The Answers to All Your Questions About Setting a Formal Table

There's nothing we love more than finding a reason to celebrate our loved ones, and what better way to do that than gathering around formal table settings and an unforgettable menu? Between once-in-a-lifetime milestones and creating a cozy, intimate atmosphere for a dinner date, a formal table can transform the tone of your event. 

After invites are sent and the menu is finalized, it's time to design dinnerware place settings for your event. But with so many chances for personalization and modern serveware pairings, where do you start? What essential serving dishes should you stock up on? With our family's years of experience, we can answer all your questions and more about formal table settings. 

Why We Love Hosting Formal Gatherings

A formal gathering is a perfect, sophisticated way to celebrate your family and friends' best achievements. We cherish any opportunity to gather around the dinner table, and celebrating big achievements and milestones gives us the opportunity to host a formal gathering {and it's one of our favorite things to do}.

Taking the time to set an intricate table setting shows our guests how much we care. Setting a formal table helps us make our loved ones feel appreciated and present our tasty menu with grace and flair. As each course ends, the plate will be swept away, and the next dish will come out, letting your guests focus on what matters most — each other!  

Formal gatherings are also the best way to sit back and enjoy your event hands-off. While we will always enjoy a family-style meal, hiring staff to help serve each course for you and your guests is something special. Sometimes, the host will serve the guests themselves, but for extra-special occasions, join your guests and linger around the table a little longer throughout the night when you hire servers to take care of your event.

When to Set a Formal Table Setting

With so many serving styles, it's important to learn exactly when to make a formal table setting instead of a more casual one. We love setting formal dinnerware place settings whenever the event we're meant to be celebrating is a touch more elevated. Whether you're commemorating a relative's retirement or celebrating a milestone birthday, any classy, sophisticated, or elegant event is the perfect time to showcase your best host or hostess skills and invite guests for a formal affair. 

Best Occasions for Setting a Formal Table

  • Romantic dinner
  • Milestone achievement
  • Intimate dinner party
  • Retirement party
  • Engagement party
  • Wedding reception
  • Anniversary dinner
  • Holiday dinner

All About Table Settings

Hosts can curate the entire look of an event with inspired table settings, and whether you're creating a themed table to match a birthday or want to showcase a daring color combination with table linens and serving dishes, designing table settings is an essential skill. From selecting the smallest tabletop details to focusing on the overall look of your formal tablescape, with the right inside tricks, anyone can unlock their inner designer and pull together a table setting for a formal event.

What Items Make Up a Formal Dinnerware Place Setting?

Dinnerware place settings for formal events typically include multiple glasses of water, wine, and cocktails, a dinner plate with different small plates and bowls, depending on the menu, a cloth napkin, and a utensil for each course. The dinnerware place setting will vary according to the types of food you're serving, but it's important to remember that each course will be served on a new dish. Every dinnerware place setting will need multiple utensils as well, so make sure to include a fork and spoon for each course. 

Where is the Serveware Set for a Formal Gathering?

It's important to note that serveware is not set at the dining table in a formal setting. Rather than setting the serving dishes in the center of the table for your guests to eat family-style or on a separate surface to serve themselves, the serveware stays in the kitchen during a formal gathering. This keeps your tablescape clutter-free, giving you extra room to set elaborate dinnerware place settings for each guest. 

5 Must-Haves for Formal Table Settings

Nearly every dinnerware place setting features the same essential items for formal table settings. Whether you’re completing your curated dinnerware collection or stocking up on new serving dish patterns, remember to have all these on hand at your dinnerware place settings:

1. Formal Dinnerware

    Dinnerware is essential for any table setting, but the number of dishes you have at each dinnerware place setting increases for formal occasions. Some formal dinners may call for a charger under the stack of dinnerware items, but each place setting needs a dinner plate...regardless, even without a charger. A charger under the dinnerware serves as a decorative place setting addition and protects the table from hot bowls or plates. On top of that, the place settings will include a new dinnerware piece for each course, in order of the menu from top to bottom. That way, when the guests finish a dish, the plate can be taken away, revealing the next bowl or plate they’ll use. 

    Set out bowls for any dishes like soup, stew, or salads. For small bites, smaller courses, or dessert rounds, opt for something smaller, like an appetizer or salad plate. These can all be layered on top of the dinner plate to create a beautiful dinnerware place setting and make serving the meal go smoothly.

    Since serveware is not set in the same area, dinnerware is one of the best ways to customize the look of your formal table setting. Go for a clean, cohesive look by setting out complete dinnerware place settings with items from a single collection, or mix and match your favorite colors and patterns to create a custom look for every event. 

    2. Formal Glassware

      Glassware is set at the top of the dinnerware place settings, and depending on what you’re serving, multiple types of glasses are required. Every guest needs a water glass, regardless of age. Based on your wine selection, place red wine glasses or white wine glasses next to the preset water glasses, which is customary. Depending on guest preferences, you could also include champagne flutes or different types of cocktail glasses. 

      Glassware doesn’t have to be traditional — you can find stylish, colorful glasses to make your tablescape pop at any event with Estelle drinkware and Anthropologie’s glassware. Mix and match bold hues and unique shapes to create a timeless yet contemporary look. Raise a toast and celebrate over unforgettable dinnerware place settings! 

      3. Formal Placemats and Napkins

        No formal table setting would be complete without table linens. Cloth napkins instantly transform the look of an event from casual to formal, and whether you're learning over-the-top napkin folds or basic layouts, setting napkins and placemats in front of each chair ties the tablescape together. Play with pairing different colored linens or going for a single-hued look to create the perfect table for every formal occasion. 

        Pro tip: consider adding a tablecloth when the occasion calls for it (or whenever you feel inspired to set an extra-special table setting!)

        4. Flatware for Formal Place Settings

          Flatware is vital to the look and success of a formal table setting. With forks on the left and knives and spoons on the right, each course needs a corresponding utensil set in order of use from outside in. As the evening goes on and guests work their way through the menu, the used utensils will be removed along with the dinnerware item, leaving the next utensil available for the following course. 

          With contemporary yet modern silhouettes, metals, and colors, Sabre utensils are some our family's go-to for any dinnerware place setting. Since serving dishes are set elsewhere, there's no need for serving utensils to be near the table. But, if you're including bread and butter on the table, set appetizer spreaders out for your guests.  

          5. Tabletop Extras for Formal Tables

            Any formal table setting can be elevated with added décor and accessories. Experiment with different floral arrangements, seasonal holiday garlands, or cozy, whimsical candles for centerpieces. Between unique salt and pepper shakers and handwritten name cards showing who sits where, every detail adds up to an unforgettable formal table. 

            11 Steps for Setting a Formal Dinnerware Place Setting

            Keep the serving dishes in the kitchen! If you're new to hosting, these simple steps will guide you as you set the formal dinnerware place settings:

            1. Begin by laying down your tablecloth or setting out placemats in front of each seat.
            2. If you use the traditional charger plate, set those out as a base layer for the following dinnerware. The dinner plate then goes on top of that charger. 
            3. If needed, place the salad plate on top of the dinner plate.
            4. Place the soup bowl on top of the plates if needed.  
            5. Fold and set the cloth napkins to the left of the dinnerware.
            6. Set a dinner fork to the left of the dinner plate on top of the napkins, with a salad fork to its left.
            7. Set a dinner knife to the right of the dinnerware place setting with the sharp edge facing towards the plate.
            8. Set the spoons to the right, on the outside of the knives.
            9. Place your water glass above the knives on the right side, with wine glasses slightly diagonally to the right of those.
            10. If you're serving dessert, the utensils go horizontally above the dinner plate to be kept out of the way until needed.
            11. If you're serving bread, place a bread plate to the left of your dinnerware place setting, opposite the glassware. The butter knife can be set with the dessert utensils. 

            How to Set 5 Formal Holiday Tables

            A holiday event is one of the most common reasons for formal table settings! Find inspiration for your celebrations with these helpful tips for setting each holiday's dinnerware place settings. 

            Thanksgiving Table Setting

            When it's time to gather together and give thanks as a family, laying out the dinnerware place settings for the Thanksgiving table is part of the fun! With our festive serving dishes and dinnerware, you can customize the look of your table using autumnal designs, from turkey-shaped platters to rustic wood plates. Go the traditional route and use the complete Thanksgiving Collection, or mix and match your favorite serveware and plates for a table with a modern twist. 

            Easter Table Setting

            Set a stylish Easter table and hop into spring with an Easter celebration your friends and family will never forget. Setting an Easter table is the perfect time of year to use pastel colors, playful illustrations of bunnies, and timeless serving dishes—which is why we set our dinnerware place settings with items from our Speckled Rabbit Collection.

            Christmas Table Setting

            curated Christmas table setting brings cheer to any holiday celebration. Invite your loved ones for a formal gathering and set the table with festive serving dishes, whether you enjoy sophisticated gold star dinner plates or whimsical depictions of Santa and his reindeer. Set the dinnerware place settings with colorful glassware, serveware, garlands, and more to create a winter wonderland table scene year after year.  

            Our Holiday Dinnerware Collections:

            • Balsam and Berry 
            • Christmas in the Village 
            • O Holy Night 
            • North Pole 

              New Year's Day Table Setting

              Celebrate the Lunar New Year or host a formal dinner for New Year's Eve with friends and family over an elevated formal table setting. Layer zodiac bowls with timeless Deco gold dinner plates to create a vibrant dinnerware place setting, and pop the Champagne as you count down to midnight!

              Romantic Valentine's Setting

              Invite your special someone for an intimate date night, or gather friends for a fondue night and set an inspired table this Valentine's Day. Mix your go-to serveware with pops of reds and pinks with dishes from our Valentine's Day Collection. Between XOXO plates and XOXO-designed mugs, your formal table setting will wow your loved ones during this special time of year. 

              Between mixing and matching your favorite designs and finalizing which dinnerware dishes you need to serve your menu, setting a formal table can feel challenging. Don't worry! With our inside tips and helpful guides, you can design unforgettable dinnerware place settings for any formal event. Set the table, sit back, and cheers to you! 

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