Formal table setting rules: What goes where?

We explain everything you need to know to host a formal dinner party, including a go-to guide to table place setting.

Updated 19 July 2019

Formal table setting rules: What goes where?

Key steps:

  • Place cutlery in order of when they’ll be used in the dinner, from the outside inwards.
  • Have no more than 5 glasses per person for different drinks.
  • Keep spare clean napkins to hand, just in case of spills.

For most of us, it’s not every day we'll put on a dinner party where formal place setting rules matter, but it can be fun to go fancy once in a while. If you're unsure about which fork goes where, what kind of glasses to use or anything else related to traditional table setting etiquette, here we'll provide an easy guide to the correct table setting for a formal dinner.

Launder your table linens with a washing powder like Persil that will get them a really bright white. 

Dinner place setting: Plates and glasses

When it comes to setting a table for dinner, knowing where each different element should go is the trickiest part. But for plates and glasses this is actually quite straight-forward:

  • Plates should be central to each table setting
  • Consider placing a larger plate under the one that will be eaten off
  • A smaller plate for bread should be placed on the top left side of the main plate
  • Glasses go to the right
  • There should be a different type of glass for each drink that will be provided (wine, water, sherry, champagne...), but five is the maximum.

Formal table setting rules: Cutlery

Cutlery is perhaps the hardest thing to get your head around when it comes to table place setting. Don’t worry, though, as there are some straight-forward rules. Follow these and you won’t go too far wrong:

  • Utensils are placed in order of use from the outside in
  • Forks to the left of the plate, knives and spoons to the right
  • Only set the table with utensils relevant to that meal (so if you’re not having soup, don’t provide a soup spoon)
  • There should be no more than three of any particular type of implement (so no more than three knives, three forks etc)
  • The only exception to this is oyster forks (no-one knows why!)
  • If you are serving more than three courses, bring additional cutlery out as required
  • Dessert spoons should be brought in with dessert

Table setting rules: Linen

There’s no point spending time getting the positioning of everything correct if your table linens aren’t sparkling clean. Here are a few things to remember about the necessary fabrics in any formal setting:

  • Napkins can either go in the space of the plate or to the left of the forks
  • Make sure all linens are clean and fresh. Keep a few spares and swap them in if you see one get dirty.
  • A table cloth should hang 30cm down each side of the table

Those are the top things to know about formal table setting. While it may sound complicated, don’t worry too much. No one’s going to notice if a knife is slightly out of place. Have fun with the etiquette and just enjoy feeling a little fancy!

Originally published 11 June 2019