First, what is a formal table setting?

The purpose of providing a formal table setting is to ensure that your guests will feel comfortable and enjoy their meal. For formal occasions, consideration for laying the table "properly" will add to the sophistication and presentation with inclusion of sparkling glassware, heavy silver cutlery, and themed or elegant centerpieces such as flowers and candles. 

A formal table setting begins with a clean, bare table or often a crisp linen tablecloth, depending upon the theme or occasion of the evening. Use of formal china and silverware is a traditional setting, which also includes accompanying glassware per setting, with the amount of pieces to reflect the number of meal courses to be served.  Cloth napkins are placed at the left on side plates and most often include dinner mats for the center of each setting.

Table accessories, including the salt and pepper grinders, relish trays, serving utensils, sauces in serving boats, coasters or canters for wine service, and water pitchers, are placed for convenient access for your guests.  Table centerpieces, either floral or ornamental, along with assorted candles provide for an elegant accent and warmth, creating a calm and relaxing ambience.

For an important dinner, can the table setting make or break the party?  Is it as important as the food?

Presentation of your table setting sets the stage for what your guests begin to imagine about the dining experience to follow.  If your table setting does not take into consideration the event, theme, décor, applicable dress code, or formality of the occasion, much of the expectation may be a letdown for your guests and the host.  Although your menu or food may be quite pleasing, the guests may remember most the improper etiquette or setting flaws experienced during the initial viewing of the table and occasion.  There must be symmetry between the initial invitation, dress code, theme or occasion, menu, and table setting.

Should a host plan the table in advance?

Success in hosting a successful dinner party or special event begins with the end result in mind.  It is important to envision what you would like the table setting to look like in the initial planning stage.  Determine answers to questions such as, where will the table for service be situated? Indoor or outdoor, garden setting or formal dining room, style of place settings, decorations, and overall ambience are all considerations.  Once this is “designed,” other factors such as the invitation (if one is being sent), dress code, and perhaps menu and service, will complement each other and establish a unity to the entire event.

Can a homeowner pull together a formal table setting without any effort?

A formal table setting can often be pulled together with little expense and effort by utilizing many resources within your own home.  Creativity plays a key role by identifying items around the house to be placed on your table, which complements the “theme” or “design” of the occasion.  Pay special attention to china, glassware, flatware, linen or tablecloths, candle holders, centerpieces and perhaps flowers grown in your own backyard.

For a formal occasion, what items create a sense of formality?

Elegance for a formal table setting focuses on items which represent a “proper” and “correct” setting, which is often focused on techniques for proper service etiquette. Provisions must be made to accommodate the menu and number of courses to be served.  If more than three or four courses are served, new silverware is brought to the table after all original silverware is used.  When setting a table, align silverware one inch from the table edge, and traditionally no more than two inches if using place mats.  The order of the flatware should be based upon which utensil is to be used first, and this should be placed furthest from the center. 

The forks are placed on the left side, and spoons and knives (with the cutting edge facing the plate) are placed on the right.  Additional utensils will be placed above the plate in proper sequence if your menu includes a soup, appetizer, butter plate and dessert course.  The water glass goes above the knife.  Wine glass(es) go to the right of the water glass.  A formal setting will often include silver flatware, utensils and service pieces, along with matching china, crystal, and cloth table linen with napkins.  The use of unscented candles is a simple and easy way to create a warm ambience and elegance to a formal table setting.

Is it time to use your best china, crystal and silverware?  If someone doesn’t have fancy things, what can they use instead? 

Not everyone is lucky enough to own proper pieces for a formal table setting.  If you are one these people, don’t sweat it.  A few ideas can include borrowing items from a friend or relative, or purchasing inexpensive items with a formal look, either through online discount websites, local rental companies, value stores, or even neighborhood tag or estate sales.

Are a tablecloth and cloth napkins a must?

Although a formal table setting is customarily set with cloth linens, it is not always necessary.  Sometimes your table may be set with elegant placemats with accompanying place settings and table decoration, which will provide for a formal setting.

Are certain colors more formal than others?

The theme of a formal table setting is often expressed through the colors that are used at the table and in the decorations. Traditional colors for formal dining events include monochromatic white on white linen, cream colored tablecloths with matching table settings, and rich, solid colored linen napkins such as burgundy, royal blue, forest green or gold.  You may also consider floral colored tablecloths with solid white or cream-colored linen napkins and white or cream colored table settings. 

Avoid using too many table linens with heavy or busy patterns, as the silverware and glasses on the table will appear overly crowded or cluttered if you have too many patterns and colors. The simpler the appearance, the more elegant the overall presentation of your table will look.  One final note is to incorporate soft lighting and the use of candles on the table to further enhance the ambience and elegance.

How can you get your guests to feel comfortable and not have it be too “stuffy?”

Your guests' first perception about “how formal” your occasion will be is through the initial invite, whether delivered verbally or in text.  The tone and formality of the occasion can be “softened” through the reception of your guests at the door, the selection of location where the event is to be held, and the genre of background music being played.  Perhaps consider livelier jazz or big band sounds as opposed to classical chamber music, or no music at all.  As simple as this may sound, often the best way to get guests to relax is to tell them to enjoy the gathering and to feel at home.

What can be used as a centerpiece?  What about candles?

Candles add a warm and elegant touch of softness and light to your table.  Examples of candle decor can be either pillar style candles arranged in groups, or tall taper candles in multiple holders. Remember that the color of the candles should match the table settings or the linens, but should not clash or contrast the rest of your table setting. A popular option is to set a large, clear glass bowl with some miniature floating candles and rose petals.

If you have a long table, a series of pillar candles in the center and floating candles towards each of the ends makes a striking display. A simple floral arrangement of roses, chrysanthemums, lilies or other flowers should complement but not detract from your table setting.  Attempt to keep centerpieces below eye level, as you want all of your guests to have freedom to converse with each other and not feel closed off at their seat. 

Is lighting part of the table setting?

Lighting also plays a key role in adding to the ambience and presentation of your formal table setting.  You do not want too much brightness, nor have lighting so dim that guests struggle with viewing other guests and their meal.  If possible, use accent lighting, or simply adjust the lights lower, as well as utilizing an elegant display of candles on the table. Perhaps surround the table with candles on side boards or accent furnishings.  If your event is outdoors, don’t rule out hanging a chandelier above the table from a hovering tree limb, with lit candles.  It will still be formal and elegant.  Be creative!

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