Laying the table for formal dining

Laying the table for formal dining


By Charles Taker


As I watch re-runs of Downtown Abbey, I often wish I lived in Edwardian times (above stairs of course). The elegantly attired and bejewelled Crawleys are often seen at table being served by able footmen. Edwardian dinner menus could range from eight to ten courses, each with its own special implement for eating. Throughout the series you can see how social conventions dramatically changed after the war years with dress and dining becoming much more simplified.

One hundred years later, dressing and dining on this scale is only reserved for the most special of occasions. Even the royals are known to eat from a tv tray when not at an engagement or worse yet, help themselves to cereal from a Tupperware at breakfast. As the late Queen once remarked to then Polish president, Lech Walesa, at a state dinner given in his honour, “You know, we don’t eat like this every day.”

Since we don’t eat like this every day, how many of us even know how or go to the bother of setting a formal table even for the most special of occasions? If you don’t have a below-stairs team to launder, iron, and starch the linen, polish the silver and do the hand washing after, it can be a daunting task.

Here are some of my tips for creating that special tablescape for formal dining:

  • Use a white tablecloth, but it is equally appropriate to show your table and place the china on a table mat.
  • Create a focus. Have a centrepiece in the middle of your table. Depending on the occasion and how you intend to serve the meal, go with flowers. In the photos, I have dressed the table for Thanksgiving which in the first course has the soup tureen at the centre. It will later give way to the turkey which will then become the focus. Flowers and candles are always de rigueur.
  • Place the tablemat or charger in the centre of each setting. It can be layered with the china in advance if food will be served à la russe (served by guests from platters brought to the table). If not, place the napkin in the centre of the charger and bring the plates as they are prepared in the kitchen.

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