top of page

Adventures in
Table Setting and Table Etiquette with Annie Cater


Table setting has come a long way from what it was for our earliest ancestors. As a matter of fact, utensils were practically nonexistent for them, so no one had to worry about anything as civilized as place settings. Any food that wasn’t available in the communal bowl could be grabbed from where it sat directly on the table. If these men and women could see how we set our tables today, they may well scratch their heads. As a matter of fact, some of us may, too, as table setting, to say the very least, can sometimes be a little confusing.

The way we set a table today has been handed down to us from European nobility. Let’s shed a little light on it, shall we? According to Emily Post, there are three styles we can use. They are: basic, informal, and formal. This article will take the middle ground and focus on the informal style, as it contains everything we need to host an informal dinner party.

An informal place setting consists of a salad fork, a dinner fork, a charger, a dinner plate, a salad plate, a dinner knife, a soup spoon, a bread plate, a butter spreader, a dessert fork, a dessert spoon, a wine glass, a water goblet, a cup and saucer, a coffee spoon, and a napkin. All the flatware or silverware is placed on the table at once, including the dessert fork and spoon, and is waiting for the diner once they sit down. 


To compose the setting, just follow this simple guide:

Place both forks to the left of the dinner plate. The salad fork goes on the outside, because it isto be used first, and the dinner fork goes on the inside next to the plate.

Dinner Knife
Place the dinner knife to the right, directly next to and one inch away from, the dinner plate. Always be certain to face the blade toward the plate. When a steak knife is required, substitute it for the dinner knife.

Soup Spoon
Place the soup spoon to the right of the dinner knife. 

Dessert Spoon and Fork
Lay the dessert spoon horizontally above the charger with the handle facing to the right. Lay the dessert fork below the dessert spoon with the handle facing to the left.

Place the charger in the middle of the place setting.

Dinner Plate
Place the dinner plate on the table only when the main course is being served, not before. It should be in the center of the charger and about one inch from the table’s edge.

Salad Plate
Place the salad plate on top of the charger.

Bread Plate and Butter Spreader
Place the bread plate just above the forks, above and to the left of the dinner plate. Lay the butter spreader on the bread plate. 

Water Goblet
Place the water goblet about one inch above the tip of the dinner knife. 


Wine & Champagne Glasses

Place the red wine glass to the right of the water oblet. Then the white wine glass will be placed to the right of the red wine glass, followed by the champagne glass to the right of the white wine glass.

Cup and Saucer
Place the cup and saucer to the right of the place setting and include a coffee spoon to the right of the saucer. Place the trio one inch beyond the outermost piece of flatware or silverware. 


Place the napkin to the left of the last fork. 


Helpful Hint:

Follow the placement of the stem on the letters “b” and “d” and remember “b” is for bread and butter – the bread and butter plate goes on the left side of the dinner plate and “d” is for drinks – glasses go on the right side.

That’s it—everything you need to know to conjure a table setting in one easy guide.

To navigate our way through proper table etiquette, CKW Luxe had the pleasure of taking a private lesson with Houston’s own Annie Cater, whom Oprah Winfrey has named the Queen of Etiquette. Ms. Cater is a nationally recognized and respected authority on etiquette in both business and personal arenas. For over 40 years, she has helped men, women, and young children become more self-assured, organized, and better mannered. As a former lifestyle consultant for Tiffany & Co. and a columnist for “My Table” magazine, Ms. Cater is a seasoned professional with an answer to most questions regarding manners in a social setting.

Our exclusive session on basic etiquette with Ms. Cater took place in the dining parlor of her home in the Forum at Memorial Woods, where she lives happily. For our sitting, a three-course meal was served: soup, entree, and dessert. Ms. Cater explained that once you are seated, you begin by unfolding your napkin and placing it directly
on your lap. To prevent it from slipping to the floor, make a small fold three times from the top. If you need to leave your seat, fold your napkin from the bottom up, creating a long rectangle, then fold it once more in half, and place it on the seat or arm of your chair.

Once the first course arrives, whether it is soup or salad, use your outer utensils first. As another course comes, you will work inward to the next set of utensils. If your first course is soup, be sure to spoon it away from yourself. Ms. Cater enlightened us with a short rhyme she teaches children to remember the proper movement of the soup spoon: “As long as the ships go out to sea, I will eat my soup away from me.”

Once finished with your soup or salad, lay your soup spoon or salad fork, facing up, on the side of the plate holding the bowl or salad plate.

To butter a roll, which is served on the bread plate to the upper left of the place setting, Ms. Cater recommends you break it into halves and then into quarters. Once this has been done, simply use the butter knife/spreader to butter the piece you wish to eat. If butter is not included on the plate, the person closest to the butter will pass it to the guest who needs it. This is also true for the salt and pepper.

When educating us about beverages, Ms. Cater explained that the rule is to use your glasses from the bottom up: water goblet, red wine glass (wider circumference for wine to breathe), white wine glass, and champagne flute. In general, the proper grip is to hold the stem of the glass between your thumb and first two fingers allowing for stability. In particular for a wine and champagne glass, don’t touch the bowl with your fingers. Doing so can transfer heat to your drink. As a reminder, never turn a glass or cup upside down. If you don’t wish to have a certain beverage, just place your hand over the top of the glass and the server will know not to pour you any.

As you continue to work your way in, you will use the dinner fork and knife for the entree. When cutting a piece of meat, Ms. Cater explained that you must hold the fork with the tines down and your index finger on the spine of the fork. In the opposite hand, securely grip the handle of the knife and keep your index finger on the upper
part. In a smooth motion, slice one piece of meat and place your knife at the top of your plate with the blade facing you. Then switch your fork to your dominant hand to eat. If you want to rest a moment, but are not done eating, cross your fork over your knife to resemble the shape of an “X” near the bottom of your plate.

For the dessert course, use the dessert utensils that have been placed at the top of the place setting. There may be both a dessert spoon and fork or one or the other. When you’ve finished, Ms. Cater recommends you place your flatware face up on the side of your plate. Never put a used utensil back on the table. It will soil the
table covering. Once the host has decided that the meal is over, they will fold their napkin and place it on the left side of the place setting where it originally was. This gesture will inform guests to do the same with their napkins and that the affair has come to an end.

In the short span of a two-hour luncheon, Ms. Cater graciously taught us everything we needed to know about navigating an informal place setting, and she did it with ease. Her energy and passion for etiquette is evident in the enthusiasm with which she practices it.

A welcoming properly executed table setting is easy to create when you know the elements with which to compose it and where to put them. Once you’ve practiced the placement once or twice, you’ll almost be able to do it with your eyes closed. It will be the same with utensil etiquette. Just remember to do as Ms. Cater advised, and work from the outside in, and you’ll do just fine.

bottom of page