as the first course.  The seafood fork is the exception to the "forks on the left rule."  A fruit cocktail spoon might be to the left of the seafood fork if fruit replaces the soup, in which case the soupspoon would be omitted.


Above the main-course knife will be the water goblet, to the right and slightly higher will be the white wine goblet and below it and ever so slightly to the right will be the red wine goblet.  I have used bread and butter plates in the upper left-hand corner with a butter knife across the plate.  You will also see individual salt and pepper cellars above each plate.  At a larger dinner party, it is inconvenient to keep passing salt and pepper to each guest.


Soup may be served from the kitchen or from a soup tureen at the table.  Salads would be served from the kitchen and would be made up of fresh crisp greens.  Breads or rolls would be served hot to each guest on the bread and butter plate.   I prefer to pass butter pats or balls around the table, but again you could have them already on the bread and butter plate.  I usually do the serving, but sometimes my granddaughters and daughter-in-law will assist.


The head of the table might serve the entrée or more likely it would be passed family style so that each person might choose the amount he or she desires.  Sometimes the host serves only the meat and the accompanying dishes are passed around the table.  An alternative would be for the hostess to remove the chargers with the dinner plate when it is time to serve the entrée.  Warmed plates would replace the cold dinner plates and the meals dished up in the kitchen and served to the guest.  Then the table is pretty well cleared except for water goblet.  Finally the dessert is served and the silverware for this course is brought with the dish. 


Coffee, tea or demitasse could be served during or after dessert and the accompanying spoon for that beverage will rest on the saucer.  The coffee, tea or demitasse would be poured from the right and cream and sugar offered on a tray from the left or you could place one or two sets at the table so the guests could pass them around.  When this course is complete an after-dinner port, brandy or liquor might be served.


The Luncheon (or very Informal) Dinner Table Setting


For a luncheon or informal dinner your table setting is much easier.  Photos. From the top, left to right, the bread and butter plate and individual butter knife are in the top left corner with the knife across the plate.  In the center are the dessert fork and spoon facing opposite directions with the spoon at the top, although you may bring this silver with the dessert service.  To the right will be the water goblet.  The wine goblet will be just to the right of the water. 


From left to right on the bottom, first comes the napkin assuming the first course is in place.  If you do not plan to serve a first course, the napkin should be placed across the dinner plate.  Forks are always to the left of the dinner plate and placed in the order of the service.  In my picture, the salad fork is first and then the main-course fork because that is how I serve my courses.  You may reverse the order if salad is served after the main course. 


Next and in the center is the main-course plate, topped by the liner plate for the first course.  You may use chargers under the plates if desired.  The first course would then be placed on the liner plate.  When removing the first course, you would remove the liner plate with the first course on the plate.  To the right will be the main-course knife (cutting edge toward the plate) and the soup spoons (if soup is served).  The coffee spoon is next to the soupspoon, or it may be brought with the coffee, if desired.  The seafood fork is the exception to forks on the left and would only be served when the first course is seafood.  The last spoon would only be used if fruit replaces soup for the second course.


I do like using the small individual salt and pepper cellars in front of each guest.  It isn't necessary if you are only serving 2, 3 or 4, but with a larger group it is much nicer.


The Breakfast Table Setting


This is much easier and yet can be very impressive.  Photos. In the upper left-hand corner place the bread and butter plate with the individual butter knife across the center of the plate.  For breakfast I like to have the butterballs or pats in place on the bread and butter plate.  To the right of the plate will be the water glass or goblet with the juice glass or goblet to the right of the water glass.


On the bottom, from left to right, the dinner fork on the far left follows the napkin.  In the center will be the plate topped by the cereal dish.  To the right will be the dinner knife (cutting edge toward the plate) cereal spoon (cream soupspoon) and coffee or teaspoon.  To the far right and between the top and bottom row will be the coffee or tea cup and saucer.


However you entertain, it should be comfortable for your guests and yourself. Fresh and properly prepared food is most important.  If the hot food is hot and the cold food is properly chilled and there are no long pauses between courses, you have accomplished the next most important part. If you can partially prepare some or part of the recipes, do this the day before.  Make sure you have tested the recipes at least twice prior to entertaining.  Prepare as much of the garnishing as you can and set your table except for a floral centerpiece, which should be absolutely fresh the day before also.  Soft music is nice to accompany your meal so check over your CD's and pick music that will not overcome conversation at the table.  Pick and lay out your clothing you will be wearing.  The more you can do ahead, the easier it will be on the day of the dinner or luncheon.  Enjoy entertaining.  It should be fun and give you a sense of accomplishment.


Sometime soon we will be adding a buffet table setting and a tea service setting. 

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