How to set a table: the difference between formal and informal dinner parties

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dinner party

Every now and then, the occasion calls for a dinner party. For centuries, dining events have been an important part of socialising, however, culinary trends have changed vastly. So, how do we dress our dining tables and create the right ambience for both formal and casual dinner parties? Here, we’ll explore the differences between the two dining events and how you can set the perfect tone and table for your next dinner party — whether it’s a formal or informal affair.

What is a formal table setting?

If you’re celebrating a very special family occasion, inviting your boss over, or reuniting with long-lost friends; you may want to opt for a formal table setting to mark the event. A formal table will have pre-set cloth napkins — and potentially antique silverware and glassware — as well as a quality tablecloth and elaborate centrepiece. Candelabras, sterling silver wine ewers and antique claret jugs are also perfect for setting an elegant dining tone.

Traditionally, a formal dinner party would see each guest presented with an empty plate for each course. A server would then bring in the food and offer it to each person in turn, rather than placing plated-up food on the table. However, this is quite old-fashioned, so you may prefer to serve your guests already-filled plates/bowls for each course. If you’re hosting a formal dinner party, preparing up to six courses is a generally accepted rule, which will often include a starter, fish course, meat course, dessert, and cheese.

What is an informal table setting?

This could be anything from a family dinner to a casual get-together with friends. The entire atmosphere will be more relaxed and there’s less of a need to use your finest china and silverware. However, that doesn’t mean your table shouldn’t look nice and you could still use attractive centrepieces — such as an LED vase or decorative wooden bowl, if you wish.

An informal table setting features minimal flatware and cutlery, and you can simply place all food, when cooked, on the table for your guests to help themselves. An informal dinner party can also be comprised of a single course or standard three. Go for the typical ‘starter, main and dessert’ dining structure, or simply cook up a hearty main meal and let your guests chat, laugh and drink as they dine.

How to set a formal dinner party table

It’s important when setting a formal dinner table that you get the placement of your cutlery correct.

Begin by placing your dinner plate in the centre with all forks to the left, and knives and spoons to the right. When it comes to the dessert fork and spoon, these must lie above the plate — the fork below the spoon — with the former pointing to the right and the latter, to the left. Next, all side plates go to the left of your dinner plate, while napkins go on the side plate — or you can put these on each dinner plate, if you prefer.

Here are some important points you must remember about setting a formal table properly:

  • All cutlery must be placed in the order it will be used — starting from the outside and working in.
  • Your knife blades should face the plate, while all fork prongs must face the ceiling. 
  • Serving salad and soup? The salad must be served on a salad plate, which is placed on top of the dinner plate. The soup bowl then goes on top.
  • If you’re serving red and white wine, they must have their own glasses. These should sit above the table knife, on the right-hand side.

Everything your guests need to dine should be on the table and it’s important that each dish is cleared away after each course.

How to set an informal dinner party table

With an informal dinner party, you have more scope for creativity and aren’t as restricted by rules when it comes to what your table should look like and how the food is served. However, you still want to create an attractive setting.

How about starting with a theme? Whether this is simply a colour, or you want to go for something quirkier — like the seaside or fairy tales — a theme can really bring your informal dinner party to life. Get tablecloths and runners that complement your chosen theme and put out handmade crafts on the table to add personality. Why not also tweak formal table setting trends to make them more casual? For example, you can use wine corks, toothpicks and paper to make fun place card holders for each guest or opt for colourful, simple tealights to illuminate the table without the need for ornate candelabras.

Many dinner party hosts also serve food that’s more interactive to make the meal less formal — so why not go for fajitas or gourmet burgers that people can add their own toppings to rather than presenting them with a ready-made plate? Put everything out on the table in one go so that your guests can pick and choose which ingredients they want to eat and pass food around for a more sociable atmosphere. 

Hosting a dinner party is exciting. Simply choose how formal or casual you wish the evening to be and use the appropriate tableware and dining etiquette to set the ideal tone!

We’re very proud to bring you this feature in association with AC Silver. For more inspiration to make the most of your home – from entertaining to cosy nights in – please pay a visit to our interiors page.


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