Table Setting Etiquette 101: A Brief Guide

The right table setting is a great way to establish ambiance for your event or restaurant. Find out the proper way to set a table for basic, casual, or formal settings.

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May 10, 2024 10 min read

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Every dining experience has its etiquette, those unwritten rules that guide the ways we behave and even the ways we set a table. Table settings typically offer a clue to etiquette and also help establish ambiance, both at a restaurant and when entertaining at home.

You’re probably familiar with Western standards of table setting—everything revolves around some variation of forks to the left, knives to the right, and plates in the middle. In many Indian cultures, you only eat with your right hand; in Japan, you might find chopsticks in front of you and a variety of small bowls. These customs vary by culture and are important to understand when we travel or even when we visit a restaurant.

In this guide, we’ll concentrate on the Western style of table setting. Whether you’re planning a casual get-together or a formal dinner party, discover how you can create a setting that leaves a lasting impression on your guests.

Table-Setting: A Method to the Madness, from Casual to Formal

Table setting is a combination of form and function and should align with what dishes you serve and how you serve it. The setting signals to guests what’s coming—a multi-course meal in which people are expected to take their time, for example, versus a casual, probably shorter, experience.

At an upscale establishment or a fancy event, a dozen or more items might be included in a place setting—everything from an oyster fork to a fish knife might be laid out—with servers removing unneeded items as the meal progresses.

That type of well-appointed table might seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but thankfully, almost all table settings follow the same basic formula. If you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking at or how to arrange things, you can get the hang of it quickly.

Here are some basic rules for Western-style table settings:

  • Only set out what might be used. That’s why you’ll see fewer plates and utensils at a table setting for a casual event than a six-course meal.
  • Forks go to the left of the plate. One exception: an oyster fork would be the only fork set to the right of a plate.
  • Knives and spoons go to the right of the plate, with the knives’ blades facing toward the plate.
  • Utensils are laid out in the order they’ll be used, working from the outside in.
  • Align the bottoms of the utensils with the bottom of the plate, and with an equal distance between them.
  • Set the glasses to the upper right of the plate.

What’s with all the forks?

What is an oyster fork, anyway? Here’s how all those forks fit into the dinner picture:

  • Salad fork: a shorter, smaller fork, typically with four tines
  • Fish fork: a skinnier, three- or four-tined fork
  • Dinner fork: the longest fork, with four tines, used for entrees
  • Dessert fork: smaller than a salad fork, with three or four tines
  • Oyster fork: the smallest, narrowest fork, with three tines, designed to be used with shellfish or to pick up shrimp cocktail
Here are additional guidelines for three types of settings: Basic, Casual, and Formal. Each style can vary according to your needs and preferences, but these parameters offer a great starting point for creating table settings unique to your event.

Basic Table Setting

A graphic that shows the arrangement of a basic table setting.

The basic table setting is a very simple layout with just a few essentials.

Essential components:

  • Serving plate
  • Napkin
  • Fork and Knife
  • Water glass

At home, the basic setting might be your everyday dinner setting, good enough for your ravioli or meatloaf. At a restaurant, this is casual, comfortable, and inviting for everything from diner food to classic American fare. Servers will bring utensils and glasses according to what’s ordered—they’ll bring out the wine or coffee in a glass or cup, for example, or bring a soup spoon to go with a bowl of soup.

This layout includes:

  • Serving plate in the middle
  • To the left of the plate: napkin with a fork on top
  • To the right of the plate: dinner knife; if needed, a spoon to the right of the knife
  • Top right of plate: water glass

If preferred, you might instead place all the silverware on top of the napkin to the left of the plate, in the order of fork, knife, spoon, from left to right.

Casual or Informal Table Setting

A graphic showing the placement of items for a casual or informal table setting.

The casual or informal table setting includes more utensils and glassware than the basic setting.

Essential Components:

  • Serving plate and napkin
  • Salad fork and dinner fork
  • Soup spoon and dinner knife
  • Dessert fork and spoon
  • Water glass and wine glass
  • Bread plate and bread knife

This next setting reflects what you’ll see in most restaurants, with a few twists depending on what’s being served. Perhaps you’re going out for a steak dinner or visiting an Italian restaurant that serves several courses. It includes more silverware and glassware, though it has fewer accoutrements because the experience includes fewer courses. This setup also works well for many dinner parties at home.

This setting typically includes:

  • Serving plate with a napkin set on top of the plate
  • To the left of the plate: salad fork and dinner fork
  • To the right of the plate: soup spoon and dinner knife
  • Top left of plate: a bread plate with a butter knife
  • Top right of plate: water glass and wine glass—water glass above dinner knife, wine glass to the right of the water glass.
  • Directly above the serving plate: Dessert fork and spoon, laid horizontally, with the fork at the top and spoon underneath; the spoon’s handle faces to the right, while the fork’s handle faces to the left.

This table setting offers a little more sophistication but is still accessible to most guests. It’s a good all-purpose table setting for a variety of meals and can also be good practice at home for teaching kids the basics of which utensils to use and when.

Formal Table Setting

A graphic showing the placement of items for a formal table setting.

The formal table setting includes the most pieces because it caters to multiple courses.

Essential components:

  • Charger, serving plate, cloth napkin
  • Salad, dinner, fish, and dessert forks
  • Salad, dinner, and fish knives
  • Soup and dessert spoons
  • Water glass, sherry glass, wine glass, champagne glass

A formal table has purpose and artistry and most especially, precision and symmetry. Think of what you might expect from a fancy French meal or a Michelin star restaurant (table setting is not among the criteria to receive stars, but it’s still inspected in great detail).

“We were talking about putting a piece of china down and making sure that it was perfectly an inch from the edge of the table, and just…going into extreme lengths. And I think that could break somebody. As long as we’re doing things with passion and love, and everybody has the right goal, it’s inevitable that you’re going to continue down that path.”*
Curtis Duffy
Curtis Duffy
Executive Chef/Owner of Two-Michelin Star Restaurant Ever

A formal setting can easily include 15 or more pieces, though it still follows the rule about setting out only what might be used. Of course, we’re talking about four to six courses, so the amount of glassware and cutlery reflects that. If you’re attempting this at home, you might rent the pieces if you don’t have them available, or consider some substitutions where it makes sense to do so (dessert forks and salad forks, for example).

The layout includes, from the outside in:

  • A charger with a serving plate on top of it and then a cloth napkin on top of the plate; the napkin could instead go to the far left of the silverware
  • To the left of the plate: salad fork, dinner fork; some settings include a fish fork
  • To the right of the plate: oyster fork, soup spoon, dinner spoon, salad knife, dinner knife; include a fish knife if you’ve set out a fish fork
  • Top left of serving plate: bread plate with butter knife on top of it
  • Top right of serving plate: water glass, sherry glass, wine glass, champagne glass (at a restaurant or event, server to remove what isn’t needed)
  • Directly above serving plate: dessert fork and dessert spoon

Common Table Setting Mistakes

Although any of the table setting approaches can be modified, you also want to be mindful of making outright mistakes. Here are some common missteps to avoid:

  • Facing the knives in the wrong direction. This has a very practical application because you don’t want someone to reach for the knife and accidentally grab the blade.
  • Setting out too much tableware. This isn’t just wasteful, but it can also make things feel crowded.
  • Forgetting needed cutlery or tableware. Just as you can have too much on the table, so can you have too little. If guests need a steak knife or a soup spoon, those should be readily available.
  • Using distracting centerpieces. Your centerpieces should allow guests to see and speak to each other across the table, and any candles should be unscented; consider aroma when choosing floral bouquets as well.

Keep in mind that, in most cases, guests in your home are less likely to scrutinize your setting layout. If a change is important to you or your meal, then make it. That proposition may be riskier in a restaurant, but if the intention is clear, it shouldn’t be considered a mistake.

Discover More About Ambiance and Etiquette

A great event goes beyond great food to include the entire guest experience. The table presentation is an important part of the ambiance you set and helps set guests at ease, underscores the importance or joy of a special event, and subtly reminds guests how they might behave in your place of business.

Culinary school can show you how to create a great experience, from professional kitchen skills and culinary chops taught by experienced Chef Instructors to the way you anticipate visitors’ needs. At Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, you can discover business principles that can help you better run your restaurant and explore culinary techniques that may help you hone your skills.

Contact us to find out more about how culinary school works and what it can do for you.

IF YOU WANT TO EXPLORE MORE ARTICLES ABOUT DINER PARTIES AND EVENTS, CHECK OUT THESE ARTICLES:

  • How to Make a Great Charcuterie Board
  • How Culinary Students Explore Flavor Profiles
  • How to Organize Your Home Kitchen Like a Professional Chef

*This article originally ran on Feb. 10, 2015, and has since been updated.

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