How to Set a Dinner Table
If you’re worried about spills damaging a polished tabletop, lay a piece of plastic sheeting or clingfilm under the tablecloth. If hot dishes will be placed on the table, place a blanket under the cloth. Don’t put mats under the tablecloth; they will create an uneven surface that may cause spills. Put them on top where they can be seen.
Patterned or plain?
Food generally looks best on plain white china or china that contrasts with the colour of the food. Strong colours and intricate patterns may be attractive on their own, but they often clash with food and look less effective when filled.
Candles give atmosphere to a room, even when there’s other lighting as well. An electric light with dimmer switch turned down low and supplemented by candlelight is ideal for most dinner parties. Keep candles below eye level so that guests can see across them. Small candles floating in a bowl of water make an unusual decoration, and they’re safer than taller candles, too.
Positioning a buffet table
If you have the space, place your buffet table in the centre of the room to allow guests to walk around it. If the table has to be against a wall, leave a gap so that you can slip in and replenish empty dishes.
A seating plan for your guests
For larger dinners with more than about eight guests, a seating plan pinned to the dining-room door and a typed or handwritten name card at each setting will help them find their places without a lot of milling about.
Lay the cutlery in the order in which it is to be used, working in from the outside. Knife blades should face the plate, and no more than three forks and three knives should be laid at any one time. Place a folded napkin on the plate or to the left of it. Set a water glass above and slightly to the right of the plate. Wine glasses go to the right of the water glass.
The dessert spoon and fork can either be lined up with the rest of the cutlery, with the spoon on the right and the fork on the left, or laid at the top with the spoon above the fork. Lay the spoon handle to the right and the fork handle to the left.
Arranging a buffet table
Arrange a buffet table in logical order to avoid congestion: dinner plates first, then rice or pasta, the hot main course, vegetables, salad, bread, butter, relishes and condiments, and lastly cutlery and napkins. Drinks should go on a separate table nearby. If you have a large number of guests, try to have more than one table of food, with a similar arrangement on each one.
Try to allow space at a buffet for guests to put their plates down while they help themselves. This is essential if they have to serve themselves and there’s a dish which needs two hands for serving. If guests will be eating standing up, serve food which can be eaten with only a fork and provide plenty of surfaces where they can put down their glasses. It will also help if you pre-butter the bread for your guests.
Dinner table decorations
• Keep table decorations and candles below eye level, or they’ll get in the way of conversation.
• Fresh flowers always look good on a dinner table, but keep them small and avoid strongly scented varieties. Don’t use a vase which could be knocked over; if necessary, weight it down with stones to keep it stable. Or float flower heads in a crystal bowl filled with water.
• For an unusual centrepiece, use a display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. In autumn you could fill a basket with shiny red apples and nuts in their shells, or in summer you could line a basket with fresh herbs and fill it with tomatoes, peaches or strawberries.