Formal Place Settings: Is there a place at the table today?
How many formal place settings will fit around my dining table? That question came up the other day during a meeting with a client who loves hosting formal dinner parties. It gave Sally and me cause to think and ask ourselves two questions.
- Should a dining table’s size be based on the number of chairs we want around it?
Above illustration from the handy book, “Human Dimension & Interior Space”, by Julius Panero and Martin Zelnik, published 1979.
2. Or should the table be sized based on place settings – in our case, formal place settings. By default, if a dining table can accommodate “X” number of formal place settings, then everything else is easy.
We’ve all been to sit down dinners at weddings or large events and found ourselves squished around a 6 foot table with seating for 10. Your left elbow is in your neighbor’s soup, while on the right, your neighbor has tipped over your full glass of wine, reaching for the butter dish. The table setting is beautiful, but in reality, the accommodations are ghastly.
We’re talking the other end of the spectrum. Gracious elegance. Refined luxury. How are formal place settings arranged? The question begged proper study and an answer.
What is a formal place setting?
Let’s start our journey by asking the question, “What is a formal place setting?” The answer lies on the type of service being provided. Let’s start with silver service (think Downton Abbey), in which food is brought from the kitchen and is served to you on your plate by a server. Servers use specialized utensils to transfer food to each person’s plate. Tradition dictates the food is carried on a silver platter, hence the name, silver service. This service can be done as an informal service (typically fewer utensils) or a formal service. There are a number of variations of this service. Remember all of these require a wait staff.
- Russian Service (Service à la Russe): Food courses are brought to the table sequentially.
- French Service: Food is brought out all at once in a glorious display. Popular through the 19th Century.
- English Service (Family Service): Often used when guests require a high level of interaction with the hosts. Similar to Butler Service.
- Butler Service: Guests help themselves from a serving plate held by the waiter or butler.
- American Service: Often used at catered events, food is prepared and plated in the kitchen. Service is approached from the left and cleared from the right. Sounds familiar, right?
The list keeps going – Buffet, Yacht, etc., and all appear to require different plates and silverware, a butler and a wait staff!
I’m lost. Where do i begin?
How did the butler and wait staff set the elegant tables? Most of us don’t have a wait staff, but for those special occasions when we want to set a formal table, are there any clues that might help us establish a dinner table size that would comfortably accommodate formal place settings?
Cue the butler
It turns out the butler was hiding three dirty little secrets.
- The 24” Rule.
- The Thumb Rule.
- The Butler Stick.
The 24” Rule is the spacing of plates, center line of plate to centerline of plate.
The Thumb Rule sets the distance from the edge of the table of the edge of the plate. The accepted distance is roughly from the first joint in your thumb to the tip of your thumb. Others will tell you its the width of the thumb. The point is, be consistent! If you happen to have a Butler Stick handy, it’s the width of the Butler Stick. (My apologies for no white glove . . .)
The Butler Stick is then used to lay out silverware to the left and right of the plate and to measure the distance from the edge of the table to glasses, salad and bread plates. (If there are any, and there always are at a formal dinner!) The accepted distance from edge of plate to the first utensil and between utensils is between 1” and 1.5”.
The Thumb Rule is used to establish the distance of the silverware from the edge of the table as well. It should be the same distance as the plate.
THE FORMAL PLACE SETTINGS
Okay, we have our guidelines, let’s set the table.
Oops! How many courses are we serving? These days, the most common number of courses is 5. We are going to create a place setting for the following menu. Sometimes the salad is served after the main course. In other menus there is no fish course, but an appetizer precedes the soup course. Simply place the silverware in order of use as I describe below.
- Main Course.
- Dessert and Coffee.
Silverware is always placed based on use, first to last, from the outside in. So we have the soup spoon on the outside right. Second, the fish knife and fork. Third, salad fork. (I found some sources suggesting a salad knife be set between the fish knife and main course knife.) Fourth, main course knife and fork. Fifth, dessert spoon and fork set parallel to the edge of the table – use standard silverware spacing for setting the pieces. Note the overall dimension ranges between 18″ and 21”. (If oysters are served as an appetizer, the oyster fork is set angling toward the outermost spoon, its tines resting in the spoon’s ladle.)
Water and wine glasses are placed above the knives and spoons on the right. I can’t begin to tell you how many “correct ways” of arranging them I found. So here’s my general feeling: the water glass stays on the table through the entire dinner, except when coffee is served with dessert. Place the water glass within convenient reach above the knives. Wine glasses are then artfully arranged behind/around the water glass, in order of their use. The number of wine glasses is determined by what is being served. For example, a champagne glass might sit at the front of the arrangement if an appropriate appetizer is being served. Other times it is set at the back of the glass arrangement, accompanying dessert.
Note there is a bread dish in this diagram, as some hosts choose to serve rolls or a slice of bread as a side dish during the meal. In a true formal dinner, this would probably not be the case. Rather, if appropriate, small crackers or melba toast might be accompany the served course, being placed directly on the plate, as opposed to a separate side dish.
We now have the information needed to determine table sizes!
Starting with, “If we had lots of room.” Comfortable seating for 8 formal place settings requires a 54” x 104” table. (Round up to 108”)
You could go down to 102”, but no smaller. The place settings at the ends of the table start to pinch down on the settings along the side of the table. The critical dimension is a minimum of 28” from the centerline of the outside formal place settings to the end of the table. (Remember the plates on the side of the table are 24” on center.)
Using our 24” Rule and our 28” end dimension, a table for 6 should be a minimum of 54” x 80”. (Round up to 84”). A table of 4 should be a minimum of 54” x 56”. (Round up to 60”, a quick sketch tells me you could also do a 54” x 54” square table.)
My problem with these numbers is I can count on one hand a dining room we’ve designed that would accommodate a 54” wide table. So, I ran another set of table sizes using more realistic numbers, starting with seating for 8 at a 42” x 96” table. Using the 24” Rule, that means our critical dimension at the end(s) of the table is 24”. (This is essentially our dining table with a leaf in it.)
A table for 6 formal place settings needs to be 6 feet long.
A table for 4 formal place settings really needs to be 4’ long. At a square of 3’-6’ x 3’-6”, things just get too close. Remember, our goal is to be gracious!
This was “interesting”. I could not find a 24” Rule for formal place settings at round tables. I ended up working with the geometry, angles, and the fact that as one moves closer to the center of a circle, there is less space to work with in order to calculate table sizes for 4, 6 and 8 formal place settings.
A table for 4 needs to be 48’’ wide.
A table for 6 formal place settings needs to be 60” wide.
A table for 8 formal place settings needs to be 72” wide.
I’ve consolidated the above into GIF Files below.
What Have we Learned?
- The 24” Rule
- The Thumb Rule
- The Butler Stick
- Silverware is placed in order of use, from the outside in.
- If a charger is used, it remains in place throughout the dinner and is removed prior to dessert.
- Each course is served on its own plate, which is set on top of the charger.
- After each course, that plate is removed, in anticipation of the next course.
- It seems we Americans are the only ones who eat our salad as a side dish with our meal.
- Arrange glassware artfully above the knives.
- Place the water glass for convenience.
- Arrange wine glasses in order of use around/behind the water glass.
- A formal dinner requires a white pressed linen table cloth.
- Place an even number of candles/candelabra down the center of the table.
- Centerpieces go in the middle of the table. Low enough to talk over or around.
- Symmetry and balance.
- Arrange the table such that it is pleasing to the eye.
Now with the grand holidays right in front of us – go out there and entertain!!!
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