How to properly set a table

Informal and Formal Table Settings

Your tabletop arrangement is one of the first impressions guests receive and can greatly impact the tone of their dining experiences. Whether your restaurant dinnerware features rustic wooden touches, classic white plates, or eclectic serving dishes, it's important to know how to properly set a table.

There are a few basic rules that apply to both informal and formal table settings:

  • Flatware, dinnerware, and napkins should be placed one inch from the edge of the table.
  • All napkins at the table should be folded in the same style and pointed in the same direction.
  • Flatware should be arranged so guests can use the outermost pieces first.
  • If a piece of flatware is not required for the meal being served, it should not be included.
  • The sharp edge side of the dinner knife should face the plate.

Informal Table Setting

An informal table setting should be used for casual meals, like breakfast and lunch, or dinners with only a few courses. Check out our visual guide to see what a basic informal setting should look like.

informal table setting

Components of an Informal Table Setting:

  1. The salad fork is slightly smaller than the dinner fork and is meant to be used for salads served before the main course.
  2. The dinner fork is meant to be used with the main course.
  3. The dinner plate will be used to serve the main course.
  4. The napkin will most likely immediately be unfolded and relocated by the guest, but should be presented neatly.
  5. At the restaurant's discretion, the water glass may be filled immediately or only by request.
  6. A non-specific wine glass to hold white or red wine can be made available. It can also be used to serve mimosas and other beverages.
  7. Guests will appreciate an all-purpose dinner knife that lets them cut through meat, vegetables, and other food items.
  8. A teaspoon is included for mixing milk or sugar into tea or coffee.
  9. A soup spoon lets customers enjoy soup as an appetizer or as the main course.

Formal Table Setting

A formal table setting should be used for meals with several courses, which are most common in upscale restaurants and at special events. Below, we've illustrated what a basic formal setting should look like.

Formal Table Setting

Components of a Formal Table Setting:

  1. The salad fork is slightly smaller than the dinner fork and is meant to be used for salads served before the main course.
  2. The dinner fork is meant to be used with the main course.
  3. The bread plate can be used for appetizer items.
  4. The butter knife can be used to spread butter or other toppings.
  5. The dessert spoon is best used for soft desserts.
  6. The cake fork is the smallest fork, meant for eating cake and other desserts.
  7. The dinner plate will be used to serve the main course.
  8. A salad plate and/or soup bowl will be included for the salad course or soup course.
  9. The dinner knife will be used during the meal to cut meat, vegetables, and other items.
  10. A teaspoon is included for mixing milk or sugar into tea or coffee.
  11. The soup spoon should be included if a soup course is served.
  12. In special event settings, a place card will help every guest easily find his or her seat.
  13. The water glass should be filled at the beginning of the meal for guests who want to cleanse their palates between courses.
  14. A white wine glass can be used to serve white wine or champagne.
  15. A red wine glass should also be made available for guests who want to enjoy a glass of red wine.
  16. If coffee is served with dessert, guests will want a cup and saucer.
  17. The napkin should be placed to the left of the forks, or under them if the setting is short on space.

Additional flatware might be included for specialized courses. These can include a steak knife to cut steak, a cocktail fork for seafood, or a fish fork that can be placed to the right of the setting instead of alongside the other forks to the left. These pieces might be set out ahead of time or provided when the course is served.

Why Does It Matter?

A restaurant's table setting lets the guest know what type of meal to expect and, as part of a restaurant's décor, provides further visual impact to impress customers. Even if a restaurant bundles cutlery or does not set out each component of the dinnerware at once, servers should know how to properly set a table and consider the proper arrangement of plates and glasses when serving customers. Ensuring that each employee knows what the proper table setting for a formal event should look like will also help impress guests during special events like receptions and formal dinners.