Howard Michael Gowen Discusses How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

Dec 16, 2021 3:49 AM ET

Want to throw a formal dinner party, but you’re not sure which fork goes where? Not a problem, says Howard Michael Gowen! Over the past few decades, we’ve lost the art of setting the formal dining table. Common convention holds that no matter where the bread plate is placed, the rolls will taste the same. And while this is certainly true, setting a formal dinner table can show your guests how much care and attention you’re putting into hosting.

It’s a lovely touch that can add a little extra magic to your next celebration or dinner party. Not sure where to start? Relax. We have some easy instructions to help make sure your table is properly and attractively set.


Howard Michael Gowen Discusses How to Set a Formal Dinner Table


Think Through Your Menu

Setting a formal table becomes much easier when you realize it’s all based on logic, says Howard Michael Gowen. For instance, silverware is placed on the table in the order it will be used, starting outwards and working in as the meal progresses. And stemware is placed above and to the right of the dinner plate so people don’t have to reach across their plates to pick up their drinks. There’s no need to clutter your place settings with unnecessary utensils. If you’re not having oysters, leave out the oyster forks. If you’re not serving bread, you don’t need bread plates. Think through the menu you’ve planned, and set your dining table based on your guests’ needs.


Properly Place Your Napkins, Says Howard Michael Gowen

One of the first mistakes people make when setting a formal table is putting the napkin under the silverware, says Howard Michael Gowen. This is a mistake because it creates a lot of unnecessary noise when people sit down. Generally speaking, the first thing people do when they sit at the table is put their napkins in their lap. If your silverware is on top of the napkin, it causes loud jangling and sometimes even a dropped fork or two. Instead, fold your napkins neatly on the plate or use napkin rings and place them to the side.


Clear the Table Between Courses

One way to make the table more attractive and easier to use for your guests is to clear it between courses. Remove empty serving plates and used silverware that will not be needed again at the table. This creates space for the next course, indicates a progression in the meal visually, and also helps guests discern which cutlery they should be using next.


It’s not difficult to set a formal dinner table, says Howard Michael Gowen. And remember, the most important thing is that you and your guests have a great time. If you forget a dessert fork or they use the wrong utensils, just let it go. Discretion is always the better part of valor–and formal dining tables.

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