How to Set a Formal Dinner Table the Southern Way
It’s a tradition we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
It seems like Americans are becoming more casual with each generation that comes of age. We’ve found formal living and dining rooms to be unnecessary, wearing jeans at the office has become the norm, and engaged couples are opting to not include formal china on their wedding registry. None of these things are inherently bad (change can be good!), but here in the South, we tend to hold on to formalities and traditions a bit harder than the rest of the country. And the art of setting a formal dinner table is no exception.
Southerners love to find an excuse to host a formal dinner party—whether it’s a holiday gathering, a birthday party, or an engagement celebration. The food is sure to shine, but the table itself sets the bar for what is sure to be a fun and special evening. Scroll down for the key elements of setting a formal dinner table the Southern way.
Your table should be covered to some degree to protect it from inevitable food and drink spills and hot plates and serving dishes that could damage the wood. Most traditional is an ironed white linen tablecloth that covers the full table, but you could also use a table runner or individual placemats at each setting to vary to look of your table or show off a particularly beautiful table if you prefer.
White linen is also the most traditional material for napkins on formal tables. Add a special Southern touch by getting yours monogrammed, then place them either on top of the plates or to the left of or under the forks at each setting.
Depending on the number of courses you’re serving, you’ll need different plates and bowls, but a traditionally set table (before dinner service begins) will have a charger (also known as a service plate), dinner plate, bread plate, and either a salad plate or soup bowl. Plates will be stacked in that order, except for the bread plate, which should be placed at the top-left corner of each place setting.
We Southerners like to still break out the fancy china for special occasion dinners, but it’s also more than appropriate to mix up your place settings with everyday dishes and unique antique pieces that coordinate with your existing collection.
There’s nothing quite as Southern as family heirloom silver, and hosting a formal dinner party is the perfect time to use it. Again, the number and types of courses will dictate what silverware your table needs, but here’s the basic lineup, starting on the left side of the plates: salad fork, dinner fork, then the plates; then on the right side: dinner knife, tea spoon, soup spoon. The dessert fork and spoon sit horizontally above the plates.
WATCH: Our Favorite Floral China Patterns
Your glassware is another element where you can mix and match colors and materials, but you’ll want to have a water glass (don’t forget to offer your guests tea, though!), red wine glass, and white wine glass.
The Details and Decorations
Once you’ve got the essential pieces for each place setting, it’s time to add those pretty elements that make your table one to remember. When picking a color palette, you can let your china pattern guide you or find inspiration in the season or occasion for the dinner you’re hosting.
Place cards add a personal touch that make guests feel special, whether they’re new friends or close family members. It also eliminates the awkward hesitation that comes with groups trying to decide where everyone should sit when they head to the dining room. They’ll look to you for guidance anyway, so why not think through the best seating arrangement beforehand and take out the guesswork. Place cards are also a great way to vary your color palette for each dinner, since they’ll have to be created every time. A couple creative ideas? Write names in gold marker on magnolia leaves, or tie a gift tag around each napkin or to a sprig of greenery.
For centerpieces, a low arrangement of flowers (or two) is a classic choice you can’t go wrong with. Mixing it up with seasonal elements (a cornucopia at Thanksgiving, greenery and candles at Christmas) is also more than appropriate.