Ask Lily Beth ☞ Modern Wedding Place Settings

Susan writes:

I am having a problem figuring out a table setting issue. For my modern wedding, I am wondering how to setup the place setting. Wherever I look up table settings, they are beautiful but not realistic. They show a dinner plate/charger on the table and from what I understand this will not be the case at my wedding. There will be silverware on either side of the place setting, water and wine glass and so forth… However, the dinner plate is not put into place until dinner is served. I am wondering where I should put the napkin and place card? in the center? if not.. there will be an “empty” space.

To Susan, as a very short answer, I’m going to say:

  1. Don’t discount the idea of a charger if you don’t have to. (see “To charge or not to charge” below). Put the napkin on the charger, put the place card on the napkin.
  2. Consider alternative place card options (see “Where to put the damn place card” below).
  3. At the very least, use a creative napkin technique and incorporate the place card (see “The question of napkins” below).

For the folks at home, let’s unpack a few things about place settings in general before we tackle Susan’s question in more depth. (We have to know the rules before we bend them – if this has not already become your mantra from reading WWJD, it should be.)

For the sake of argument, let’s start with the most formal place setting and scale back from there. Here’s an illustration to help everyone keep up:

So this ultra-formal place setting assumes your will have several courses. Even with all the formal events I’ve worked in my life, I’d never seen a place setting this formal until my own maid of honor, Alice, got married overseas. She has a five-course meal, complete with soup course, salad course, fish course (with white wine), a champagne toast, a beef course (with red wine), and dessert (with a cordial).

Yes, I’m going to tell you right now that all the Americans ate the entirety of the fish course thinking it was the entree – until the beef arrived. Then we were all just confused and saddened that we’d eaten so much fish.

But I digress.

Planning a place setting for your wedding is easier than trying to plan a formal place setting for your home, where you would be doing everything yourself. Essentially, you just have to decide what courses you’ll be serving and the stylistic decisions – you can leave the more tedious specifics (like the fact that all knife blades should face toward the plate) to a hopefully experienced waitstaff and catering manager.

Most formal occasions in America practice service à la russe, or “service in the Russian style,” which means that all necessary utensils (with the exception of dessert) are pre-set, and the food is served in sequential order. There’s a service plate, then a napkin atop the service plate, and finally, a place card atop the napkin.

(As a sidenote, this style is opposed to the other major option, service à la française, which was traditional of royalty – that is, all the kings and queens at court would have all the courses brought out simultaneously. This creates quite the impressive spectacle, with dishes literally flying at your face. As you can imagine, though, it was pretty impractical to attempt to keep everything hot (or cold) when it’s all brought out at one time.)

The food you’re serving will dictate what pieces you need; the diagram above should dictate where they should go if you decide to use them.

Let’s look at some sample menus and break them down. Then, we’ll get into the more creative stylistic expressions.

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Functionality Choices

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Sample Menu One

  • First course: Appetizer: Oysters on the half shell
  • Second course: Soup: Italian wedding
  • Third course: Salad: Caesar
  • Fourth course: Fish: Atlantic salmon (white wine)
  • – Champagne toast –
  • Fifth course: Beef: Beef wellington (red wine)
  • Sixth course: Dessert: Wedding cake (cordial)

If there’s no bread included in the menu, you can dispense with the bread and butter knife and plate. There will of course be non-alcoholic drinks served, so we’ll need a water goblet for ice water or iced tea.

But there are oysters, so we’ll need the oyster forks. They’ll go on the outside, like in the diagram above, because we always work our way outside to inside with the silverware. (Remember: fork and left have four letters; knife, spoon, and right have five letters.)

We also have both soup and salad, which means a soup spoon and a salad knife are the next items on the right as we work our way inward, just like on the diagram above. A salad fork is our next item on the left.

Our fourth course is fish, which means a fish fork and fish knife (less imposing than their bigger dinner fork/knife cousins) are the next to be put down on the left and right respectively. Since we’re serving the fish course with white wine, we need to be sure to include space for a white wine glass.

We’ve decided to pause here for a champagne toast to the bride and groom, so we have to account for a champagne flute in the order of our glassware (in this case, it would go between the white and red wine glass), unless waiters are passing pre-poured glasses of champagne separately on trays.

Our fifth course is beef, where we break out the heavy artillery: our dinner fork and dinner knife (again, left and right respectively). These suckers will be the biggest pieces of flatware at the place setting. Since we’re switching our wine from white to red, we need the red wine glass present as well.

And finally, a dessert course of our own wedding cake, which will come on its own plate and its own clean fork, straight from the kitchen where it’s been plated. A cordial will be served with dessert, so we’ll need a cordial glass, which is almost like a champagne flute but much smaller.

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Sample Menu Two

  • First course: Appetizer: Fresh mozzarella with tomatoes; bread and butter.
  • Second course: Pasta: Penne with spinach (white wine throughout second and third course)
  • Third course: Entree: Chicken Breast Stuffed with Prosciutto
  • Fourth course: Dessert: Miniature pastries and tartlettes

Here’s a simpler menu. Since there will be bread and butter, you’ll want to keep the butter plate and butter knife. It’s assumed the mozzerella will come on its own plate from the kitchen, but we’ll traditionally want a separate fork and knife to eat it with. Therefore, the appetizer fork and knife – even if it’s just a regular old salad fork/knife – will be the first things on their respective sides.

Working our way inward, there’s a pasta course – penne – which only requires a fork to eat (unlike long linguine, which may require both a fork and spoon, frankly, if you’re me and my Mama.)

Then, there’s the third course – stuffed chicken. This definitely requires a real, adult dinner fork and dinner knife all its own, so those will go down next.

Finally, there’s miniature desserts that guests will be able to choose from at each table, assumingly small enough to be eaten in one or two bites, so dessert forks will likely be unnecessary, although a dessert plate should be provided by the waitstaff as soon as the dessert course is served.

As for glassware, we’re serving white wine throughout with no champagne toast, so there should only be a water goblet and white wine glass at each place setting – you can dispense with the rest of the glassware, like red wine glasses, champagne flutes, or cordial glasses.

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Sample Menu Three

  • First Course: Soup: New England Seafood Chowder
  • Second Course: Salad: Mixed field greens
  • Third Course: Entree: Choice of beef fillet or vegetarian pasta
  • Fourth Course: Dessert: Mixed artisan cheeses with fresh fruit and crostini, coffee

So first off, we have soup, which requires a soup spoon to be the first thing to be placed down on the right hand side.

Second, we have a salad course, which requires a salad fork (our first piece to be placed on the left side), and a salad knife (to be placed on the right hand side, between the plate and soup spoon).

Then, we have a choice of entree. Those with steak will need a serious dinner knife, which can be pre-set next on the right hand side (closest to the plate) or brought from the kitchen with the steak entrees. Both the steak eaters and vegetarians will still need a dinner fork, placed on the left hand side, closest to the plate.

For the fourth course, fresh dessert plates should come from the kitchen with appropriate cheese utensils for each table. Your coffee cup and saucer can be preset or brought from the kitchen for those souls who would like coffee.

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Stylistic choices

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To charge or not to charge: the service plate

What the hell is a service plate, or charger, anyway? Well, first off, it’s decorative – that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a function, that just means it never touches food. Essentially, it just functions as a placemat: a resting place for plates of food.

By Restaurant Associates, New York City, via The Knot.com. If you're not already a member, sign up now for free - they have the best photo galleries and ideas.

Some hostesses get all fancy, removing and replacing the charger between each course – in comes the soup course, out goes the charger. When the soup bowls are cleared, the charger comes back just in time to be taken away again for the salad course. This seems ridiculous to me – it relegates the charger to only being something for guests to look at instead of blank table cloth, and while this is a noble function, it can be more visually pleasing to leave the charger for the first course or two, to let it complement the soup, salad, or entree dishes that set upon it.

If you do choose to have a charger (even if it’s just to take up the white space between the utensils on the table), you get to decide when it’s removed, with the singular exception that it should always be out of there for good before the dessert course is served.

And, because a charger never has to actually touch food, it can be made out of a million different types of material and often much cheaper than actual china which does, indeed, have to hold food. I like to buy inexpensive chargers at $2 a piece to help change the mood of my own white, Noritake china – it’s certainly cheaper than having a different set of china for each season.

Nevertheless, few modern wedding venues (save the very best and most expensive) stock chargers or service plates, mainly because that’s an extra expense for them, extra work to remove it, and most modern brides never even miss them.

To this, I say fuck ’em. If you want a charger and your venue doesn’t carry them as part of the typical place setting, rent some from a local events company and work them into the table setting, making sure the waitstaff and catering manager firmly understand that they will be using chargers.

If that pesky white space is nagging at your mind like it is Susan’s, I’d suggest a charger, with the napkin atop it and then the place card atop the napkin.

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Cheers!: the glassware

If you’re going to be doing a different wine with each course, you’ll need both a red and white wine glass – there’s just no way around it. If, however, you’re letting people choose between wines or are simply serving one type of wine, period, you can get away with a single beautiful glass. People understand that budgets are finite.

If you’re going to be doing a champagne toast, you have two options: pre-set the champagne flute, or have service on passed trays.

Personally, I prefer to dispense with the “champagne toast” altogether, instead serving a fancier passed champagne cocktail (like a French 75) for the cocktail hour, and then simply non-sparkling wine to toast with at dinner. When you’re trying to serve cold champagne to 100 people simultaneously, it just takes far too long – the first people to be served end up with hot champagne, waiting for the toasts, and then often the toasts are already over by the time the last table gets their champagne.

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The question of napkins

Rolled napkins with herbs, compliments of Wedding Magazine UK.

There are a million different ways you can do your napkins – from French pleats to goblet fans (which just scream cheap hotel to me) to the shape of the pope’s hat – the sky’s the limit on how you want your napkins folded.

Because Jack and I didn’t have a formal dinner (but still had people seated at tables), we had no chargers or dinner plates. Instead, we had our napkins quaintly rolled and tied with a purple and green grosgrain ribbon that reflected my bouquet. Place cards were set to one side.

Wedding Magazine out of the UK has some clever ideas, including a flower-roll bound with pearls, or the rolled napkins (right) coupled with herbs.

As always, Martha Stewart has some precious suggestions for making your napkins memorable (including wallpaper, lace, and rubber stamps, oh my.)

And of course, my all time favorite: Apartment Therapy’s white-tie tuxedo napkin, complete with black bow tie.

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Where to put the damn place card

Place cards by Timeless Paper

First of all, if you haven’t seen Timeless Paper’s place cards, go. Go now. These precious things hang on the rim of your wine glass or water goblet and are adorable enough that guests are certain to take them home as a pleasant reminder. (They also do table cards, tent cards, and menus to match.)

Now. You have a few different options where place cards are concerned:

  1. Traditional tent place cards (about the size of business cards) that sit independently at each seat. You can place them on top of your napkin or slightly to the side.
  2. Incorporating your place cards into your fancy napkin designs like some of the folks above (see “The question of napkins”).
  3. Flat place cards in a unique holder of some kind.
  4. Dispensing with the idea of place cards at all, and going instead of table cards (small cards your guests pick up when they check in that tell them what table they’re at, but let them choose their own seat at that table).
  5. Incorporating your place card into your actual place setting, as Timeless Paper does, or as Martha Stewart illustrates here (by using a paper doily as a charger, writing the guest’s name on the doily, and covering it with a clear glass dinner plate).

Unorthodox ideas

If you’ve decided to dispense with the formal dinner service and serve buffet style, you can still shake things up. Long gone (or at least, they ought to be) are the days of chafing dishes of overcooked pasta and dried out potatoes, served lunch lady style, by tables called by number. Ick.

Jack and I hated this idea, but we also hated the idea of a formal dinner service where everyone felt stuck at their table for 90 minutes. Nope, nope, neither was for us.

Instead, we had our ceremony late in the evening (8:00pm), with guests already seated at 10 person tables and everyone already politely lubricated from a generous cocktail hour. We encompassed our entire ceremony and reception activities (including toasts) in the 45 minutes, then closed off with the cake cutting (yes, before dinner) and the first dances. At 9:00pm promptly, massive displays of complex hors d’œuvres were unveiled, and Jack and I were then free (as were all our guests) to mix, mingle, drink, dance, eat, dance, eat some more, however they chose, without having to constantly divert their attention to reception activities. This meant that for the next three hours, the only thing anyone had to do was celebrate and talk to their friends – the whole reason we came together in the first place.

100 Layer Cake also has some lovely ideas. You could have a more informal buffet service with long tables and two separate buffet stations at either end, and let guests choose from mismatched china, like Artemis + Nao over at 100 Layer Cake. Lola + Adam also manage to have a perfectly gorgeous, simple formal place setting with some whimsical flourishes.

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