Setting a “Tablescape”

elegant place setting

Having a formal or informal event?

Have you ever been confused by where to put the flatware?

Here is the short course on where everything goes!

You don’t have to have a wedding or a major holiday to set a memorable dinner experience. Who wants to go to a boring dinner? Set yourself up for a memorable dining experience by theming and setting a tablescape to WOW your guests no matter the occasion. Now that we are coming into “holiday” season, this is even more important as a host or hostess. This would apply to casual dinners, major events like banquets to more elaborate events like weddings, galas and fundraisers.

Setting the table is almost as important as to what you are serving, it “sets the stage,” so to speak. There are varying levels of what plating, glassware and utensils you would use, depending on what is served and how formal or informal the event you are planning ends up being. Whether you are planning a full Dalton Abbey soiree, a Below Deck “extravaganza,” or a simple backyard BBQ, just following a few simple rules will have you looking like you took just a little extra effort to the details for your guests.

You don’t have to have an army of wait staff, it is actually very manageable. Now, just to be perfectly honest, will they remember if you have the settings lined up just so? Perhaps not, but it is more likely it will be memorable if you don’t.


A bare table may be the norm for your local family-style restaurant, but putting down a tablecloth puts down the foundation for everything else in your tablescape. It can be a simple tablecloth, or a red and white “Italian” fabric from the local fabric store or fine linens. Always remember your hand is on the budget throttle, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Keep in mind, you can buy this once and use it time and time again. This also applies to table runners if you want to go that route to create a base for centerpieces and décor. Take the time to iron your linens, why go to the trouble of setting a beautiful tablescape on top of a wrinkly tablecloth?


Placing a placemat under your service instantly adds another level of table dressing and can tie the overall theme together. Eclectic or elegant, this is an instant boost to the aesthetic of your settings. The size of the placemats and the theme of your dinner will dictate how large a placemat should be and whether you have room for a charger and the rest of the accoutrements or not. You may also decide to have either a placemat or a charger. Placemats should be arranged one inch from the edge of the table.

Chargers and Napkins

Chargers are the plates under the plates. They are purely decorative, but can elevate the level of elegance, even to a casual affair. Again, tying the theme together is the point here. For example, you may have seen gold chargers at a more formal sit-down dinner, matching the plating or glassware. Another example has been the fairly recent advent of large diameter tree trunks cut to about a half of an inch (complete with bark) for a more rustic element to your dining experience.

The napkin is typically set on the salad plate. You have the option of placing napkins under the forks, but typically they go on the salad plate. There are dozens of examples of how to napkins can be folded, with or without a napkin ring. This is, of course, just another layer to consider, but certainly not required. Regardless of the decision, napkins should be neat and consistent from setting to setting.


The main course plate (the service plate) goes on the charger. The salad plate or soup bowl will be centered on the service plate. If you have a salad and a soup, the soup bowl is centered on the salad plate and soup would be served before salad. Think of a lobster bisque would be served before salad. Be mindful of any pattern, just a simple thing like lining up the pattern (if there is one) will help.

The bread plate (if used) should be at about 10:00, or the upper left corner of the charger. If there is a small individual butter plate (less common than a table butter plate), it would be placed adjacent to the bread plate. The butter knife would be laid on the bread plate horizontally across the top, if used.


One other point of confusion surrounds glassware placement. For most purposes a water glass and wine glass are sufficient. The water glass and the wine glass go at about 2:00 or the upper right corner of the charger. The water glass is to the left and placed slightly higher than the wine glass.


If you have ever seen the opening sequence to Dalton Abbey, you may have noted a ruler placed over the table service. While this may have been a requirement in the manor house, there is a general guideline for flatware placement. It’s really quite simple and practical. All the flatware should be one inch from the bottom-most plate or charger so it doesn’t get overlapped and all the utensils should align with the bottom edge of the service plate or charger (bottom-most element). All elements should be one inch from the bottom edge of the placemat or centered vertically on the placemat.

Now the fun begins!

Starting with the forks on the left, there are two schools here. We American set the forks with the tangs pointing up, Europeans are known to place them pointing up or down in some cases. The general rule is to use the fork that matches what is being served. If salad is served first (as typical for most Americans), then the salad fork is on the outside of the entrée fork (outer left). If there is fish as an additional, separate course, there is an additional “fish” fork on the outer left (not the entrée). This could apply to something like a shrimp cocktail or seafood-based appetizer.

Knives and more

Knives occupy the right side of the charger/plate. Typically, you will have a dinner knife or steak knife closest to the plate with the edge facing in. Next would be a salad knife if used and on the outside would be a soup spoon if soup is served.

Lastly, the dessert utensils are placed at the top edge of the place or 12:00 position. Depending on the dessert, you will have a spoon or fork. The bowl of the spoon will be on the left side, but the tangs of the dessert fork will point to the right.

If you have a cup and saucer for coffee or tea, this will be placed to the right of the knife or knives and soup spoon. The spoon for coffee or tea is placed to the right of the saucer. Put the cup handle at 4:00 or toward the guest.

That’s it!

It started with a Christmas Party
Add festive décor to make your tablescape memorable and magical.

The rest is purely décor to spice up and tie the theme together. A simple centerpiece or a runner with elaborate details is limited only by your imagination and budget. Candles, real or LED add to the ambiance, along with other décor elements representing your theme. Again, the goal is to be memorable and building the tablescape will go a long way to accomplish this.

properly, quickly and beautifully. Involve your guests in the dinner, have your guests dress to the theme, it makes it more fun and memorable (and that’s what we are ultimately after, right?).

Most importantly, this should be fun, not stressful.

Just understanding the rules sets you on your way to setting a table properly, quickly and beautifully. Involve your guests in the dinner, have your guests dress to the theme, it makes it more fun and memorable (and that’s what we are ultimately after, right?).

If you need help with table design and tablescapes, give us a call, we have great ideas to match every theme and budget. We have a wide range of rental linens, décor and more.