I love a pretty table setting, but I also enjoy a useful table setting. Although I have pinned some lovely tablescapes on Pinterest, those that leave little room for a person to eat are best left for viewing, not using. And I always use my dining table!
One way to add a new dimension to your table is by using a charger plate. You may also see it called a service plate, chop plate or an underplate. It is simply a plate, usually 11”-13″ in diameter, a little larger than the dinner plate, which is placed under the dinner plate.
Charger plates come in a variety of shapes (why stick to round?) made from a variety of materials such as plastic, glass, metal, wicker, wood, and china.
These plates are not meant to eat food directly from, but rather they can serve several different purposes. They can make a tablescape or place setting pop by adding a new color or shape to the table. In this case the functionality is really in their look. However, they do help to define and center a diner’s space, similar to a placemat. The charger plate serves as a landing spot for plates of the various courses that will be served.
Another purpose they serve is like a tablecloth or placemat…to protect your table. Many dinner plates have rough rims on the bottom that were not glazed when they were manufactured. By putting the dinner plate on an underplate, the table does not get scratched. Of course, you want to make sure your underplate is fully glazed or add a felt pad underneath.
When I have held dinner plates in the warming drawer, I always like to use an underplate at the table so that the warm dinner plate does not mar the surface of my table. The service plates, in particular those made of china, help to retain the heat of the dinner plate and the food served on the dinner plate.
In addition, a service plate helps to keep a placemat or tablecloth clean. When I am using an antique or light-colored tablecloth, I like to use charger plates. The charger plate provides a little extra security against food bits or dirty silverware staining the tablecloth. Inevitably, at every meal, someone (okay me) will accidentally let their knife slide off onto the table. A charger plate will catch the wayward knife and save the table linens.
Some of the charger plates you will find can do double duty as a serving platter. For example, my everyday china, Mikasa Yardley, offers a chop plate made of the same material as the dinner plates. The chop plate can be used to serve hors d’oeuvres or a whole chicken, but it can also be used as an underplate (not at the same time, though).
The plastic chargers usually carry a warning that they are not suitable for food. From my experience, over time these plastic plates may become brittle and break. If using these, you will want to be careful to clear the underplate with no added weight on top of it.
I think the 1970s circular rattan underplates are what come to mind for many people when they think of charger plates. Do not let this thought limit your imagination, although the rattan chargers are back in popularity!
If you are unsure of how to use a charger plate, check out Replacements.com. I receive a weekly email from them which always has lovely photos of seasonal place settings. These place settings usually involve a charger plate!
As for the mechanics of using a charger plate, they should always be pre-set on the table before the diners sit down. They may remain on the table for serving of any course up to and including the main course, so amuse bouche, intermezzo, soup, salad, and dinner plate. When the dinner plate is cleared, so should the charger plate. However, some etiquette experts say the charger plate is removed before the dinner plate…this may be due to different regions of the country having their own etiquette. I think a good argument could be made either way, but I like the usefulness of the charger under dinner plates. Ultimately, size-wise, the chargers are made to look nice under the dinner plate, so they may be used under the dinner plate.
Desserts are not served on the charger plate, although a dessert served in a stemmed glass could have a small salad plate placed underneath for looks as well as a place to put the spoon when finished eating. In this case, the salad plate is acting as though it were a charger plate.
Remember when selecting chargers to consider size (larger than your dinner plate), use (maybe you want to heat your chargers to help keep the dinner plate warm – if so, avoid plastic!), color (make sure it will coordinate with your china), and style (classic, casual, etc.). Chargers are a great way to spice up your tablescape and refresh the look of your china!
Bonus Information: In the paragraph above related to desserts served in stemmed glasses, I mentioned a spoon would be used. A good rule of thumb is that food served in a bowl (even the stemmed bowl of a dessert glass) should be eaten with a spoon, while food served on a plate should be eaten with a fork.
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