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Around the world sit down meals are becoming more fashionable now. Even if you do not entertain at home, you may be confronted with a properly laid table. Therefore the basic understanding of table settings, usage of appropriate tableware items and table etiquette has assumed greater importance. These may be obvious to many but you may be amazed at the number who are still unfamiliar with these simple rules and create confusion for others and embarrassment for themselves. The simple rule to follow is all solid food is on your left and all liquids on your right – which means that your bread & butter plate is on your left and your water & wine glasses on your right.

The basic place setting would have the following:

  • A dinner plate in the centre
  • A bread and butter plate [side plate] placed on the top left hand side of the dinner plate or on the left of the dinner plate with the butter knife placed on the side plate parallel to the table edge.
  • A salad plate and/or a soup bowl can be placed on top of the dinner plate
  • A dinner fork placed on the direct left of the dinner plate
  • A knife, and may be a spoon, placed on the direct right of the dinner plate
  • Napkin folded and placed on the left of the fork
  • A drinking glass placed at the top right hand corner directly above the spoon


  1. Napkin
  2. Fish Fork
  3. Main Course Fork
  4. Salad Fork
  5. Soup Bowl & Plate
  6. Dinner Plate
  7. Dinner knife
  8. Fish Knife
  9. Soup Spoon
  10. Bread and Butter Plate
  11. Butter Knife
  12. Dessert Silverware
  13. Water Glass
  14. Red Wine Glass
  15. White Wine Glass

For more elegant dinners and for multi-course meals additional forks such as salad forks and soup spoons etc can be appropriately placed. If wine is being served appropriate wine glasses should be placed diagonal to the place setting.

The settings of flatware and stemware have rules.  The bread and butter plate if any, should be to the left of the dinner plate after the flatware or on the upper left direction of the dinner plate, and all glasses and stemware should be at the upper right of the dinner plate.  The rule for flatware is knives and spoons on the right of the dinner plate and forks on the left.  This is easy to remember because fork is a four letter word and so is Left.  Knife and spoon are five letter words and so is Right.  If the meal consists of several courses, the flatware is placed according to the sequence, so that flatware items furthest from the centre plate are first to be used and so on. The flatware items too come in various shapes and sizes based on what the intended use is.  For e.g. forks can be many such as a salad fork, dinner fork, fish fork, dessert fork etc.  In placing the knife remember that the cutting edge should face the dinner plate. (If not it means that you wish your neighbour some harm!) The points of the knives were rounded off in France in 1669 to prevent dinner time bloodshed!

The first rule in a sit down arrangement is that there should not be an empty space before the guest at a table, and therefore, the recommend method is to place a “charger plate” on the table at each place setting.  A charger plate is not commonly used in Sri Lanka except at very formal dinners.  The purpose of a charger plate, which is sometimes called a service plate, is used as a base plate, on which the appetizer course plate or the soup bowl is placed.  It is usually removed after the first or second course.  It is removed after the soup, because soup may spill on the base plate, and therefore removed with the soup plate.  If the first course is a salad and then the soup, the charger plate is removed after the soup.  Once the charger plate is removed it is immediately replaced with the plate on which next course is served, because of the rule is that the guest must not stare at an empty space.   The charger plate is also known by other names such as cover plate and place plate and is larger than the dinner plate.

Arranging the plates and flatware has a standard placement.  If you are not using a service or [charger] plate, the rim of the dinner plate must be placed 1” from the edge of the table.  But if you are using a charger plate, its rim edge should be flat with the edge of the table. The lower ends of the flatware must be aligned and should be 1” from the edge of the table.

There are many varying opinions of using candles and flower arrangements. They certainly adorn the table but care must be taken not to overdo it or have very high flower arrangements that obstruct conversation with those sitting opposite you.

There is plenty of scope for interesting variations with napkins made into shapes or with matching napkin rings. So the next time you entertain make a good impression with a good table setting. Don’t let the caterer decide. Show your style and taste.


A seating plan begins with the honored guests, but at times deciding who to honour is a dilemma.

  1. At a family gathering, the oldest person is accorded the seat of honour. When both parents and in-laws are seated at the same table, the hostess’s mother sits to the right of the host, and his mother sits to his left. The host’s father sits to the right of the hostess and her father sits to her left.
  2. A guest entertained in one’s home for the first time is accorded a seat of honour, as are guests from a foreign country.
  3. At a party of old friends, the husband of one couple sits to the hostess’s right, and the wife of another couple to the right of the host. The respective spouses sit in the middle of the table on opposite sides of the honorees.
  4. When hosting two guests and the table accommodates four, don’t place one guest on each side of you. To do so you will be moving your head back and forth as if you were at a tennis match. Place the senior person on your right and the junior person across from you, leaving the place on your left empty.
  5. When there are only two of you, don’t sit across from each other at a square or round table; it is too confrontational. Seat your guest to your right.

A person of extreme rank, such as the president of a country or a royal personage, is seated at the head of the table and the hostess is seated to his left, an arrangement that honors the dignitary and acknowledges his prestige by seating him to the right of the hostess. The next highest ranking male and female are seated to the right of the dignitary, and so on around the table.


  1. Large Napkins are unfolded on the lap, not above the table, and folded in half and placed on the lap with the fold facing your body.
  2. A small Tea Napkin may be opened completely.
  3. A  Napkin should be placed on your lap soon after you sit down at the table.
  4. The Napkin should be used to gently blot your lips and sides of the mouth, if necessary, but should not be used to wipe the mouth crudely.
  5. Do not use the Napkin as your handkerchief.
  6. If you leave the table temporarily, place the Napkin on the arm of the Chair, and if there isn’t an arm then on the seat of the chair.  Do not place the Napkin on the table until you have finished.
  7. At some restaurants waiters would pick up your napkin left on the chair, fold it and place it on the table. This is not necessary, because it causes confusion. The napkin should not go back on the table until you have finished.
  8. Place your Napkin back on your lap after you resume your seat.
  9. At the end of the meal or tea, it is usually the host who will first pick up the Napkin and place on the table to indicate the conclusion of the meal or tea.
  10. At the end of the meal or tea, do not fold the Napkin but pick it up from the Centre and place it loosely on the left hand side of the plate. Please note that you should not fold the napkin.


Many people ignore the simple rules of using cutlery.  The following rules will help you to use the cutlery in a more accepted manner.

  • In a formal meal the fork is held in the left hand, tines down, and the knife in the right hand.  In both cases the index fingers reach out to the top of the item.
  • It is permitted that after the food is cut with the knife with the help of the fork, the knife can be placed on the rim of the plate with the fork transferred to the right, and food picked up to eat with tines turned upwards.  This is permitted at informal meals but frowned upon by certain etiquette experts when used in this manner at formal meals.
  • At very informal meals, it is permitted to use only the fork, with the fork held like a pencil and with the tines upwards.
  • In using a soup spoon, in order to pick up the last spoonful or two of the soup, the bowl could be tipped away from you and the spoon moved in a direction away from you.
  • At the end of a meal to indicate that you have finished, place both the fork and knife or fork and spoon parallel in a diagonal position.  Make sure that the handles of the utensils rest securely on the rim of the plate, and that tips of the cutlery lay towards the middle of the plate, so that when a waiter picks up the plates to clear, the utensils are secure, and will not fall off.  The spoon and fork should be in an upward position and the knife edge pointing towards the fork.
  • When a soup bowl is presented on an under-plate, the soup spoon, when finished, is laid on the under-plate, unless the under-plate is too small to balance the spoon in which case the soup spoon is laid in the bowl itself.


Many people do not know which glass should be used with what drink. Wine experts agree that each type of wine needs a particular type of glass to bring out the distinctive bouquet. Using a narrow glass for a rich Burgundy, for example, won’t allow enough room to swirl it around in, and it’s the swirl that brings out its bouquet. The glass also needs to taper properly towards the top so that it captures the bouquet yet allows for sipping. In general, the stem of a glass should be long enough to keep hands from touching the bowl, which can affect the wine’s temperature, and therefor its bouquet.

  • Brandy: brandy snifter. Roll the snifter between both hands and then cup it in one hand – warming the glass brings out the bouquet in brandy.
  • White wine: slightly smaller glass with wider bowl to capture the bouquet. Hold the glass by the stem to preserve its chill.
  • Red wine: the bigger of the wine glasses. Hold the glass at the bottom of the bowl where it meets the stem.
  • Water: full body glass and holds approximately 6 ounces when filled three-quarters full. Hold the glass by the stem to preserve its chill.
  • Champagne: a narrow fluted glass, which reduces the wine’s surface area and keep the bubbles from dissipating.


Although we do not recommend buffet dinners for formal occasions, we provide here some tips if you do organise an informal buffet dinner.  First of all some interesting information on the origin of the buffet.  Benjamin Franklyn as ambassador to France was required to entertain members of the French Court and constrained with not having appropriate furniture for such a large number of invitees, laid a board on a trestle against the wall and set up a self service table.  Buffet means side board in French, and that’s how Europe got it’s first buffet service in the 18th century.

Here are some useful tips when organising a buffet at home:

  • Allow enough room beside each dish if guests wish to place the plate on the table to serve themselves food that requires two utensils. For eg.  Leafy salads
  • Arrange food in groups of related temperatures such as, hot dishes together, cold meats and cold salads together and so on.
  • Set sauces, gravies and other condiments adjacent to the dishes they accompany.
  • Arrange the flow in a logical order, and preferable from left to right.
  • Stack dinner plates in a pile of eight and not more.
  • Flatware [cutlery] is placed at the end of the flow followed by napkins.  Alternatively the cutlery wrapped around napkins can be placed at the end.
  • Beverages and water should be placed on a side table.  Avoid a heavy water jug as it may be difficult for a guest to hold a plate in one hand and use the other hand to pour water from a heavy jug.
  • Dessert and coffee with the required utensils should be kept on a separate side table.
  • Prepare a separate table for the used plates.
  • In a very informal buffet for young guests or for a large group where they would sit on available chairs, stair case steps, floor or eat standing, prepare food that can be eaten only with a fork.
  • If you need to have a combined buffet and sit down, for a three course meal perhaps, with a starter or soup, main meal, followed by dessert, you could have the starter/soup placed on the table before the guests take their seats, then invite them to serve the main course themselves buffet style, and follow up with a sit down dessert which is served to the table.


Do’s and don’ts at tea parties and Board Rooms:

  1. Do not stir your tea by letting the spoon strike the side of the cup. The correct way is to use the spoon in a back and forth motion in the centre of the cup.
  2. After stirring, do not let the spoon remain in the cup, remove it gently and place it on the saucer behind the cup (without a clanging sound) with the handle pointing in the same direction as the handle of the cup.
  3. If you see that you have some un-dissolved milk or creamer, use the spoon again, but do not lift up the cup and swirl the liquid.
  4. If you are standing, hold the saucer in the palm of your hand, but mostly on the four fingers with the thumb on the rim. Holding from the rim using four fingers below and the thumb on top is not correct. Picking up only the cup and leaving the saucer on the table is poor etiquette.
  5. Hold the cup from the handle with the index finger through the handle, the thumb on top of the handle and the second finger below the handle with the top surface of the this finger pressing against the handle. The older method of holding the handle with the thumb and two fingers with the small finger pointing up is no longer used. Do not ignore the handle and hold the sides of the cup with one or both hands.
  6. If you are seated you may lift the cup from the table without the saucer but not if the edge of the table is more than twelve inches from your body.
  7. Many people using a tea bag squeeze out the tea infusion from the bag by placing the tea bag on the spoon and wrapping the string around tight, while some will keep pulling on the string in an up and down motion to ensure that the tea is properly released to the water. Both are considered incorrect. Simply allow enough time for the tea to be released and then gently lift out the tea bag, place on the spoon and place the tea bag in another receptacle, but not on the saucer. The host or restaurant should provide a separate receptacle where tea bags, their coverings etc could be placed. Having the used tea bag, paper coverings etc on the saucer makes it very messy.
Page last updated on February 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm