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Originally published May 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 8, 2005 at 11:59 AM

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Entertaining

How to set an elegant table

Your fine china hasn't seen the light of day since it was lovingly placed in the cabinet after your wedding. Sure, you've had friends and...

digs editor

Your fine china hasn't seen the light of day since it was lovingly placed in the cabinet after your wedding. Sure, you've had friends and family over for casual dinner parties, and you set the table with your "everyday" plates and glassware, maybe mixing in some unique pottery or a funky vase to create your own style.

But now your in-laws are coming to dinner for a special occasion, and it's time to host a "fancy" dinner. So get ready to dust off your china, rinse your best stemware and polish your flatware.

Today, most people, especially in the Northwest, set their tables rather informally. But on special occasions, it's important to know how to set a formal table. You always can personalize it with a fun floral arrangement or unique pottery centerpiece.

Knowing the basics can go a long way in entertaining, says Mary Mitchell, a nationally known manners maven and recent Seattle transplant.

"The value is once you know the rules, you can go anywhere and never be intimidated," she said. "We really do live in a global marketplace, and dining is considered a very important part of life, and the ceremonies of dining are very important."

Dining etiquette also has become increasingly important in the workplace.

On the table


What's typically in a 5-piece flatware setting:

• Dinner fork

• Salad fork

• Dinner knife

• Teaspoon

• Soup spoon (tablespoon size)

What's typically in a 5-piece place setting:

• Dinner plate

• Salad plate

• Bread and butter plate

• Cup

• Saucer

"Workplace table manners mean more than anyone talks about," Mitchell said. "There's a prejudice against those who don't have them. And if you flunk the 'manners test,' no one tells you why you flunked."

Diane VanderKley, a gift-registry consultant at Macy's in downtown Seattle, added one more reason.

"It has to do with establishing your traditions as young people and carrying on those traditions," she said.

The idea of hosting dinner parties is exciting to some, terrifying to others. With enough preparation and some basic guidelines, however, hosting a formal dinner party can be fun and rewarding. It can be an opportunity to show guests how much you care about them and whatever occasion it is that is bringing you together.

"The reason people don't use their fine china is either because they don't like it, they're afraid it will break or they don't have enough place settings," VanderKley said. "But your fine china is meant to be used and loved."

So how to actually use and love your china?

For most formal dinner parties, according to Mitchell's "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette" book, you should include the following on your table:

A centerpiece, such as flowers, fruit or collections of figurines or candles.

Butter plates and knives. Place these at the upper left of your plates above the forks, with the knife placed horizontally across the top of the plate, blade facing down.

No butter plate? Just pass around a small dish with butter pats, or spoon soft butter onto a small dish, accompanied by a butter knife for guests to use.

Salad plates. Place these in front of guests at the center of the setting. If you don't have salad plates, guests can use their dinner plates for salad.

Napkins. Fold and place in the center of the plate, at the left of the plate or folded creatively in the glassware.

Flatware. Set the table so guests eat with utensils from the outside in: the salad fork on the outside of the dinner fork, both to the left of the dinner plate; the knife to the right of the dinner plate and the spoon to the right of the knife.

The dessert fork and spoon, if you have them, should be placed horizontally at the top of the plate, the bowl of the spoon facing left and the prongs of the fork facing right.

Glassware. Glasses go on the right.

Salt and pepper shakers. Place a pair at either end of the table. You also can use saltcellars, which are tiny bowls for loose salt, with a small spoon placed within.

Candles. Place these at the center of the table or elsewhere, as long as the candles aren't in guests' line of sight.

And don't forget the table linen. A white linen tablecloth works nicely for formal dinner parties. In general, tablecloths can dress up or dress down a table.

As the host, the most important thing to remember is to relax and enjoy your guests.

"It's not just about having dishes on the table," VanderKley said. "It's about getting people together, celebrating special occasions and carrying on your own traditions."

Colleen McBrinn: cmcbrinn@seattletimes.com

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