Party Planning: How to Set a Table

When you've planned the perfect meal, there's no better way to show it off than by setting a stylish table as its stage. Whether hosting a casual meal to relax with a few close friends or a formal dinner to impress a dozen, follow these tips to set a table that creates the just-right ambiance for your gathering:

10 STEPS TO A STYLISH TABLE SETTING

  1. Know how many guests to expect and inventory the dinnerware, glassware and flatware you plan to use. Your choice of dinnerware — fine vintage china or funky hand-painted ceramics — will help set the tone for the meal, so make sure you have enough of the style you want to complete each place setting.

  2. Look at your meal plan, including appetizers, accompaniments and dessert, to determine what serving items you need to present every dish in manner that is both attractive and easy to use. Remember trivets for hot plates, a bread basket, serving utensils, dressing caddies and the like.

  3. Consider the mood of the meal and the table space available to help determine which dishes you will plate in the kitchen and which will be brought to the table for guests to serve themselves.

  4. Plan a centerpiece that works with the space available on your table and doesn't prevent guests from easily conversing: A decorative, low-profile basket filled with colorful fruit, for example, provides an attractive focal point without blocking guests' view across the table.

  5. Choose linens to complement your table design. A simple white cloth offers the ideal backdrop for elaborate place-settings, while a handsome runner or colorful placemats add extra visual interest to a simpler design.

  6. Match glassware to your drink list: Water glasses are a must, as is the appropriate stemware for the wines being served during dinner.

  7. Use place cards to ensure an orderly seating and avoid awkward moments, and don't be afraid to get crafty with them: Hand-decorated cards or holders will further beautify the table with a unique, personal touch.

  8. Don't over-clutter: Except in ultra-formal place settings, bring out specialty utensils, such as shellfish knives or dessert forks, with the course. The same goes for liqueur glasses and coffee mugs, which come to the table only when those drinks are served.
  9. Take a test run: Iron the linens and set the table a day in advance to ensure you have everything you need and that the layout works visually and logistically.

  10. Keep a great restaurant's number handy. Just in case the food-preparation side of hostessing doesn't go quite as planned, you'll still be able to order in and present your back-up meal beautifully.

ANATOMY OF A PERFECT PLACE SETTING

  • Plates: Casual meals require only a dinner plate, while formal occasions require a dinner plate, salad plate and bread plate, as well as a soup bowl if the menu demands it. Chargers — large, decorative base plates which traditionally matched the other dinnerware but today can be found in materials such as brushed copper and recycled glass — are an optional accent to add an extra design flair to the table. Chargers, dinner and salad plates, and soup bowls are nested in that order, while bread plates go on the upper left, above the forks.

  • Cutlery: Forks go to the left of the plate, while spoons and knives — with blades facing the plate — go to the right. While fork and knife alone are sufficient for a casual place setting, in formal place settings the utensils are placed in the order they will be used, with the salad fork and soup spoon on the outside, dinner fork and knife closest to the plate. Bread knives, when used, go on the bread plate, usually resting horizontally across it.

  • Glassware: Water glasses are placed just above the tip of the knife, with the wine glass placed at an angle to its right, above the spoon. If using two wine glasses, red goes next to the water and white to the outside of it.

  • Napkins: In a formal place setting, the napkin is either to the left of the plate or folded and left on top of the salad plate. Napkin rings can be used to add a special touch to the tablescape.