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Following accepted table setting etiquette when hosting a formal dinner can add a final, elegant touch to the meal. This etiquette tells the host or hostess where plates, glasses, and cutlery should be positioned at each table setting. Depending on the courses being served and the type of meal, there is some room for adapting the setting to the dinner.
When setting the table, starting with the plates can help make it easier to position the table settings at the proper distance. About 2 feet between settings should give guests plenty of room to eat in comfort without feeling crowded. For the first course, table setting etiquette says the napkin is traditionally set on the far left side of the setting on the outside of the silverware. This plate can serve as a placeholder also, and other plates containing the different courses can be set on top. In this case, the napkin can be placed on top of the center plate.
Table setting etiquette also dictates in what order silverware should be placed. The number of utensils depends on the courses served. Forks should be on the left side of the plate and knives on the right, as these are the hands that dinner guests will use for them. Whatever utensil will be used for the first course is on the outside of the setting, with consecutive courses working inward. If a soup spoon is needed, it is placed on the right hand side in the correct order.
Glasses should be in a line on the right side of the setting, above the knives. The water glass should be on the left side of the line of glasses. Next is the glass to be used with the wine that will be served with the main portion of the meal. If there is a drink that will go with dessert, such as another wine or cocktail, table setting etiquette dictates this glass should be on the far right. Proper table setting etiquette says that cups for coffee or tea should be placed on the right side of the setting, on the outside of the knives.
On the opposite side of the setting and above the forks should be placed the bread plate, with the butter knife placed diagonally across it, sharper edge closest to the diner. Guests usually are served desserts already on the plate, so there is typically no need for these plates to be on the table ahead of time. Utensils needed for dessert should be placed directly above the main plate, with a spoon facing to the left and a fork facing to the right.
When I worked as a banquet houseman for a chain hotel and business center, I had to learn about table setting etiquette. There were times when someone would book the banquet halls for a formal wedding reception, and we'd all have to know what a proper table setting looked like. I remember one occasion where the bride's family brought in their own formal dinnerware and utensils and I had to remember formal place setting etiquette.
A lot of it does make sense when you think about most people's eating and drinking habits. Water glasses need to be closer to the plate because people drink more water at one time than they do wine or other beverages. The smaller salad forks need to be on the outside because they will be taken way with the salad first. Formal table settings may look complicated, but they are actually quite logical and efficient.
When I was in an Honors philosophy class in college, my instructor thought we could use a lesson in table setting etiquette. She asked one of her friends to set up a demonstration, and we all learned how to set a proper table setting. I couldn't see what any of that had to do with philosophy at the time, but now I realize she was trying to mix in some real life lessons along with the lectures.
She was really trying to teach us more about manners and discipline, so we would be better prepared for an academic lifestyle once we became college instructors ourselves.
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