I have a scar right between my eyes, where I was cracked in the face with the expandable leaf that belonged to our dining room table. My mom was carrying the leaf, and three-year-old me was following her. She turned around to look for me and, bam, she found me.
(Three was also the year I was bitten and chased by a flock of ducks. Tough age.)
I've never minded the scar. And touching it somehow became a comforting thing when I was a kid. Actually, I'm not going to lie: I still touch it as a comforting thing. It's right where people pinch the bridge of their nose if they have a headache, so maybe the location is what does it. I'm touching it now. Okay, now I'm stopping.
Despite my injury, the dining room table did not become my mortal enemy, my nemesis to be forever scorned until the day I could seek vengeance. Instead it became my job to set the table. And eventually I took a lot of pleasure in looking up (at the library because it was the '80s) how to do it properly. This is because I was a giant nerd.
But all of that nerdery has since been wasted because there isn't a lot of pub trivia involving place settings, and also, I haven't owned a dining room table in 20 years. But I bought a dining room table last weekend, and now my knowledge of place settings can once again be unleashed.
Look on my works, ye dinner party guests, and despair.
Ahem. Ozymandias hyperbole aside, what I mean is, sure, most of it is obvious (plate in the middle and silverware on either side), but there's a bunch of finer detail. Join me in nerding out about this, please.
The Tablecloth Situation
Tablecloths serve several purposes:
- To muffle sound
- To dress up an ugly table
- To add formality (particularly if the tablecloths are fancy) to the meal
- To preserve the table finish that might otherwise be damaged by daily abuse
That said, it is not a breach of etiquette to forgo a tablecloth. If you have turned yours into a cape or whatever, that's cool. You still have options for dressing your table.
I recently saw a design spread with a faux fur tablecloth. It was awesome to look at, but it made me wonder about clean up. So have fun, but remember people are going to drop food on your tablecloth.
The Place Mat Question
Traditionally, you are going to use either a table cloth or a place mat, but not both at the same time. But who cares? If the place mat looks good to you, layer up some textures and sit there smug in the knowledge that your table is just extra decorative.
I like place mats on bare wood tables. Like a tablecloth, the place mat will protect the table's surface, but it won't obscure the whole tabletop. A place mat will also really nicely define each place setting.
The current trend in place mats (which is not a sentence I ever expected to write) is to use unexpected, textural materials like leather or stone. I'm kind of obsessed with these slate place mats, but they are $24 each and also I would drop one on my foot, 100 percent guaranteed. I will dream, but also I will just use fabric, thanks.
Place mats should be the right size and shape to either fit all the silverware (16 x 12 is a good casual size) you're using or be out of the way of it (like a 14-inch round).
The Table Runner Corollary
I hated table runners when I was a kid. Now they are actually my favorite part of dressing a table because I can make my own out of any fabric I want. This is why I now own a table runner made of log print.
Think of a table runner as a place mat for all the stuff you'd put in the middle of your table: candles, serving dishes, wine bottles, water pitchers, flowers. A table runner will protect the center of your table, but it will also be a stronger decorative element than place mats alone. And you can place a table runner over a tablecloth or on a bare table. There is no table runner police.
The first way to use a table runner is down the length of the table. In this case, the runner should be about a third of the width of your table. Pleasing proportions, yadda yadda. This will give you room to set your plates on the table without overlapping the runner. Your place mats might, though; it'll look better if they give a nice contrast in that case.
The second way is all exciting and stuff, if you get excited about this stuff, and it is to use multiple, shorter runners across the width of the table. This really extra defines the place settings, and also means you don't need to worry about the place mat question because the runner becomes the place mat. So efficient. So lovely.
The Place Setting Itself
There are a ton of guides to setting each place depending on whether your meal is formal or informal and how many forks you're using. The general guidance for silverware is that you work from the outside in, but all of that is predicated on the idea you'll have servers clearing the table between courses.
All of that is predicated on the idea that you'll have multiple courses in the first place. If you are that fancy, you probably know all of this already.
I like to use this old blog post from Saks when I need a reference for laying out the plates and whatnot. You'll note that they have included pictures of chargers, which are large decorative plates that go under your actual food plate. I'm not big into chargers, but they can definitely make a table look fancy as heck and you can find plastic ones with glitter and stuff on them for cheap around the various holidays. That might make for a fun informal place setting.
Just don't set anything that people won't use. There is no reason to plonk a big ol' soup spoon on the table if you aren't eating soup. You'll just wind up with more dishes to do, and no one needs that.
Why I Care, and Maybe You Should, Too
Setting the table is pretty. That's more than enough reason for me and for a lot of other people. It also signals, when you have people over, that you value the gift of their presence enough to make the environment welcoming.
Mostly though, setting the table in your own style can help create an atmosphere in which people want to linger and socialize instead of rushing through a meal. It's also a chance to use things you love, instead of those things never seeing the light of day.
Given the opportunity, I like to set the table just for myself. It's a good feeling, a feeling of valuing mealtime, regardless of the actual menu.
Also, it's an excuse to sew cloth napkins.
The new table is still kind of awkwardly placed in my living room. Chairs are still being situated (and reupholstered) and I need (read: want) a bench. And I'll be careful once we start using the table leaves to expand it because one scar is plenty, thanks. But having it there settles something, cements that, yes, our home is open to others and we can provide food and a comfortable place for them. (And maybe a bar cart, too.)