A Proper Place Setting and How to Remember

A properly set place setting for a simple meal.
A properly set place setting for a simple meal.

Y’all, for me, an improperly set table is like nails on a chalkboard. But, I also realize that these arbitrary rules are what give etiquette a bad name.

However, if a table is set correctly, it serves as a guide to the diners, so that they don’t take their neighbors’ silverware or coffee cup.

Recently at two “nice” upscale restaurants at which I had dinner, the blades of the knives were facing away from the plate!  In Mafia lingo, that means I have been cut out of the family and may end up wearing concrete shoes in the ocean. Yikes!  And I didn’t even know the chef or owner!

Knife blades should face the plate and bowls of spoons should face up.
Knife blades should face the plate and bowls of spoons should face up.

Here is the problem:  if a table is set incorrectly, no one knows which items belong to whom. The great thing about a table set according to custom is that everyone at the table knows what to do.  I use the word custom because what I do in the south is a bit different from what my friends in the Northeast do, and the same goes for Europeans.

This place setting shows there will be many courses throughout the dinner. Although beautiful, there are a few irregularities.
This place setting shows there will be many courses throughout the dinner. Although beautiful, there are a few irregularities.

Here are a few ways to remember proper placement:

* Forks go on the left. F-o-r-k is four letters and so is L-e-f-t.
* Knives and spoons go on the right. K-n-i-f-e and s-p-o-o-n and r-i-g-h-t all have five letters.
* Drinks go on the right (again, both have five letters:  d-r-i-n-k and r-i-g-h-t).  Think about all those right-handed diners taking a drink. They wouldn’t reach across their plate for tea, coffee or wine, but rather just reach forward. Wine and water glasses go at the top of the knife, whereas coffee cups go to the right of the knives.  The coffee cup can get confusing if the place settings are close or improperly set.  Remember ALL drinks are on the right, so the right coffee cup is yours.
* Bread plates go on the left, above the forks.
* The silverware should be placed 1″ away from the edge of the table. The edge of the plate should also be 1″ from the table edge.  If a salad plate is used at the same time as the dinner plate, it goes to the left of the forks, 1″ from the edge of the table, as well.  Diners are not supposed to rearrange their plates and silverware; dishes farther than 1″ away from the table will be a stretch for many diners to reach.
* Silverware should not be hidden by the plate, nor should the closest knife and fork be more than an inch from the sides of the plate.  A place setting just looks better if it is not  scrunched in nor spread out.
* Generally, a place setting should have no more than three knives and three forks preset; anymore makes for an intimidating setting.  If other forks and knives are necessary for the meal, they may be brought in with the course for which they are needed.
* Only preset utensils that will be needed.  For example, if serving a meal that does not require a knife or spoon, they should not be put out.
* Napkins are to be set to the left of the forks or in the center of the charger plate.  These days we often see the napkin under the forks.  This is a space-saving technique as is a folded napkin in the water glass.

This is the traditional American signal that a person has finished eating. Fork and knife are placed in the 4 o'clock position on the plate.
This is the traditional American signal that a person has finished eating. Fork and knife are placed in the 4 o’clock position on the plate.

* Finally, once finished eating, diners should place their knife and fork on the plate.  Generally, if the plate is the face of a clock, the knife and fork are at 4 p.m., with the knife resting above the fork.  This lets the hostess or waiter know that they may remove the plates.

This place setting indicates bread and butter, salad, soup and an entree will be served. Dessert utensils will be served with the dessert, and a spoon for the coffee will be served with the coffee.
This place setting indicates bread and butter, salad, soup and an entree will be served. Dessert utensils will be served with the dessert, and a spoon for the coffee will be served with the coffee.

There are hundreds of other tips and tricks for a proper place setting.  These seem to be the most basic and useful for people of all ages and backgrounds.  Now I hope my friends in the restaurant business will use this guide to train their staff.

Bonus Information:  There are exceptions in place settings, just as there are in spellings and English.  For example, if setting a cocktail fork, it goes to the right of the spoons.  If a casual lunch is being served that does not necessitate a knife, then the fork may be set on the right.  So, when setting a table, a quick bit of research will always pay off!

A cocktail fork is the one fork that resides on the right side of the plate.
A cocktail fork is the one fork that resides on the right side of the plate.

2 thoughts on “A Proper Place Setting and How to Remember

  1. When the utensils are bundled in a napkin, as soon as I am seated, I unwrap it, placing everything where it’s supposed to be by the plate and the napkin in my lap.

    I was taught to place first used items to the outside, moving toward the plate as various courses are served.

    It’s been 50+ years since I studied table service as part of a class at the university, and now it’s part of hospitality management training. Hopefully, someone will continue to teach this, and we will have clean utensils placed where they should be.

    1. Becke, I totally agree that someone should be teaching this information. It is so important for job searching, dating, and socializing. Thank you for mentioning the outside in. That is a very good plan of action for all to know! Have a great day!

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