How to Set a Table for Any Occasion (Including Your Next Roommate Dinner)

With so many of us nesting during quarantine as well as yearning for fine dining experiences, throwing a dinner party for yourself and your roommates could be just the ticket to luxury you’ve been missing. There’s no better way to transport your guests to another world than to design a tabletop that feels special. Whether you’re trying to recreate a Michelin-star dining experience for your roommates or planning to host your friends and family at your place for a holiday meal, dressing your table to impress is a skill worth honing.

many friend raising a glass at a dinner party

Table of contents

The SuppliesThe LayoutBasic Table SettingInformal Table SettingFormal Table Setting

First, though, take stock of the dinnerware, flatware, and glassware you already have, and what you might need to invest in to execute the fancier place settings.

The Supplies

For the basic table setting:

𝥁 Dinner plates

𝥁 Dinner forks

𝥁 Dinner spoons

𝥁 Dinner knives

𝥁 Water glasses

𝥁 Paper napkins

𝥁 Placemats

For the informal table setting, all the items from the basic table setting, plus:

𝥁 Salad plates (smaller than a dinner plate)

𝥁 Salad forks (smaller than a dinner fork)

𝥁 Soup spoons (wider than a dinner spoon)

𝥁 Soup bowls

𝥁 Bread plates (smaller than or roughly the same size as a salad plate)

𝥁 Butter knives (smaller than a dinner knife)

𝥁 Wine glasses

𝥁 Teacups and saucers

𝥁 Cloth napkins

For the formal table setting, all the items from the basic and informal table settings, plus:

𝥁 Charger plates (bigger than a dinner plate)

𝥁 Fish forks (smaller than a dinner fork)

𝥁 Oyster forks (smaller than a fish fork)

𝥁 Red wine glasses

𝥁 White wine glasses

𝥁 Dessert utensils

𝥁 Napkin rings

The Layout

basic table setting illo

Basic Table Setting

You’d use this one a typical weeknight with your roommates, partner, or family—basically, the only dining scenario more casual than this is eating delivery pizza right out of the box. But getting the basic table setting down is a great start because it’s the foundation of other settings. For instance,

“the most crucial (but simple) thing to remember about place settings is this: forks to the left, knives and spoons to the right.”

  1. Place the plate in the middle of the setting (and in the middle of the placemat, if you’re using one). 

  2. Fold a napkin and set it to the left of the plate. 

  3. Think about how a right-handed person would pick up their utensils naturally—the fork goes to the left of the plate, on top of the folded napkin. 

  4. Place the knife on the right, blade facing inward, which makes intuitive sense safety-wise. 

  5. Place the spoon to the right of the knife (if using spoons for this meal).

  6. The water glass goes above the knife, which also makes sense because we drink with our dominant hand.

informal table setting illo

Informal Table Setting

If you’re throwing a brunch or dinner party and want to be a bit more upscale than you normally are in the privacy of your own household, but don’t want to overdo it, try the informal table setting. According to The Emily Post Institute, this place setting is best for a three-course meal, which is why often the napkin is placed where the dinner plate would go—maybe you’ll be bringing a soup bowl, then a salad, then, finally, dinner plates and entrees, and you don’t want the extraneous dishes in your guests’ way.

  1. Place the placemats on the table, if you’re using them.

  2. Fold a napkin and set it where the dinner plate would go, in the center of the placemat.

  3. To the left of the napkin, set a dinner fork. To the left of that, set a smaller fork, or a salad fork. Utensils always go outside in, in the order the guests will use them.

  4. Over to the right side of the napkin, set the dinner knife with the blade facing inward. If you’re serving steak, pork chops, or other tough-to-cut meat, replace the dinner knife with a steak knife, says Emily Post. 

  5. Next come spoons. If your soup course is first, place the soup spoon on the outside. Inside, place a smaller spoon for stirring tea or eating dessert.

  6. Place the water glass, as well as relevant wine glasses, champagne flutes, or teacups and saucers at the top right of the place setting, above the knife and spoons.

  7. If you’re serving bread and salad, place those two plates to the top left of the forks. 

  8. Place a butter knife across the bread plate. 

  9. Dessert utensils, soup bowls, and dinner plates can wait in the wings for now—you’ll bring them out when their corresponding courses are served.

formal table setting illo

Formal Table Setting

This is for when you want to go all-out and impress your loved ones with a classic five-course meal. (Friendsgiving, anyone?) Soup, salad, dessert, bread, dinner, and dinner overflow are all possibilities in the five-course meal, and your formal table setting will reflect the menu. Note that according to Emily Post, there should never be more than three of any type of item on the table at a time.

1. Try a crisp white tablecloth instead of placemats for this setting.

2. Where the dinner plate would normally go, place a charger plate, which is meant to catch drips from the first few courses before the entree. When the entree arrives, the charger should be replaced with a dinner plate.

3. You can place the salad plate on top of the charger plate if you’ll be bringing dishes of salad to the table. Otherwise, if your first course is soup or you’re bringing salad out, skip placing anything but the napkin atop the charger plate.

4. On top of the charger plate (and salad plate if applicable), place a napkin. If you have them, you can pull the napkins through rings.

5. As usual, forks go to the left of the plate, outside in according to the order the courses will be served in. You might need:

  • A salad fork

  • A fish fork

  • A dinner fork

Note: If you’re serving oysters, the smaller oyster fork goes on the outside of the spoons.

6. Directly to the right of the plate, place the knives, outside in according to the order the courses will be served in. You might need:

  • A dinner knife

  • A steak knife

  • A fish knife

7. Place spoons to the right of the knives, outside in according to the order the courses will be served in. You might need:

  • A soup spoon

  • A fruit spoon

  • A beverage/dessert spoon

8. Like with the informal setting, bread plates with butter knives go to the left at the top of the place setting, while water, wine glasses, and teacups go to the top right. Since there’s so much going on in a five-course meal, consider bringing beverage glasses out with their corresponding courses.

Since fine dining has become so much more casual in recent years, don’t be afraid to substitute missing items for what you have, mix and match tableware, or put your own spin on your dinner party’s place settings. After all, even if you never throw a classic white-tablecloth affair, committing this knowledge to memory is sure to impress future business colleagues, dates, and in-laws when they ask if you know what all those forks are for. 

Bungalow offers private rooms in shared homes that are more affordable than solo housing options in the same neighborhoods. Wifi, utilities, and monthly cleaning are set up before you move in so that coliving is seamless. Unlike other shared housing options, Bungalow vets all residents and helps you match with roommates who share your living preferences and interests. Find your next home on Bungalow.

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