Some etiquette rules are easy to follow when it comes to dinner parties. Serve from the left, clear from the right. That’s easy enough. But what about the daunting task of setting the table? There are no simple solutions to make it easy, but learning the essentials will give you the confidence to bend the rules with confidence and with flair. For these three hostesses, inspiration for that perfect table setting comes from tradition.
“You can see I love glass,” quips Barbara Weston as she steps into her dining room. Filled with cut crystal plates, goblets, vases and bowls, the room sparkles in the sunlight that streams in through the windows. “My grandmother gave me a piece every Christmas and for every birthday, so I’ve collected quite a bit.”
Barbara’s collection, which also includes silver platters, baskets and compotes, isn’t just for show. When she entertains, which is often, she always uses her china, silver and crystal, even when her grandchildren, who are 7, 6 and 2 years old, are at the table. Dressed in their Sunday best, the children are learning about manners, family and tradition. “They understand what it means when I tell them that Lovey — that’s me — is going to use the special things. I want them to know how to both use and respect our precious family pieces so they’ll come to love them as I do,” she says. “Using these pieces also gives us a way to share stories about family members who are no longer with us. It brings them to life for the next generation.”
Barbara’s grandchildren don’t have a monopoly on getting dressed up. In addition to using the good china, crystal and silver, Barbara also makes sure the dining room table is always elegantly set, with fresh flowers and crisp linens. “I have the most fun setting the table,” she says. “I like to do it the day before, when there’s time to pull things out and play with how they look.”
Although she spends a lot of time on the “tablescape,” Barbara tends to stick with a white color scheme and doesn’t mix patterns. “You can do anything with a set of white china,” she notes. “I adore it with pretty white Swiss dot placemats and napkins, white hydrangeas or roses mounded in a silver bowl or compote and silver goblets.” Depending on the type of party she’s throwing, Barbara will often repurpose certain items.
For a baby shower, for instance, she’ll place flowers in silver baby cups set around the table. When the group is large, she’ll serve boiled shrimp from one of her large crystal punch bowls. A silver basket has held everything from strawberries to poinsettias. Regardless of the season, to make the most of her dazzling crystal, Barbara lights the room from a number of sources including the overhead chandelier, candles on the buffet and a set of mirrored reflectors on the table.
When friends drop by for coffee, she uses a red and white china dessert set. “If I were a young bride, I would probably mix these plates in with the white china,” she muses. “That seems to be the style these days.” She has also noticed that young couples are registering for tableware that’s durable and easy to care for. “I understand the appeal of being able to put everything in the dishwasher, but I still think brides should also think ahead. Some day they’ll cherish those pieces that require a bit more work. They’ll also find, as I have, that china is surprisingly durable. We’ve broken very few plates over the years.”
Zan Ellison Hardin is another Columbia hostess adding her own sense of style to time-honored entertaining customs. “I like to think of it as tradition with a twist,” she says. “Now that we have two small children, dinner parties are definitely more casual, but I still like to set a pretty table and want people to feel instantly welcomed. “My mother taught me that when walking into a dinner party, the initial feel and look of the room are extremely important. The table needs to seem warm and inviting because it shows your guests that you have made an effort for them.” To encourage conversation, Zan and Simms, her husband, purchased a round table for their dining room. “That way, no one is ever stuck by themselves on an end and everyone can participate,” she explains.
Zan prefers to drape the table with a piece of fabric or even patterned bed sheets, which can be beautiful and festive, and are also an inexpensive option compared to a fancy linen tablecloth. Paired with the table are large cloth napkins from the rainbow of choices that she’s collected over the years. “I like to mix within a color scheme, so for a spring party I might set the table with napkins in pale yellow, coral, pink and blue and fill bowls with tulips and hydrangeas, which are springy but not overpowering. That’s another thing I learned from my mother: flowers on the table shouldn’t be too tall or too fragrant. You want your guests to focus on each other.”
Like Barbara, Zan uses family pieces in unexpected ways, filling julep cups with Parmesan crisps or fresh herbs when entertaining outside. On an all-white table, she’ll often put out gold flatware along with her china. “You may think some pieces don’t naturally go together, but I say go for it,” she says. To keep her table settings from clashing with the room, Zan uses a neutral palette on the walls and floor. “I prefer to use color on the table rather than in the room,” she explains. “It gives me more flexibility with the table.”
To arrange her flowers, Zan will mix flower types but she prefers to stick to a color scheme. Flowers are set on the table, throughout the house and even outside, where they dress up the view onto the porch. Votives or other low-lying candles cast a pretty light without forcing guests to look over a pillar of flame to chat with each other. Sparkle comes in the form of small crystals, or strands of pearls which Zan will often scatter randomly across the table. Although she doesn’t often use place cards, she will incorporate them in a small take-home circe at each place, as both a welcome and a memory of a night with friends.
“During the warmer months it could be a seed packet, shell or the recipe to a favorite cocktail,” she says. “It’s important to Simms and me that our friends and family know how special they are us.”
Like Barbara and Zan, Mary Belser learned the fine art of the party by watching her mother and grandmother, who taught her that less is often more. “We try to keep it simple,” she says. “At Easter we use a white linen and organdy tablecloth.” But when Mary gets creative, the results are stunning, such as when she fills a bronze lotus bowl with nandina and yellow spider mums. “It’s tall, but since it’s lacy, guests can see each other. It’s one way to add height to the table. But if you do that, everything else really needs to be understated.”
Her solution to hosting large holiday dinners is equally inspired. Instead of setting and re-setting the same table, she had a set of four round tables made, each painted a different color. An artist friend, Carolita Harvin, decorated the tops with a traditional pattern of rice sheaves between two gold borders; the tables sat atop iron bases painted by artist Andrew Kearns. On one occasion, she placed one of the tables in the foyer and served dinner there. At the end of the meal, the table was taken apart and put away. Although Freeman and Maryanne Belser, her son and daughter-in-law, have taken some holiday duties, the tables are still well-used.
“We only need one for our family, but four comes in handy for larger groups,” Mary explains. “We can put out one or all of them to handle any size party.”
Mary uses both tablecloths and place mats — she finds tablecloths elegant but often ungainly to wash and iron — and tends not to mix patterns, although she does set a table using glassware from two complimentary crystal patterns. “I’m not sure if that counts as mixing,” she says with a laugh. Over the years, she’s learned a thing or two about maintenance, insisting that crystal be washed by hand in warm water (not hot) to avoid chipping and cloudiness, and using an old formula to remove butter from linen roll covers: 1 cup Borax, 1 cup Biz or any enzyme detergent, 1 gallon warm water. “It may take several days of soaking, but it always works,” she says. “And it’s worth it. Traditional things like linen roll covers are hard to find these days, but they add such grace to the table that I like to use them.”
Setting the Table
Whether formal or informal, the table is set so that utensils are used from the outside in. Using the plate as the centerpiece of each place setting, position the forks to the left, with the smaller salad fork on the outside and the larger dinner fork on the inside, closest to the plate. The napkin is placed either in the center of the plate, to the left of the forks or under the forks, and the folded edge of the napkin should face the plate, so that the edges of the napkin face way from the place setting. Set the knife to the right of the plate, with the cutting edge facing toward the plate. Spoons go to the right of the knife. If soup is being served, the soup spoon sits to the right of the teaspoon. Oddly, oyster forks are traditionally located outside the spoons.
If the salad is served with the main course, the salad plate goes to the left of the forks; the bread plate above it. Balance the butter knife on the edge of bread plate or across it.
Glassware is placed at the top right of the dinner plate, above the knife and spoons. The water glass is always to the left, or to the inside, of the wine glass.
The dessert fork sits directly above the plate with its handle to the left; the dessert spoon goes above it with the handle to the right, in the opposite direction.
- Although advice on proper table manners abounds within etiquette books, much of it is conflicting, Still, the basics remain:
- No elbows on the table. Ever.
- Do not begin eating until the hostess has taken the first bite.
- To cut anything, the fork is held upside down, with the handle under the palm, index finger on top, thumb underneath, not like a dagger. The knife is held in a similar fashion, with the index finger providing the pressure necessary to cut. Americans switch the fork to their other hand to eat; Europeans do not.
- Only cut one bite at a time to avoid slicing up the entire chicken breast all at once.
- The butter server is used to place butter from the dish to the bread plate; each guest uses his or her own butter knife to butter the bread, which has been broken into bite-sized pieces. Each piece is buttered just before it is eaten and is held in the left hand, hard side down.
- Food should be eaten at a pace that matches fellow diners. The hostess should be sure to pace her meal to be sure she takes the last bite, thus preventing any guests from thinking that they are eating too slowly.
- An easy way to remember which bread plate or water glass is yours is by making an “okay” sign with each of your hands under the table. The left hand will form the letter b — for bread — since bread and salad are on the left. The “d” formed by the right hand is a reminder that drinks sit on the right.
- The guest closest to the bread, butter or coffee cream should offer it to the guest on his or her left before using it. It’s then passed to the right.
- Salt and pepper are always passed as a pair and never passed hand to hand.
- In fact, whenever passing anything around the table, instead of handing it straight to the next person, it should be placed on the table beside them for them to pick up and pass.
- To avoid reaching across the table and potentially turning over a glass, guests should ask the person closest to the item to please pass it.
- Soup is dipped away from the person eating it because it really does cut down on dripping. Remember, “The ship goes out to sea.”
- If you must leave the table and are going to return, place your napkin on the seat of your chair.
- When the meal is finished, cross utensils, side by side, across the top right side of the plate and fold the napkin in your lap until leaving the table, at which time it should be placed on the left side of the place setting.
- Guests who want to help clear plates should wait until everyone has finished eating, then ask the host or hostess if help is needed. Plates should not be stacked or scraped at the table. And even once in the kitchen, never stack plates.
This story about socialite and hostess C. Z. Guest, who entertained royalty, illustrates etiquette’s most important rule: making everyone at the table feel comfortable. One night, Mrs. Guest was holding a small dinner party at her home in Washington, D.C. As the soup course was served, she noticed that one of her guests, and elderly man suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was having trouble with his soup spoon. Without saying a word, she put down her own spoon, picked up her soup bowl, and began to sip her soup directly from the bowl. Within just a few seconds, everyone at the table was drinking soup from the bowl, including the elderly man. The event was never discussed at the table.