Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Formal Table Settings
The art and gift of setting an unforgettable table for your family and friends

Nothing sets the stage for a truly memorable dinner party or family gathering like a well-appointed table. A well presented meal and elegant table go hand in hand. It speaks volumes about the intent of the host or hostess, in addition to letting those who have been invited know that this is no ordinary occasion. It says to them, “these are special times and so are you.” The gleam of silver, elegant glass, fine porcelain, china, crystal, chandeliers and the glow of candle light as it illuminates a dining space from either simple candlesticks or opulent epergnes is nothing short of magical.

The formal etiquette we use today in setting a formal table was conceived centuries ago. Like so many other traditions we adhere to, table etiquette was perfected and practiced almost as an art form during the Victorian era. Setting a formal table not only adds drama to any formal dining or seating arrangement, it is also intensely practical. With a few simple guidelines and some understanding of the various “rules of etiquette” pertaining to correct placement, anyone can create a formal table that is sure to delight your family and friends during the holiday season and beyond. Children should have the opportunity and experience the fun of “dressing for dinner.” Adults and children alike are equally enchanted by the gleam of silver that glistens in the soft candlelight, the velvety feel of truly fine glass and the beauty of a well designed centerpiece. The sights, smells and memories of times like these create magic memories that are never forgotten. All of these elements combined with a delicious meal are in the words of Martha Stewart, “a very good thing.”

Every formal table should have a centerpiece. Your centerpiece can be anything you like, but should be compatible with the scale of your table.  A smaller space and table requires a smaller arrangement just as a larger, grander space requires a larger and more involved arrangement. Virtually anything that gives an elegant look to your table and is in keeping with the theme of your dinner or celebration will do just fine. There are no rules to follow except that the arrangement should reflect your personal sense of style and act as a unifying element on your table. A ring of fresh flowers and greenery along with candles that complement the arrangement is lovely and allows those seated at the table an unobstructed view of each other.

Betty Gregory of Tappahannock, who is known for her exquisite and elegant taste, chose a gilded theme for her formal table setting. Her two daughters, Blair and Paige, along with their families, often gather together for family celebrations and holiday dinners at just such a table. Betty’s centerpiece is full of rich color and a variety of textures that provides the perfect counter point to the gilded opulence of her table.

Including your children, grand-children, nieces or nephews in helping you collect your greenery and other items for your arrangement is something that many children enthusiastically enjoy doing. It means a lot to our children to include them in the preparation of table arrangements and the setting of certain elements of a more formal table. This is particularly true if it is something that interests them.

Frances Hundley Ellis’ grand-daughters, Laura Peyton Ellis and Elizabeth Baylor Ellis, were so excited when Frances set her table for The House & Home Magazine in a traditional tidewater/plantation style. The girls were so excited because they were going to have dinner that evening with their grandparents at the very table they had helped to set. These girls were adorable as they eagerly anticipated the special time they were going to have together at the table that they had helped to arrange.

When setting your table it is important to keep in mind your surrounding spaces. The table should not overwhelm your space but be compatible with it. If you have a fireplace nearby, set the stage by lighting a fire or gas logs. Playing some background music also goes a long way toward creating a relaxing and festive environment. You need not have a formal dining room to transform your usual surroundings into a romantic or festive environment. Setting a cozy fireside table for 2, 3 or 4 is ideal if you are planning a particularly intimate meal with close friends or that “special someone.”

“Must Haves” for a well 
appointed formal table

A heavily starched white damask table cloth is the traditional and most formal foundation for setting a table. If you have a table that is particularly beautiful, such as a mahogany, walnut or a table embellished with wood inlay, you may instead opt for the use of heavily starched lace, linen or damask placemats. These are commonly used for especially fine tables that you do not want to cover up. The use of matching or coordinating damask napkins will present a lovely and equally formal table. These are the most formal linens for dressing a truly elegant table.

Andy Garrett and her husband “Skipper” always look forward to holiday meals and special celebrations with their children Rick and “Weezie” and their families. It is a tradition in the Garrett household to “dress for dinner.” During these special times, Andy’s sense of impeccable taste, her bold style and love for all things oriental sets a perfect backdrop for a stunning and opulent formal table. The floral arrangement that sits at the center of her table (above) melds together the elements of her formal table setting along with the surrounding dining room and adjacent spaces.
Quick Tip: Iron your tablecloth on top of a blanket placed on a table or on the floor. This will make it much easier to iron and you will only have to iron it once!

Glassware and stemware should be the nicest glass that you have, if you choose to place them at the table. Fine glass has the feel of velvet when you caress it. If you are looking to collect or purchase fine glass, this is something to keep in mind. Wine glasses at the table are optional in a formal table setting. A water glass or goblet should always be set just above the knife on the right hand side of the plate and filled 2/3 full. Red wine and white wine glasses are very different in shape and size. A red wine glass has a longer stem and has a larger and more rounded shape. This is so that you can take in the “bouquet” of the wine along with the taste of it. White wine glasses are smaller and more cylindrical in shape. If you choose to place them on the table, they should be placed to the right of the water glass.
Champagne flutes should be available if you plan to serve champagne. A champagne flute is long and cylindrical so that the champagne will remain effervescent for as long as possible.

Fine porcelain or china should be used to set your table. Stoneware and casual dishes are not suitable for a formal table setting. However you may use your everyday china or even coordinating china patterns as long as each place setting matches.

Sterling silver or silver plate should be used often and makes any table setting extra special. With regular use it takes on a patina and depth that only adds to its beauty. Of course in addition to a fabulous table setting our manners could use a little dusting off and polishing up, as we rescue them from the recesses of forgotten practices. If you do not have enough of the same pattern to set your entire table do not let that stop you from setting a beautiful table. Use whatever you have.

It is best to utilize a sideboard or buffet as a place to display your additional silver and any service items that will accompany your meal. If you do not have a sideboard a console table or linen dresser close by will suffice. Serving dishes and other items used for serving your guests should not be placed on a formal table, but always on the side, away from the table.

Place cards, if you choose to use them, can be placed at each setting to let your guests know the order of the seating arrangements.  Individual salt and pepper shakers or saltcellars for each setting are preferred but not required. If you do not have enough of these, be sure that there is at least one set at each end of the table.

Finally and most importantly a formal dinner party should never be so stiff and structured that guests cannot relax. A formal dinner and table that is well presented should create a gracious, elegant and celebratory environment for the most special of occasions or family gatherings. Good manners and fine dining are never out of style or out dated.

So dust off your old china, polish up the silver and celebrate your life, your family, your friends and anything else you can think of. Take nothing for granted. Live exuberantly in the present! Set a formal table and have an opulent dinner celebration that will be remembered for years to come… The holidays are here and provide the perfect excuse for living well! May you have a Merry Christmas, a wonderfully set table and a healthy, happy new year!

Special thanks to Blandfield Plantation, plus Andy Garrett, Betty Gregory, Frances Ellis, Prue Davis and Kerry Garrett, for your time, talents 
and help with these wonderful table settings

Written by Karin Andrews, Contributing Writer