When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, my mother sent me to Cotillion. For those that aren’t from the South, cotillion is a school where young children go to learn social manners, sometimes ballroom dancing, table etiquette, or both! Cotillion is where I learned to set a table for every occasion. The rules are ancient, some outdated, but nonetheless, are still used in formal settings and good to know at fancy dining establishments. This map to setting a formal table is just a guideline. Remember that your table doesn’t have to be perfect and that your guests will look to you, the host, for the overarching house rules.
Traditionally, a charger and bread plate should be the only china elements included in a formal place setting. The charger (also known as a presentation plate) is never used for food. The bread plate belongs directly above the dinner fork to the left of the charger. The dinner plate and soup bowl can be placed directly on top of the charger during dinner but are immediately cleared after use for other dishes. I personally like to break this rule and add all of my beautiful china to each place setting for decorative purposes prior to starting dinner.
Whether it is a formal or informal setting, only the glasses that are to be used should be set on the table. You can also leave any glassware for dessert off the table until dessert service. The water glass is the most used glass on the table, so it belongs closest to the plate directly above the dinner knife. Next, are the wine glasses placed in the order in which they will be used. The red wine glass is typically a bit taller and has a larger bowl than the white wine glass, as red wine typically has a bolder aroma.
As a general rule, flatware is arranged in order of use starting from the farthest to the plate and working inward. Just like the glassware, only the flatware for your specific menu should be included on the table. Your dinner knife belongs to the right of the plate with the cutting edge always facing in. The butter knife is placed horizontally on the bread plate. A steak knife is added to each setting only for those who require it. Dessert utensils are placed above the plate or can also be added during dessert service.
The napkin should be ironed and folded to the left or beneath the forks. Alternatively, it can be placed on the charger or dinner plate. Place cards, traditionally, are added directly above the dessert utensils, but today, we add place cards to napkin folds, silverware, glassware, etc. so get creative! Individual salt and pepper shakers are also placed above the dessert utensils to the left and right of the place setting card. You can also add these to the center of the table or at each end for longer table settings.