Dining Etiquette Series – The Place Setting




“I definitely have the salad fork. The rest of the silverware is a little confusing.”
~ Vivian, played by Julia Roberts, in Pretty Woman

It can be daunting to sit down to a formal or informal table or place setting, which is precisely what happens when you attend a business luncheon or dinner, black-tie affair, wedding or other professional or personal event. But it needn’t be. In this entry, we’ll be looking at the various components of the place setting. (Note that informal dining differs from casual dining. “Informal” refers to a somewhat less formal dinner, luncheon or breakfast setting; “casual” implies fast-food, picnic, backyard or kicking-back-in-front-of-the-TV dining.)

Let’s begin our tour:

Place Setting

A basic individual place setting (professionals in the food services industry refer to this as a “cover”) will include some or all of these items, either all at once or brought by the waiter with its associated course at various times throughout the meal:

  • Placemat
  • Napkin
  • Place card
  • Charger
  • Soup bowl or cup
  • Fruit or seafood cocktail plate or cup
  • Salad plate
  • Dinner plate
  • Bread and butter plate, with butter spreader
  • Dessert plate, bowl or glass
  • Glassware and stemware
  • Coffee / tea cup and saucer, with tea spoon
  • Flatware, including cocktail fork, soup spoon, table knife, steak knife, dinner fork, salad fork, dessert fork and spoon
  • Finger bowl (optional)


Placemats are used in informal or casual dining, with or without a tablecloth underneath, as some like to use placemats to keep their tablecloths clean. It’s simply a matter of preference. Placemats usually are not used for formal dining.


Napkins were discussed in last week’s post. But, as a reminder they may be folded in various configurations. At formal meals they will be placed either at the left of the forks or in the center of the place setting; at informal meals, especially for breakfasts and luncheons or less formal dinners, the triangle fold is often used, or the napkin might be rolled or fanned and placed in a napkin ring, or fanned out in a goblet to the upper right of your place setting.

Place Card

At formal luncheons and dinners, your individual and personal place card will be located above your charger or luncheon/dinner plate, possibly in a holder so it stands up, or it might be laid flat in the middle of the charger on top of your napkin. Some place cards are so elaborate and beautiful that guests often like to keep them as souvenirs. To ensure that your name appears correctly on your place card and contains the proper title (Ms., Mr., Dr., etc.), include your title, first and last name in your invitation reply.

Charger (Service Plate)

The charger, or service plate as it’s also called, is the large decorative plate that is often included in both formal and informal place settings. This plate is not used for eating, but rather as an ornamental piece that offers a completed and attractive place setting for the diner before the food is served, as well as functioning as a liner for other dishes. At informal and many private home settings, the charger may remain on the table throughout the meal; however in other formal settings the charger is usually removed immediately prior to the serving of the main course.

Plates, Bowls

The most common plates and bowls you will encounter are the bread and butter plate (which is placed at the upper left-hand side of your dinner plate); appetizer plate, bowl, cup or goblet; soup bowl or cup (the latter may have one or two handles); salad plate or bowl; dinner plate; fruit and cheese plate or platter; and dessert plate or bowl.


Glassware is placed to the upper right of your plate, and may include a water glass or goblet, wine goblets and champagne or sherry flutes.


Although in the movie, Pretty Woman, Vivian found that “the rest of the silverware is a little confusing,” once you get the hang of it, selecting the correct piece will become second nature to you.

The main thing to remember is that you will always select your flatware from the outside in. Thus, the flatware pieces that are farthest from your plate on either side will be selected first and you will work your way in to the pieces that are closest to your plate. In addition, some pieces might not be included in the original place setting but rather brought with the particular course. Some examples include your seafood cocktail fork, desert fork and / or spoon, or teaspoon. However, these items could also be included in the initial place setting. For example, the dessert spoon and fork are frequently placed above the dinner plate, to be used when dessert is served.

On the right side of your plate you will find spoons and knives and on the left side you will find forks. The one exception is the cocktail fork, which can be on either side; if it is laid on the right side, it sometimes rests in the bowl of the soup spoon if both are being served.

Finger Bowl

While this is no longer a common accoutrement to most dining setups, you might come across its use at some formal dinners or certain establishments. The waiter, or server, will place the finger bowl (which usually has a slice of lemon floating in it) to the upper left of your dinner plate. If he or she places the finger bowl in the middle of your place setting, directly in front of you, you should move it yourself to the upper left once you have used it. To use the finger bowl correctly, simply dip the tips of your fingers into the bowl and wipe them gently on your napkin, which should remain in your lap as you do so; do not lift the napkin off your lap so that it is visible as you wipe your fingers. At a formal meal the finger bowl most likely will be brought out toward the end of the meal. Today, small hot moist towels are often presented instead to each diner; once the diners have used their towels to wipe their hands the waiter will collect them.

The dining table may contain the following:

Centerpieces / Decorations

Flowers, candles and other decorative trappings may appear on the table, either as a centerpiece or dispersed throughout the table to create an elegant or festive appearance. They might be near your place setting, but should not interfere or overlap.


Such pieces that are placed on the table may include platters for serving meats and fish; bowls in assorted shapes and sizes for serving vegetables and fruits; wicker or ceramic baskets for holding breads, rolls and pastries; small plates and dishes for serving condiments, butter and margarine; shakers, cellars and grinders for salt and pepper; and special plates and stands for serving pies, cakes, cookies and other desserts.

In the picture at the top of the page, we can play detective to guess what will be served for dinner by examining the place setting. For example:

  • You can see that to the right of the plate there are, starting from the outside, a soup spoon, a fruit spoon and a table knife; this indicates that there will be a soup course and a fruit course, in that order. Because there is no steak knife you can assume that there will not be a red meat main course, but more likely chicken or fish, or possibly a haute cuisine casserole dish such as Boeuf à la Bourguignonne or Chicken à la King.
  • To the left of the plate the two forks are, from the outside in, a salad fork (the one that Vivian had) and the dinner fork, indicating that the salad will be served before the main course. At some dinners you might find the reverse, in which case the salad course is served after the main course; in that case the order of the forks will be reversed.
  • To the upper left of the dinner plate is the bread and butter plate, upon which sits the butter spreader (not knife). And, we can see how a diner can become confused as to which is his butter plate when tables are set with the place settings so close together. Confused, that is, unless one knows that this plate sits to the upper left of one’s dinner plate!
  • To the upper right of the plate sit the water and wine goblets.
  • Note that upon the charger in the middle of the place setting sit the salad plate with another plate underneath it. This could mean that the soup will be served in a cup and placed upon the top plate that will serve as the underplate to the soup. After the soup course, the soup cup will be removed and the fruit cup, which could be very small and meant simply to serve as a palate cleanser between courses, will be served. Following the fruit cup, which will be removed along with the underplate, the salad will be served. Following the salad course, all plates will be removed, including the charger and the main course will be brought out on a fresh plate. Of course, the scenario could be slightly different, but we can be pretty certain that there will be soup and salad courses and possibly a small serving of fruit. In most instances, however, there will be no plates on the charger when you are first seated at the table, and the type of setting we see in the picture is usually one that would be used in a private home. However, once you have the general principals of the place setting down, you will be able to cope with any type of service or situation.

To prepare you further for any dining adventure, next week we’ll look at the wait staff and the various types of dining services you can expect.

Until next time,


4 thoughts on “Dining Etiquette Series – The Place Setting

  1. Jeanne Nelson says:

    The water goblet also has a longer bowl and shorter stem; as the iced beverage glass is similar you may substitute it for the water goblet. The cordial glass as you describe it sounds just fine for serving sherry.The rule of thumb for mixing stemware designs (or flatware designs) at a formal dinner is that all the pieces within a single place setting should match, but you can have a different matched set at each setting. This rule may be bent, however, provided the mixed stemware consists of good pieces that complement each other; you can then carry through with the same combination of pieces at each place setting or make each setting unique. In your case, I believe your resourceful use of your stemware means that all the pieces will match throughout your place settings for this particular dinner. Well done!


  2. Sophia says:

    Thank you for the reply!I would like to ask a few more questions regarding stemware used in formal dining.I have read that the iced beverage glass (which has shorter stem but longer bowl than the water goblet) is not used in formal dining because ice tea is not served there. Can I use the iced beverage glass for water on a table set for formal dining?If I were to serve sherry with the soup, does the sherry glass nedd to match the other glasses on the table? I am asking because the sherry glass is not available in my stemware pattern. The company only makes a cordial glass (2 oz. capacity) which has a long stem and is similar in shape to the wine glass. Can I use the cordial glass for sherry or buy a set of sherry glasses in a totally different pattern?


  3. Jeanne Nelson says:

    Thank you for these excellent questions, Sophia. Because you like the platinum trim stemware better, I would use them. Other than planning a State Dinner at the White House or a Royal Banquet at Buckingham Palace — or if you will be hosting wine connoisseurs, in which case the wine rather than the food would be focus and the type and shape of the wine glasses would be more important — you have a bit of leeway to be creative.With wine glasses, for red the bowl is more rounded with a wide opening to accommodate oxidation and for white the bowl is more elongated with a narrower opening for slower oxidation. There are various shaped glasses to accommodate the array of white wines and typically the hock wine glass is reserved for a German sweet white wine. But, there is an all-purpose wine glass that is a cross between a red and white wine glass and I’m guessing that is the type that comes with your set. Such a glass is perfectly fine to use for white, red or rose wine. Therefore, if you have enough of the platinum-trim wine glasses, you could as you suggest quite appropriately place two together to be used for both your white and red wine. For more information on glassware in the table setting, see my entry entitled "Crystal Gazing." My best wishes for your dinner party!


  4. Sophia says:

    Hello,I would like to set the table for formal dining. I have already bought the water goblets, wine, champagne, and iced beverage glasses. These all have a platinum trim.I know that the iced beverage glass does not go on the table when set for formal dining. The goblet is for water and the flute is for champagne. But what about the wine? I like to serve both white and red wine. There is only one size of wine glass the company makes. Do I use two of the same wine glasses at each cover (one for red and one for white wine)? Or do I use two of the same goblet at each cover (one for water and one for red wine)?Iced beverage, goblet, wine and flute are the only glasses that come with a platinum trim. If I choose to return these and get them without the trim, I have more choices (brandy, hock). Can I use a hock glass for red wine, or it the hock only used for German white wine? I like the platinum trim better though.Thank you!


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