The conventions of dining etiquette are refreshingly consistent when it's time to set your table, which helps reduce the anxiety you may feel when giving your first formal dinner. A reason exists for the placement of every fork and plate. Formal place settings are not just to trip up unsuspecting diners; instead, they help ensure that the bare logistics of sharing food don't detract from the conviviality of the occasion and that all diners can enjoy a meal equally.
Just the Basics
Placement rules are fairly simple for dinner parties at home or standard restaurants; both require a limited array of utensils and glassware. As a straightforward rule of thumb, place the utensils for each course inside those of the preceding course, with knives on the right-hand side of the plate and the forks on the left. Spoons and forks for soup or dessert go on the side of the hand that holds them. For a typical three-course meal, therefore, place a soup spoon on the right-hand side, with the largest knife to its left. On the left-hand side of the plate, place the small salad fork on the outside, with the largest fork inside and a dessert spoon or fork closest to the plate.
The majority of dining situations do not stray far from the standard three-course setting; above all, the idea is to not overwhelm the guest with an armory of utensils from the outset. Formal dining situations may require a whole battery of utensils, including fruit knife, teaspoon, seafood fork, and even specialized utensils for dealing with shellfish, snails or caviar. Rarely, though, do you place these at the table before the meal begins. Instead, bring them with the appropriate dish to avoid cluttering the table. Caviar, for example, cannot be served with a metallic spoon.
A small bread plate should be placed to the left of the larger plate; typically, a small butter knife with a rounded blade is provided. If you aren't using butter knives, place the smallest knife from the right-hand side selection. An alternative, less formal table setting, is to place the soup spoon and the dessert fork at the top of the plate rather than at the side. In this scenario, the knife and fork closest to the plate, which should be of similar length, are for the main course. Whatever the starting configuration, place all eating utensils in the lower right-hand quadrant -- imitating clock hands showing 4:20 -- of the plate or bowl when finished, fork tines facing up, knife blade facing inward.
It is increasingly common, particularly in a business setting, to encounter dining tables prepared for utensils other than the standard knife, fork and spoon, such as chopsticks at Asian restaurants. While it is perfectly acceptable to request a substitute Western setting, making an effort with the chopsticks is appreciated. Chopsticks are normally provided in a wrapper, rested on a small wooden or ceramic “hashi-oki” block, and diners must prise them apart. Since Oriental food is normally cut and prepared away from the table, no cutting is involved. When finished, place the used chopsticks at the side of the plate under the bowl; never stick them upright into rice or any other dish.
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