As a much as I love hitting the flea market for good china, silverware and glass, I love to use it even more! These days, most of us tend to be pretty casual at mealtimes, but every now and then, when I’m having friends or clients over to the apartment for dinner, I’ll pull out all the stops and do a really formal setting. Having been a caterer back in the day, I’m pretty well-versed in how it goes. I know it can seem a little daunting at first—um, Eddie, which way did you say the blades should face?—but a good rule of thumb is to think about the order of courses and work from the outside in. To get things started, here are five table settings that, for the most part, follow the rules. Take it from me: learn the basics first and then get creative by mixing it up.


British Formal —  If you have the luxury of a big table, use it! Here, the dessert fork and spoon are laid inside the dinner knife and fork. Soup course first, so its spoon goes all the way to the right. For the glasses, from right to left, the order goes white wine, red wine, water. The butter plate’s on the left with a napkin simply folded.


English Afternoon Tea — Whenever I have friends in town and want to do something that’s so New York City chic, I’ll take them to afternoon tea at Bergdorf’s. Here, the butter plate sits in the center with the bread knife, dessert spoon and pastry fork to the right. The teacup and saucer are above the flatware, teaspoon behind, handle to the right. Pass the scones, please!


American Formal — This one’s for a three-course meal that starts with a fish appetizer, so its fork and knife are on the outside. Dinner utensils go in the middle; dessert on the inside. You don’t have to use both for dessert, but sometimes, when that caramel sauce is extra good, you just want to scoop it up!


French Formal — The French do it a different way. First, turn ’em over! Utensils face down. No butter plates or knives here, as bread is laid right on the table. What, no butter? I know…I’d be sad too. I went to culinary school in the French tradition—think Julia Child—so when it comes down to it, butter is my friend. 


International Informal — This setting probably looks the most familiar. Soup spoon to the right, knife next to that, dinner fork on the left. Dessert fork and spoon are above the plate. To get the direction right, imagine the dinner fork moving up and to the right.

So with all of these rules, you might ask, where does the fun come in? Aren’t rules made to be broken? Or at least a little bent? And my answer is Yes! There are so many ways to get creative with table settings—how you fold the napkin, where you place it, oval plates instead of round, mason jars as glasses at a barbecue. The list is as long as your own imagination. Just make sure you know the basics—where the glasses go, forks are on the left, spoons and knives on the right, blades facing in. And if you’d like, feel free to leave me a comment with how you bend the rules at your table settings. I’d love to hear about it.