How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

The thought of hosting a formal dinner likely brings to mind well-dressed guests, charming conversations, and exceptional food.

However, it can also cause anxiety about doing everything properly, especially if you’ve never attempted a formal dining experience before. As a host, you always want the evening to go well—but perfection is doubly important when you’ve billed your event as a formal affair.

If you’ve decided to gather your friends or family together for a fancy dinner, you may be wondering, “How do I set a formal table?”

Well, you’ve come to the right place. Join us as we explore the easier-than-you-think intricacies of formal table setting.

Assembling the Necessary Supplies

Before you send out the invitations and set the table, it’s worth ensuring you have everything you need for a memorable evening. You don’t want to make a trip to the store hours before your event!

While the “rules” of formal dining are somewhat set in stone, there is some flexibility around the necessary supplies. In other words, what you’re serving will dictate what needs to be on the table. With that said, you’ll likely want to have all of the following:

  • Plates and bowls – You’ll need different dishes depending on the courses you’ll serve. For a full multi-course dinner, you need at least a dinner plate, a salad plate, a bread plate, a cup and saucer, and a soup bowl, as well as a charger plate (the decorative plate that rests under a diner’s plate or bowl).
  • Utensils – Similarly, the specific utensils you require will depend on what you’re serving. With that in mind, expect to need at least a dinner fork, salad fork, dinner knife, soup spoon, teaspoon, and dessert spoon. Other potential must-haves include a bread knife, a fish fork and knife, and a cake fork.
  • Glassware – Most formal tables include a water glass and glasses for both white and red wine. If you’re anticipating a toast, you’ll also want to have enough champagne flutes for everyone.
  • Linens – Depending on the level of formality you’re aiming for, you should have a tablecloth, a runner, and one cloth dinner napkin for each guest.
  • Miscellaneous items – You may like to add other details, such as placemats and place card holders, to your checklist. Additionally, if you want to spruce up the table with candles or flowers in vases, you’ll need to assemble these ahead of time.
Formal table setting

Before the Party: Setting a Formal Dinner Table

Once you’ve triple-checked that you have everything you need, you can begin setting the table. A few hours before your guests arrive, follow the steps below to ensure your table is ready for the first course.

Preparing the Table

To start, you’ll decide how to cover and dress your table.

Tablecloths are traditional in formal dining settings, but they’re not always necessary, and modern formal dinners sometimes forgo them. For example, if you want to show off the opulence of your handmade wood dining table, you may choose not to use a tablecloth. If you do decide to set out a tablecloth, you can opt for a classic white covering or choose another neutral shade.

After the tablecloth, you may lay down a runner in the center of the table. Runners aren’t essential, but they can provide a touch of color and add texture to your table.

From there, you’ll set down a round placemat (if using) in front of each seat, followed by a charger plate.

Finally, set out any candles, vases, or other decorations in the center of the table.

Laying Out the Utensils

Next, you’ll position all the plates, bowls, drinkware, and utensils. This part of the process can seem intimidating at first glance—there are plenty of “rules” to follow—but once you see how everything comes together, it’ll all make sense.

To start, set out the utensils. The goal is to arrange them in order of usage; diners will begin with the outer utensils and work their way toward the plate with every course. With that knowledge, you can set the table for any number of courses.

For a traditional table setting, here’s what you’ll do:

  • On the left side of the plate – From left to right, place the salad fork, the fish fork, and the dinner fork.
  • On the right side of the plate – From left to right, set down the dinner knife, the fish knife, and the soup spoon. The blade of each knife should face toward the plate.1
  • Above the plate – Directly above the plate, place the dessert fork with the tines facing to the right. Then, put the dessert spoon above the fork, facing the opposite way.

Adding the Glassware, Plates, and Finishing Touches

Now, you’ll position the glassware in the upper right corner of each place setting. The water glass should go directly above the point of the dinner knife. The white wine glass goes to the right of the water glass, while the red wine glass sits above the two glasses, forming the point of a triangle.

Next up, you’ll set down the bread plate and butter knife at the upper left corner of the place setting. The butter knife should be positioned diagonally over the top of the plate so that the blade is at roughly 10 o’clock.

Lastly, you’ll lay a folded napkin on top of each charger plate. While some etiquette experts suggest putting the napkin underneath the forks on the left, this placement doesn’t make much sense. Rather than having guests lift their forks to put their napkins on their laps, it’s better to make the napkin accessible by placing it front and center, uncovered.

If you’re using place cards, now is the time to set each one above the dessert spoon. Place cards are an excellent way to guide your guests to their assigned seats, and they add a touch of elegance to the meal. Remember that you don’t need to put out a place card for yourself.2

A Step-by-Step Guide to Each Course

As your guests arrive and start eating, the surface of the table will change course by course. Let’s talk about how the table should look at each course.2

The First Course

If you’ve followed the steps above, your table should be all set for the first course. Once your guests take their seats and place their napkins on their laps, you can remove the charger plate from in front of them, though you may also decide to leave it for the entire dinner.

Soup Course Setting

Nothing much will change for the soup course. A bowl of soup will be served on top of a dinner plate, with each guest reaching for the soup spoon on the right side of their place setting to eat it.

After everyone is finished eating their soup, remove the soup bowl, the plate below, and the spoon.

Salad and Fish Courses

Salad and fish courses typically follow the soup course; here’s how to set the table for those.

Salads will come to the table on a mid-sized plate and should be eaten with the salad fork from the left. Fish will also arrive on a mid-sized plate and is eaten with the fish fork and knife.

After each course, be sure to clear away all used utensils and plates.

Main Course Arrangement

By the time the main course comes around, the table should look a little more bare, with only a few utensils remaining.

For this course, you can either deliver a loaded dinner plate to each guest or bring out an empty plate and have guests serve themselves from a communal serving tray in the center. Either way, this course is eaten with the dinner fork and knife.

Following the main course, you can remove the used utensils, the dinner plate, the bread plate and knife, and the wine glasses.

Dessert Setup

This final pared-down course involves a small dessert plate served in the center of the table. If you’re serving tea or coffee, now’s the time to bring out a cup and saucer.

Additionally, if you’re serving dessert wine, you can place a small wine glass next to every guest’s water glass.

When your diners are finished, you can clear the table—and congratulate yourself. You’ve officially made it through an exceptional formal dinner service!

Wooden dining table

Elevate Every Meal with James+James

With a little care and attention to detail, you can host a seamless formal dinner that all your friends and family will rave about. And the more you do it, the easier it will be. After a few dinners in your home, you’ll be setting the table like a Michelin-starred restaurateur.

While the food and company will be the highlights of your formal dinner, the table itself is always the centerpiece. So, why not seat your guests at the perfect dining table?

For an elegant table, turn to James+James. Unlike fast furniture, our exquisite, handcrafted wood dining tables are sure to please everyone you invite.

Explore our tables today to find the ultimate pick for your next formal dinner.


  1. Real Simple. How to Set a Table: Basic, Casual, and Formal Table Settings.
  2. Martha Stewart. How to Set a Formal Dinner Table, According to Etiquette Experts.

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