The Art of Setting a Beautiful Table

I’ve had a thing for china and linens since I was a little kid. There weren’t many daughters on my dad’s side of the family, so my mom ended up with all sorts of family heirlooms.

Sometimes, she’d take me through the pieces and tell me the story behind each one, teaching me to turn the china over to see the maker, the way good crystal sounds, and how to tell hand-woven from machine linens. Most people don’t care about that stuff much anymore, but it started in me an appreciation for the beauty of a well-set table.

After college, I worked as a busser in a fine dining restaurant. While I was there, several things were drilled into me regarding proper table service. Linen, china, and silver placement, of course. The importance of a full water glass. The anticipation of a perfectly set table, awaiting its guests. Night after night, I set, cleared, and reset tables with absolute symmetry, served deliciously prepared food, and watched our guests enjoy wonderful meals. I learned that it’s not only the food that matters… far from it. A great meal involves conversation. Relaxation. Ambiance. Shared company. Enjoyment. A well-set table merely helps facilitate those things. When it all comes together, where your dreams come to life in a place you call home, it’s magical.

Here are some things to consider as you set your own table. Of course, you’re not going to do this every night, but when the occasion calls for it, it just might help you create some magic at home.

Determine the food and mood. Before anything else, think about the feeling you want your guests to have when they see your table, and while they’re sitting at it. This will influence every decision from here on out. Glamorous or home-spun? Raucous or romantic? Is there a holiday or special event you’re celebrating? The food you serve and how you serve it will create the vibe. Your table setting can be inspired by your food, and on the flip side, your food can be inspired by your table.

If you’re cooking for a holiday, you’re not locked into traditional recipes (which would inspire a traditional table). Even a Thanksgiving turkey can be prepared in hundreds of ways, inspired by multiple ethnicities and cultures.

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Use what you have. Think about the linens, china, and cutlery you have in your closet. There are probably some things that will enhance your table, and others you’re just in the habit of using. If you want to bring some new life to your table, what could you beg, buy or borrow?

Pick your base (linens). A white table cloth is the standard of fine dining, implying a high level of cleanliness and a focus on the food. That said, in your home, a white table cloth communicates a high level of formality. You can make a white table cloth less formal by layering on other, non-white linens. Since you’re only setting one table, you have more freedom than a restaurant would in your use of textures, materials, and personal stuff.

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A table cloth can completely transform how a table looks, but if you want to incorporate your table’s surface into your meal, think about a table runner or placemats. A bare farm table with a burlap runner creates a simple, rustic vibe, while a glass top table with metallic placemats creates a different feeling all together.

Your cloth napkins (absolutely cloth!) should work well with your other linens, but don’t have to match. In fact, your napkins don’t have to match each other at all. As long as they lend to the harmony of the table, mixing different textures and colors can be beautiful.

Set your table properly. Most of us have been helping set the table since we were kids (right?), but in case you need a refresh, here’s the proper way to set a table:

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This is considered the “casual” table setting. If you’re drinking both a white and red wine at the table, a second glass can be added to the right of the first wine glass. A bread plate can be added above the forks.

I’m not one to squash creativity, but I do like to stick to this format to ground things. One exception – the napkin placement is more flexible – it can be placed on the plate in a napkin ring, folded on top of the plate, or partially unfolded in a long strip between the salad and dinner plates.

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Get creative with table décor. This is not your grandma’s table. You could put a big, stiff bouquet in between two candlesticks holding tapered candles, but I forbid you to do this. Now’s the time to get a little creative, stylish, and fun. 

Use natural elements.  Un-intrusive flowers, greenery, pine cones, seeds, seashells all add life to the table. You get the drift. Get creative.

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Use simple candles for light and warmth. If you’re outdoors, use candle holders that protect from the wind.

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Change up the height of the objects on the table.  I  like to have a few anchor items, with smaller items scattered about for visual interest and depth.

Scatter salt and pepper grinders around the table.  Make them easy to reach – 1 set of shakers for several diners is not enough. Make sure it’s good, fresh salt and pepper – not stale flavorless stuff that’s been sitting in a pair of antique shakers. I prefer pepper grinders if possible for better flavor, and I love small bowls filled with kosher or sea salt.

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Don’t Use Scents. That means scented candles, potpourri (would anyone dare?), and even highly fragrant flowers are out.  Keep the scents in the bathroom and let your guests enjoy the smell of food and wine.

Keep the lines of vision open. Ever been unable to see the person across the table due to the huge flower arrangement right in front of your face? Not good for conversation. Don’t do it.

Make several small floral arrangements. Buy flowers from Safeway if you must, but break them into smaller, more natural looking arrangements. Don’t be afraid to cut off half or almost all of the stems.

Remember to leave room for the food. If you’re serving family style and plan on having passed platters and bowls, you’ll need places to put them. I like to pre-choose my platters and bowls before cooking and do a dry run, placing them on the table before guests arrive to make sure I have enough room for the serving dishes.

Avoid flowers that cause allergic reactions. I love collecting all sorts of fuzzy, furry flowering things from my garden. This has been disastrous at times. Indoor air quality can vary depending on your home.  Sneezing, itching watery-eyed guests do not have fun.

Beware of being matchy-matchy.  Having everything on and around your table match looks kind of, well, corporate. This is your home. This is YOU. Unless you’re perfect, it’s OK to reflect a little asymmetry. Don’t be afraid to pull up different chairs, use some mismatched plates, and have a few things out of balance.

Light it well. Everything looks better when the lights are low – including people. All your hard work setting a beautiful table will be for naught if you finish it off with harsh lighting. Depending on your home and its lighting technology, dim the lights or keep them turned off. Dine by candle light and watch the eyes around your table sparkle.

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Do as much as you enjoy, but don’t sweat it too much. If you can only remember one thing, remember this – it’s the goodwill and happiness at the table that matters more than anything else. In all likelihood, your table will be a work of art and getting people to gather around it is a pretty wonderful thing. Enjoy!