Etiquette for Your Tabletop: Place Settings

When was the last time you set your table for dinner? I am talking really set your table.  The holidays? A dinner party with friends?  Never?  It’s okay, you’re not alone.  In our go, go, go society, formal place settings have become a thing of the past, and unfortunately knowledge of how to set a table has as well. Each semester we take on new student interns and unless they have worked in a fine dining restaurant or have previous experience in banquets/ events/ catering, I am shocked to learn that most don’t how to set a table. I’m talking about just the basics of where to place the knife!  So today, I’m dedicating my post to the 411 of table settings in the hope of helping to keep this glorious tradition alive. 

Nancy Ray Photography

Nancy Ray Photography

I’m going to skip the grand place setting fit for the Queen of England’s inaugural ball because, (1) I’d have to get out the book and look it up myself,  (2) It would require utensils that are deep in my china hutch in desperate need of silver polish and who really likes polishing silver?  3) If you are reading this, you likely just want the basics.  In fact even the most elaborate weddings still just use the basics.   So… the basics it is!

As I am writing this, I’m laughing thinking about Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts asks Hector Elizondo for help preparing for a fine dining experience with Richard Gere.  Hector tells Julia, “Shrimp fork, salad fork, dinner fork…. If you get confused, just count the tines.”  But even that doesn’t help poor Julia!  Who doesn’t love that movie?

The good news is that a basic dinner service at today’s events and weddings typically consists of two to three courses, (soup or salad, entrée and dessert) and wine with optional coffee and bread service.  Instead of trying to count the tines by candlelight, typically you eat with flatware from the outside, working your way in. This is also the appropriate way to think about setting the table.  Here is a diagram of the typical special event place setting plus some helpful hints and tips below.


·       Knives and spoons should be set on the right (the hand you’d use that utensil in).

·       Forks should be set on the left (the hand you are supposed to use that utensil in - if you're using your knife with your right hand, you use your left hand to hold a fork while you're cutting something with the knife).

·       All utensils should be 1 inch from the edge of the table with the exception of the dessert fork and coffee spoon. 

·       The cutting edge of the knife should face towards the plate.

·       Dessert forks and coffee spoons are positioned at the top of the place setting.

·       Dessert course utensil handles should point to the side they “belong.”  I like to think about it as if the forks could drive right into place with the other forks.

·       If you are serving a salad and entrée course, I recommend setting your place setting with two knives.  You’ll prevent the awkward juggle as guests try to “save” their knife for the next course.


·       Like flatware, glassware should be set in the order in which beverages are consumed.

·       White wine is the closest to the guest’s hand, followed by red and water is at the top of the place setting.

·       Using a universal wine glass instead of setting the table with both red and white can help save on cost and space.  Simply have the servers offer your guests an option during dinner services and have a few extras in case anyone decides to switch during the meal. 


·       On a wedding table place setting, there often isn’t space for a B&B (bread and butter) plate.  I recommend asking your caterer to add bread to your salad plate, perhaps in the form of a crostini or grissini.

·       Instead of pre-setting coffee cups and saucers, ask if the caterer can serve coffee tableside after the meal to save space.  This also helps save cost, as not everyone will want coffee.  For a wedding, it may make sense to instead set up a coffee station near the dance floor or bar to make sure that coffee is accessible into the late night.

Those are the basics of a tabletop!  Be sure to come back tomorrow, as Becca will be talking about how to dress it up with some pretty design!

Want help with other etiquette topics? Check out my previous posts on:

The Etiquette of Wedding Mailings

Wedding Etiquette of Addressing Envelopes

Children at Your Wedding | To Invite or Not to Invite

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