In my view, there are three elements to a wonderful meal: Great food, a properly well-set table, and good conversation. In this post, my focus will be on the well-set table. For pointers on how to properly set a table, I went to the experts at The Culinary Institute of Canada, part of Prince Edward Island’s Holland College, in Charlottetown. There I was met by Tina Lesyk, Banquet and Catering Coordinator, in the Lucy Maud Dining Room, the Institute’s teaching restaurant. What follows is the substance of our conversation as we covered the gamut of topics that need to be considered in setting the proper table suitable to any occasion the home host/hostess is likely to encounter.
Types of Table Place Settings
Tina tells me there are three principal types of place settings: Formal, Informal, and Buffet. Let’s look at each one individually.
In a home setting, the formal table place setting would be used for high-end special events like anniversaries, birthday parties, or small intimate weddings.
Tablecloths are typically used for formal table settings although fine quality placemats could also be used. Cloth napkins (as opposed to paper) are also a characteristic of a formal setting. Charger, or show plates, are also commonly used as they provide a polished, finished look. These remain on the table throughout the course of the meal but are removed before dessert is served.
The typical elements in a formal setting include the following:
- appetizer fork and knife (if soup is being served, a soup spoon would be included)
- entrée fork and knife
- dessert fork
- dessert spoon
- bread plate and knife
- water glass
- wine stemware
You will notice that plates have not been included in this list. This is because, in a formal setting, the meal would be served plated, meaning the host or hostess would prepare each plate with the food in the kitchen and serve it to the guests once they are seated at the table.
Salt and pepper shakers are not commonly included in a formal setting, the premise being that the calibre of food at such a meal ought to be sufficiently seasoned that no table seasonings should be necessary. Guests should taste their meal first before automatically applying extra seasonings such as salt and pepper.
Cream and sugar are not on the table during the main meal in a formal setting; rather, these elements are brought out when dessert is served as are the coffee/tea cups.
Informal Table Place Setting
The informal table place setting would be used for barbeques, lunches, breakfasts, and casual at-home dining.
The elements in an informal setting are:
- Entrée fork, knife, and teaspoon
- Water glass
- Coffee cup and saucer – these can be placed either at the top of the place setting (as shown in the photograph above) or to the right of the place setting below the water glass
If you have a wood table, there is no need for a tablecloth in the informal setting and paper napkins are quite acceptable. When preparing an informal place setting, be sure to allot enough space between the fork and knife for the plate to sit.
Salt and pepper and cream and sugar are also typically included on the table in an informal place setting.
The buffet setting would be used for potlucks, brunches, barbeques, and cocktail parties where hors d’oeuvres would be served.
At a buffet, guests of course serve themselves. In a more formal buffet setting, the host/hostess may set the table for the guests, placing a plate, water glass, cup and saucer, and silverware (the latter usually wrapped in a cloth napkin and placed on the plate) at each place setting. In this setting, guests are first seated, then take their plates from the place setting with them as they proceed to the food buffet line.
For a more informal buffet setting, the host/hostess may choose to set out the stack of plates, paper napkins, and baskets of cutlery at the starting point of the buffet line where guests would pick them up as they proceed through the food buffet line.
Placement of Elements of a Place Setting
Tina offers the following tips and hints for placing elements in a place setting.
- Silverware must be perfectly straight in its placement on the table.
- Cutlery should be placed 1”, or a thumbprint, from the edge of the table. Any closer and guests might bump the silverware as they are settling into place at the table.
- Precision and exactness are key – at tables where guests are seated directly across from each other, it is important that the place settings line up perfectly – i.e., the plates and cutlery are in a perfectly symmetrical straight line as you look across the table. Likewise, when you stand at the end of the table and look straight down its length at the place settings, water glasses should form a straight line, as should plates, and so on.
Placement of Dessert Fork and Spoon (Formal Place Setting)
I asked Tina which way the dessert fork and spoon point as these utensils are placed above the plate in a formal place setting. She offered this easy tip: If you were to set the dessert fork beside the other forks in the setting and then simply draw the dessert fork up above the plate, the tines would point to the right. This is the correct position. The same holds true for the dessert spoon. If it was placed in position beside the knives and then drawn upward above the plate, the bowl end of the spoon would point to the left and this is correct position.
Placement of Bread Plate (Formal Place Setting)
Here is an easy tip for remembering which side the bread plate goes on. With your left hand, touch the tip of your first finger to your thumb. You will see it makes a lowercase “b” shape; “b” stands for “bread” – it goes on the left of the place setting, aligning with your left hand. Now, do the same thing with the first finger and thumb of your right hand. This makes a lowercase “d” shape. The “d” stands for “drink” and drinks go the right of the place setting, aligning with your right hand. This is also a good tip for a dinner guest, particularly if you are seated at a round table and find it difficult to know which is your bread plate and drink and which belong to your neighbours.
Placement of Glassware (Formal Place Setting)
Of all the glassware, the water glass is the anchor and is placed just above the knife. It is closest to the guest because water is usually the first item served at a dinner and the first consumed. Whichever glass is served first after water (e.g., white wine glass) will be placed closest to the water glass, just above and slightly to its left. If wine pairings are part of the meal, the glass for the next wine to be served would be placed just above and slightly to the left of the previous wine glass.
Placement of Cutlery (Formal Place Setting)
The blades of the knives always point in toward the plate and cutlery is placed in the order in which the utensils will be used – i.e., appetizer fork and knife are placed on the extreme outside edge of each place setting, then the entrée knife and fork closest to the plate. It is customary to position the appetizer fork and knife about 1” higher than the entrée fork and knife. The butter knife is placed on top of the bread plate, most commonly straight and to the right-hand side with the blade always pointing to the left. By placing the butter knife straight and parallel with the other eating utensils, it maintains a nice, symmetrical line in keeping with the other cutlery in the place setting.
Choosing Dinnerware and Glassware
I asked Tina what one should look for when setting out to buy a new set of dinnerware. She tells me that chefs prefer a solid color, usually white. This is because food shows attractively on white plates. If choosing a patterned set, select dinnerware that has a small print or design on the outside edge of the dishes as opposed to an all-over, busy pattern. Remember, the dinnerware serves as a palette for the food which is the star attraction of any meal.
Tina consulted with the chefs at the Culinary Institute and they tell her their preference is for square dishes, primarily because there is more surface area on them than on round dishes. This gives more room allowing the food to be presented in a more appealing fashion. The experts at the Culinary Institute say square dishes can be used in both formal and informal settings. They also recommend avoiding bright colors or solid blue or black dinnerware because food does not present well on these colors. Certain colors, such as red and yellow, increase appetite (which are probably not good for dieters!) and this can extend even to the wall color in the kitchen or dining room as well.
Fine Bone China
Is traditional fine china still in vogue? Tina tells me that fine china holds its value and makes guests feel special when the host/hostess serves a fine dinner on his/her best china so, in her opinion, it is a worthwhile investment and makes a good heirloom as well. Like any dinnerware, plainer is better but, if patterned, a small pattern on the outside edges of the dishes would be the preference so as not to distract from the food presentation.
I asked Tina what her opinion is on water glasses with or without a stem. She indicates that stemmed water glasses are her preference for a couple of reasons. First, they will not collect as many fingerprints because they can be lifted using the stem of the glass as opposed to by the glass itself. Second, the water will not get warm as fast in a stemmed glass because the guest’s hand will not be touching the goblet part of the glass and thus warming the water from the heat of the hand.
As we know, there are glasses specifically designed for white wines, red wines, champagnes, and so forth. I asked Tina what her recommendation would be for someone who only wants to purchase one set of generic wine glasses. She suggests that a good quality white wine glass can serve as a multi-purpose wine glass.
Patterned or Plain
Patterned tablecloths are acceptable if the dinnerware is stark white; however, as a general rule, embellishment on the edge of a tablecloth is preferable to an all-over print. Tina cautions to be careful with prints that are too small or too busy as they will take away from the food presentation.
Shapes and Dimensions
So, what shapes of tablecloths are appropriate for the different shapes of tables? Here are Tina’s recommendations:
- For square/rectangular tables, use square/rectangle linens
- For round tables, use round tablecloths
- For oval tables, use oval or rectangle cloths
In a pinch, you can put a square tablecloth on a round table, if necessary, but never vice versa – i.e., you can’t use a round tablecloth on a square table.
A tablecloth should hang about 10” from the edge of the table. This will be enough to cover the mechanics and upper legs of the table and give a nice finished look to the setting. Any longer and the tablecloth will interfere with guests’ legs and may inadvertently get caught and pulled, dragging dishes with it, as guests are positioning themselves at the table.
Polyester/cotton blends are the best material for tablecloths. Solid polyester holds stains and does not wash well. An all-cotton tablecloth will eventually lose its shape. Be sure to use a proper table pad under the tablecloth to protect wood tables from hot dishes and spills as well as to buffer harsh sounds of dishes and cutlery movement as guests dine.
If using placemats, choose a solid color and either those made of hard board material that can be wiped off or, if of fabric, ensure the material is easy to launder and will continue to hold its shape and color after frequent laundering.
I asked Tina if she could suggest a couple of napkin folds that would be classy and yet easy-to-do. Tina’s suggestions include the tavern fold and the standing fan. I have included photographs of the finished products here; however, if you Google these two folds, you can find any number of instructional videos online which will provide in-depth guidance and instructions on how to achieve these napkin folds. They are relatively simple to do and are certain to make any table look sophisticated and elegant.
Flowers and candles are a common combination. Tina advises that the host/hostess needs to ensure that whatever centerpiece is selected, it is low enough that guests can see each other, unobstructed. She recommends avoiding flowers and candles that are heavily scented because they interfere with the food experience. To the extent possible, select flowers and candles that are unscented.
Etiquette from the Host’s/Hostess’ Point of View
Lastly, Tina offered some pointers on etiquette from the host’s or hostess’ point of view.
- If all the guests are seated and you, as the host or hostess, are not because you are still busy attending to the details of the meal, it is appropriate to tell your guests to start eating without you. This is particularly important if you are serving a hot meal which will get cold as the guests sit waiting for the host/hostess to join them.
- If a guest asks that salt or pepper be passed to him/her, pass them both together. Neither the salt or pepper shaker should be orphaned – these should travel together as a set, even if the guest has only requested one of the two. Wherever they are placed on the table at any given point during the meal, the salt and pepper should always remain together as a paired set.
- If you are passing something to a guest, place it down on the table in front of him/her and then let the guest pick it up him/herself. Don’t hand the item to the guest, hand-to-hand, as this could result in a mishap causing a spill.
The Lucy Maud Dining Room, located at 4 Sydney Street, in Charlottetown, PEI, is a training restaurant facility that allows chefs-in-training to have the experience of working in a restaurant kitchen. It also allows students in the hotel and restaurant management program to learn the proper methods of providing professional hospitality service in a restaurant atmosphere. The Dining Room is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday evenings (summer, 5:30pm – 8:30pm; October-April, 6:00pm – 8:00pm). The Dining Room is also open for lunch from October – April, Tuesday-Friday, 11:30am – 1:00pm. For reservations, call 902-892-6868. Click on this link to visit the Culinary Institute of Canada website.
The Culinary Institute is becoming a popular venue for weddings as well as retirement and anniversary dinners, fund raising and gala dinners. The Montgomery Room on the lower level of the Institute has an up-close and unobstructed water view and can accommodate up to 250 people. The Institute also has a private dining room available for smaller events.
My thanks to Tina Lesyk of the Culinary Institute of Canada for taking the time to explain the proper way to set tables in the various settings of formal, informal, and buffet dining. I hope the information, tips, and hints Tina has provided will be useful to you as you prepare your dining experience, whether for a formal occasion or for casual at-home dining.
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