Ready, Set The Table, And Go
Let's start with placement
First decision, what eating surfaces (dinner or salad plate and bowl) go on the table? In most cases, when serving a formal meal, you place pieces in the order of the course served. The entrée course is after soup and salad so that plate naturally should be placed on the bottom. The salad in most American households is served as a second course so that plate should be next and finally the soup bowl tops all at the rest, as it usually starts the meal. Leave out what you choose not to serve, removing each when the course is complete-unless of course you have servants, which changes everything!
Now onto flatware placement
Remember this simple rule: the outer utensil represents the earliest course or action. In the outermost position to your left (the 9:00 position) the napkin is best (folded flat, standing artfully, in a ring or across the plate/bow stack) as it is the first thing you will need once you sit. Whenever possible, do not place the napkin under flatware; it makes for annoying clamor when removing.
The outermost left utensil also at 9:00 should be your salad fork (unless you are following the tradition serving salad after the entrée-if so then place the salad fork between the dinner and the dessert forks). Directly to it's right is the dinner fork and to the right of that the dessert fork (there is some dispute about dessert placement, but we'll cover that later). Left to right: salad, dinner, and dessert.
On your right side the rules are similar
The outermost piece is the soup spoon, usually the soup course is first, then salad, then entrée but if you choose not to serve a soup course it isn't necessary. Next in line is the teaspoon and then your all-purpose dinner knife. (If you are serving meat that requires a steak knife, it should be placed between the teaspoon and the all-purpose knife).
From right to left: soup spoon, teaspoon, all- purpose knife. A side note: I always have a bread plate on my table; one needs a place to set that lovely rustic bread and the butter knife.
Okay, now let's talk glassware
I serve different wines with each corresponding course and that requires different stemware for each. I always set three stems, the largest for water, a smaller goblet for red next to it and then a white wine stem, usually the smallest in size-all clustered in the 1:00 to 2:00 position artfully.
Now lets talk style
My motto-almost anything goes! I am not a fan of "sets" so usually I mix patterns, types of stemware, linens, and often add some sort of charger (purely a decorative plate) to spice things up. My advice is pick a theme and run with it.
I have more china and stemware than I care to admit, some that I have purchased and some that I have inherited through the years. I love using my great- grandmothers antique Czechoslovakian pieces with my contemporary white porcelain, which mixes quite well with my mother's depression glass stemware with unique pink bowls with green stems and the uber-con- temporary Kronos stemware I received as a gift-mix it up and have fun.
Flowers are a must, but remember to always let your guests see each other with out having to peer around the stems of your arrangement! Candles are an absolute necessity and an eclectic mix of sizes is always fun-pillars, votives, tapers tall and short-your imagination is the only limit.
Thanksgiving last year was at a friend's house in San Francisco who didn't have a lot of accessories; I went to the farmer's market and bought decorative greens, flowers and some small squash and candles. We made a runner down the center of the table with the purchased greens and some from the cedar tree in the backyard (be sure to rinse them) and alternated candles, flowers and the squash following the same flow and had a stunning layout that smelled heavenly.
Make sure to do the table setting the day before your party or event, there is nothing worse than running about flinging plates and silverware at the last minute!
REMEMBER TO RELAX AND ENJOY, GRATITUDE IS PART OF THE HOLIDAYS, BUT STRESS SHOULDN'T BE!