Thanks to food delivery services, Netflix dinners, and far too many good restaurants to count, it may seem as though knowing how to set a table is akin to leaving a thorough voice mail or routinely mailing handwritten letters. But despite the thrill of modern conveniences, there is still a certain appeal to this skill. Knowing how to properly set a table can give you an excuse to throw a dinner party for some IRL interactions, which we could all use a little more of.
First things first: Clean off that central piece of furniture in your dining area that currently supports all your Amazon purchases. Second, take a few cues from MA Allen, president and lead designer of her eponymous interiors firm, on how to set a table like a pro. “It’s important to understand how to properly set a table, with utensils set in the order of use from the outside in, so that you can tailor your tabletop in an appropriate way for the occasion,” she says.
“Guests will appreciate all of the extra details, which can be as simple as a thoughtful mix of china patterns or even hand-painted table cards that tie in with the theme. An ambience of warm lighting, good music, and comforting smells will drive everything home,” she adds. Read on for more of Allen’s advice and soon you’ll have all the tools you need to be a confident host.
How to Prep Before a Dinner Party
Before you even invite anyone to your home, set aside some time to think about the best setting for your dinner party. Start with whether or not you’re celebrating a certain event or if your get-together is just an excuse to gather loved ones.
Next, Allen says that you should consider the time of year—are you holding the party indoors or outdoors?—as well as the ideal day of the week and the best time of day. From there, figure out the number of guests you’d like to host.
Once that’s narrowed down, decide on whether you’d like the meal to be served or doled out on a buffet line. “Once all of these questions have been answered, it’s easier to dive into the design process,” she explains.
If You’re Planning a Casual Party…
Even a casual party should have matching plates, glasses, and utensils for all attendees. Why? Cohesive dinnerware shows intention and makes the evening feel like an occasion. It’s equally important to make sure that guests have the right utensils for their meal. “One of the biggest mistakes I see hosts make is not providing the proper utensils for the menu,” Allen notes.
To set a table for a casual party, start by placing a plate directly in front of a chair, and then put a salad plate on top of it. If you’re planning on serving soup, the soup bowl should be positioned in the center of the salad plate.
Next, put a fork to the left of the plate and a knife to the right. The optional soup spoon should go to the right of the knife, followed by the water glass above the knife. Finally, if you’re serving wine (which you absolutely should), position the glass just a tad higher than the water glass.
As for the napkin, decide whether to have it on the left of the plate or on top of the plate. “With a casual get-together, I like to mix vintage patterns and colors for napkins,” Allen says.
Finally, fill the rest of the table with simple vases of store-bought flowers, a linen runner, and a smattering of candles. And if you’d like for everyone to serve themselves, make sure there’s enough room to rest platters, wine bottles, and water carafes.
If You’re Planning a Formal Party…
Although the rules for setting a table for a formal party are mostly the same as the aforementioned guidelines for a casual one, the process will likely require more tableware because of the increased number of courses.
Add a charger below the main dinner plate for a more refined presentation, and put a dessert spoon to the right of the soup spoon and a salad fork to the left of the main fork. You can also place a bread plate above the fork, with its smaller knife resting diagonally on the plate.
“For a formal party, I like to use freshly pressed monogrammed linens for the napkins,” says Allen. “White linens are considered the most formal, but many of mine have colored edgings to make it feel more fun.”
When designing a formal party, feel free to lean into luxury. Spread out a tablecloth, opt for tapered candles, and create menus alongside ornate cards showcasing each guest’s name. But don’t go too far with your theme—people still need room to eat. “In the case of a formal party, remember not to overcrowd the table,” notes Allen. “There is nothing worse than feeling cramped and not having enough space to set down your drink because of something like an oversize centerpiece. You want guests to see and talk to others on the far side of the table.”
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