Setting the Table For a Dinner Party (Casual and Formal)

Setting the table for a dinner party or special occasion is a great way to set the tone for your gathering and make your guests feel extra special. Here is some inspiration and tips ranging from formal to a casual dinner setting.

Set The Table With Me

One of the best parts of putting a dinner party together for me is, setting the table. There are so many choices and ways to achieve a beautiful look that there is no reason to complicate anything. Simple and elegant is always a great way to go. Or sticking to a specific color scheme that plays well with the tableware. Whatever route you take to achieve a nicely dressed table, it is worth the extra effort.

Remember that setting a table creates an ambiance for the entire evening. It sets the tone for what is to come. However, I do understand that this can be a lost art in the quick and convenient age we are in. Setting a table might even seem a bit pretentious. However, I challenge you to give it a try at your next gathering and see the magic it creates around the evening.

Pro Tip: Set the table the night prior so that it is done ahead of time and it is one less then for you to worry about.

The Significance of a Set Table

Set tables have a way of making us bring out our best manners and create sort of a formal feel. I recall one particular dinner party where I set the table elegantly for a few new friends. Having never invited them before I decided to go with what I know and to do as I normally would. I arranged flowers on the table, laid a proper tablecloth and made a place setting for each guest. In our house the dining room is dead center and visible upon entry so it was immediately noticeable.

As they entered their eyes fell on the table and I can tell, each of them felt underdressed for the occasion. Of course, I am not one to want to make my guests feel uncomfortable in anyway, so I welcomed them in and we began the evening. At first, the thought crossed my mind that I had possibly made a mistake by opting to set it. But that quickly left when the dinner was served and I looked around at everyone enjoying themselves.

The thing is, it was still ok, awkward entry and all. Everyone sat down and enjoyed the meal. We just need to remember this is no longer the norm. So you might encounter a little shock at first if this is something you are new to doing. I say, let them be shocked anyway. The effort you put into the details of your evening are memorable. They have a way of lifting the mood and making others feel special. So all weird feelings aside, think of the environment you are creating and the dynamic of treating people well when they are in your space.

Basic Rules For a Formal Set Up

For a formal dinner party, there are a few rules you can decide to follow regarding placement. Personally, I don’t follow any rules when hosting dinner parties for friends. In fact, in some of the photos you will see that even when setting an elegant table, I don’t. However, in the case of formal occasions, I’d likely adhere to the basic rules.

  • Dinner Plate: Generally speaking, the plate is center stage and everything else is positioned around it.
  • Soup Bowl- Should be placed on the salad plate. 
  • Salad Plate- Place on the dinner plate underneath soup bowl (if soup is to be served).
  • Additional Plates: Bread and butter plates are placed just above the forks on the left side.
  • Glassware: The stemware and water goblet should be placed on the right side of the dinner plate. You can do this in a triangle or a standard line. For a triangle, the white wine glass is placed above the knife for the main course, the water just below it and the red wine is to the right, just above the white wine glass. For a straight line, place the water glass the white wine glass is again placed directly above the knife for the main course and the other glasses are lined up from large to small in a 45 degree angle. 
  • Cloth Napkin- Best when pressed and folded. Should be placed directly on top of the salad plate or to the left of the plate on the outside of the forks. 
  • Silverware: The dinner fork is on the left of the plate. The salad fork is placed to the left of the dinner fork. The dinner knife and soup spoon should be placed with the blade facing the plate on the right side, with the soup spoon on the outside. If providing a meat knife, it should be placed closest to the plate, then dinner knife and finally soup spoon. A butter knife should be placed on top of the bread plate at the top left. The dessert fork and dessert spoon should be placed just above the plate. 
formal dinner party setup
formal dinner table setting

Basic Table Setting

A casual dinner party setting is a lot more loose. I fall in between the two. Enjoying a little bit of formality for ease of placement and making it casual enough to switch things around or leave unnecessary items out. Generally speaking, for a casual table setting the main focus is to ensure each guest has the basics for what you are serving. In the example below, it shows a coffee cup with saucer, which can be swapped out for a water glass.

Dinner Plate- When serving a casual dinner, most times we can put all the courses on one plate so one dinner plate will suffice.

Napkin- For a casual setting you can opt to choose from a cloth napkin or a paper napkin. The nice thing is you can find quality disposable paper napkins that lend a casual feel but still have a nice look. You can choose to place the napkin on the top of the plate or to the left of the dinner plate. No matter where you place it or what type you choose, make sure it is in fact a dinner napkin and not a flimsy one.

Silverware- I find a fork, knife and spoon (if serving soup) is more than sufficient. You can opt to place them on both sides of the plate (as shown) or all three on the same napkin with the fork closest to the plate and spoon on the outside.

Water and Wine Glass- Since this is casual there is really now need for specific placement however, I find placing the water glass on the outside and the wine glass just above is a nice look.

casual dinner table setting

Table Setting Inspiration

The best part about hosting your own dinner parties, is you get to make them your own. Whichever way you decide to go with your dinner party, remember ultimately people just like being invited. Here are a few looks to inspire you.

Look # 1

For this look, I kept it simple and natural. With the use of a piece of fabric centered on the table in lieu of a tablecloth. This is a great option for those without a tablecloth on hand to use. The added bit of fabric brings texture and dimension to the table. Woven chargers are chosen as they play up the natural qualities of the natural look of the table. While adding texture and visual interest.

For a pop of color, a simple clear vase of beautiful orange roses makes a statement as the centerpiece. The glassware is placed on the right-hand side just above the navy blue dinner napkin and gold flatware is added for a bit of elegance.

Look # 2

Layering up a white tablecloth and adding a striped piece of fabric to the center. This look is chic with stripes, gold touches, and a fresh white backdrop. A small arrangement of roses makes a simple centerpiece in a matching striped vase. Breaking the formal rules this time by placing the flatware out of order. I find it a fun and lovely way to place the settings.

The napkin is rolled and held together with a piece of jute twine acting as a napkin ring holder. This is a simple way to make a faux ring holder that goes with any decor style.

a striped vase with flowers and a striped cloth for a dinner table setting
a striped theme dinner party table set with candles
a rolled napkin on a dinner plate with silverware next to it

Look # 3

For my final look today, I am using my nature-themed china from the “Francesca” collection. The soft pink petals and green vinery go well with the woven chargers. For this look, I chose a more golden-colored dinner napkin as the natural colors play well with the yellow tones.

Opting for a crisp white tablecloth, this is always a great place to start when selecting linens for a table. The bright white color pairs well with most looks and is very versatile. I find it worked well to brighten the nature aspect of the table.

an elegantly set dinner party table
a formal table setting with natural charges and tea cups
a dinner table set for a dinner party with flowers and plates

Keeping It Simple

In all the looks you see above. If you look close enough you will notice a few of the same ideas in each look. Here are a few staples that I find work well for any sort of setting. You can use more casual options for gathering like a pizza night or more dressed-up versions for something more formal.

Centerpiece: I always begin with a centerpiece. Which seems like a no-brainer to most. I have been to many dinner parties, and trust me, people don’t always have one.

Having a small vase of flowers, greenery, or even a beautiful bowl of fruit will not just look beautiful. It creates something for your guest’s eyes to fall on. Adding interest, color, and a great piece to anchor the table visually. Always ensure the centerpiece is lower than the guests’ eye level, so as not to block your guest’s view of one another.

Candles: Candles are my second rule of thumb. Small votives, tea candles, or elegant tapers all transform the energy and create warmth.

Tablecloth/Fabric: Always use a tablecloth. Always. A tablecloth is the very first thing I think of when creating a look. No matter if formal or casual. Tablecloths are the foundation of a properly set table. You can find affordable ones on Amazon, in thrift shops, or even cut pieces of fabric from the fabric store. No one said they had to be perfect. I don’t mind an unfinished end. I even use pieces of fabric laid in the center for that tablecloth effect when I don’t have a color I like on hand. Fabric on a table is incredibly powerful as far as the aesthetic of a table goes.

Nice Additions

Place Cards– Either hand written or preprinted a nice place card adds a little extra formality to your table and creates a nice personalized touch. These printable and hand written ones have a simple versatile design.

Table Runners and Place Mats- These give the table a little more interest while also providing a nice backdrop for each guests place setting. Natural fabrics add a subtle touch while bold prints can create a little drama to the overall look of the table.

Charger Plates- Another nice touch and a great way to fancy up the table while also adding color. These are placed directly underneath each dinner plate right over the place mat should you use one. 

Candles- Whether long taper candles or mason jar ones, adding a candle or two creates a beautiful glow that can make for a lovely intimate dinner party setting.

Napkin Rings- The use of napkin rings is not necessary but it is a very nice way to further decorate the table. They can be simple or whimsical depending on your preference. 

Final Thoughts

Setting a table for a dinner party whether formal or casual is one of the simplest ways to set the mode for a dinner party. Even in todays world of quick and convenient lifestyles, people still do appreciate a set table and the formality of it can enhance your guests experience and make your dinner party memorable. Thankfully with little practice it is easy to get the hang of and acquiring items for a table setting isn’t too difficult. Stocking your home with thrift store finds and affordable flatware is a great way to go and will have you able to throw together a nice table setting at a moments notice.

I hope you have these tips helpful for your next dinner party.

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Beeswax Dinner Candles

Gold Leaf Chargers

Woven Chargers

Gold Flatware Set

White Square Dishes

Navy Blue Dinner Napkins

Gold Colored Dinner Napkins

White Table Cloth

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a vase of flowers for a dinner table

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