Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How to set a table

It's coming. And like most such eventualities, it's likely to hit you when you least expect.

Maybe you'll be at a summer barbecue... maybe at a potluck... or maybe just at a friend's house for an informal dinner. Someone will hand you a stack of plates and say, "Set the table, please, won't you?"


Because, of course, you won't know what you're doing. While hurling plates will certainly create an unforgettable diversion, your hostess may be a wee bit annoyed if you treat her grandmother's fine china like clay pigeons. So you might as well learn ahead of time how to set the table properly.

You will need (at minimum):
  1. A table big enough to seat everyone in attendance (or satellite tables, if necessary).
  2. A chair for each person.
  3. A plate for each person.
  4. Flatware (aka silverware) for each person.
  5. A drinking glass for each person.
  6. A napkin for each person.
When it comes to place settings, the formal etiquette books tend to show the full monty, with fish forks and crab crackers and asparagus tongs and nut forceps and multiple beverage glasses. But don't sweat it; everyday place settings are much simpler. You only use the pieces you'll need to eat the meal (e.g. if your hostess isn't serving soup, you don't need to put down a soup spoon).

Put the plates down first, so that every place at the table has a plate. Ideally you want to space the plates out enough so that people don't constantly elbow each other during the meal, but sometimes space is tight, especially in large gatherings or big families. Just do your best. Then build the rest of the place setting around the plate. If you're not sure what flatware or beverage glasses you'll need for the meal, ask your hostess.

Here's one of the most basic of place settings for a meal that uses a fork, knife and spoon. In the middle is the dinner plate (about 7 inches in diameter). To the left of the plate is the fork, atop a rectangular folded napkin. To the right of the plate is the dinner knife, always with the cutting edge facing toward the plate, and to the right of that is the teaspoon. (In nearly all cases you won't need the larger "tablespoon," aka the soup spoon.) Above and to the right of the plate, between the plate and the knife, is the beverage glass. (This particular setting is for an alcohol-free meal, but if you were having wine with dinner, the wine glass would go just to the right of the beverage glass.) If you're feeling OCD, you should note that the flatware properly lines up along the bottoms of the handles.

There are a couple of standard variations on this theme -- for instance, you can place the folded napkin across the plate instead of beneath the fork -- but for most everyday situations this should have you covered.

See? Not so tough. If you're scared you'll forget, you can print out the masterfully sketched place setting above and keep it in your wallet as a "cheat sheet" until you have it down. It's a lot less embarrassing than having to come up with an apology for breaking all the Spode.