Formal Table Setting Guide

Formal Table Setting Guide

It’s Thanksgiving and across the country we’ll all be sitting down with friends and family to enjoy some fine family cooking! Inline with this festive spirit we pulled together this guide, featuring the etiquette experts of The Emily Post Institute, on how to appropriately create a dinner table setting for multi-course formal dinners. formal table setting Basic table setting rules:
  • Knife blades should always face cutting edge toward the plate.
  • Bread and butter plate goes on the left and drinkware on the right.
  • Napkins should be placed on the left of the fork or on the plate. In a formal table setting they are usually placed in a decorative manner on the charger plate.  
  • Everything is placed in threes or less with the exception of adding an oyster fork to the setting. If there are more than three courses the utensils will be brought out with their corresponding plate or bowl.
  • Dessert utensils are placed on the table just before dessert is served.

How to set a formal dining table

A formal table setting is used for meals with multiple courses; typically more than three. If you are serving three or more courses you’ll likely have a vendor handling all these details for you, but you’ll still want to sit down to review and approve the place setting and design.

Formal dining table setting guide; featuring The Emily Post Institute

formal table setting


  • "(a) Service Plate: This large plate, also called a charger, serves as an underplate for the plate holding the first course, which will be brought to the table. When the first course is cleared, the service plate remains in place for any other courses, such as a soup course, until the plate holding the entrée is served, at which point the two plates are exchanged. The charger may serve as the underplate for several courses which precede the entrée.
  • (b) Butter Plate: The small butter plate is placed above the forks at the left of the place setting."


  • "(c) Dinner Fork: The largest of the forks, also called the place fork, is placed on the left of the plate. Other smaller forks for other courses are arranged to the left or right of the dinner fork, according to when they will be used.
  • (d) Fish Fork: If there is a fish course, this small fork is placed to the left of the dinner fork because it is the first fork used.
  • (e) Salad Fork: If the salad is served after the entrée, the small salad fork is placed to the right of the dinner fork, next to the plate. If the salad is to be served first, and fish second, then the forks would be arranged (left to right): salad fork, fish fork, dinner fork."


  • "(f) Dinner Knife: The large dinner knife is placed to the right of the dinner plate.
  • (g) Fish Knife: The specially shaped fish knife goes to the right of the dinner knife.
  • (h) Salad Knife (Note: there is no salad knife in the illustration): If used, according to the above menu, it would be placed to the left of the dinner knife, next to the dinner plate. If the salad is to be served first, and fish second, then the knives would be arranged (left to right): dinner knife, fish knife, salad knife."

Other utensils

  • "(i) Soup Spoon or Fruit Spoon: If soup or fruit is served as a first course, then the accompanying spoon goes to the right of the knives.
  • (j) Oyster Fork: If shellfish are to be served, the oyster fork goes to the right of the spoons. Note: It is the only fork ever placed on the right of the plate.
  • (k) Butter Knife: The small spreader is placed diagonally on top of the butter plate, handle on the right and blade down."

Drinkware and Napkins

  • "(l) Glasses: These are placed on the right, above the knives and spoons. They can number up to five and are placed in the order they will be used. When there are more than three glasses, they can be arranged with smaller glasses in front. The water goblet (la) is placed directly above the knives. Just to the right are placed a red (lc) or white (ld) wine glass. A sherry glass or champagne flute (le), to accompany a first course or for an opening toast, go to the right of the wine glasses. Glasses used for a particular course are removed at the end of the course.
  • (m) Napkin: The napkin is placed on top of the charger (if one is used) or in the space for the plate. It can also go to the left of the forks, or under the forks if space is tight."