Not sure how to set a table? Next time you feel this way, take a few notes from the Parisians. They have a strong sense of tradition, which is why you'll often find even their most casual weekday dinners adorned with fine silverware and candlelight. Even though their tables are always beautifully set, rest assured that their tablescapes are usually also simple to put together.
In their book How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are, authors Anne Berest, Audrey Diwan, Caroline de Maigret, and Sophie Mas demystify some of the most fascinating qualities of the French—not limited to matters of love, style, and etiquette. We are fascinated by everything from the French way to light a room to their technique for styling a mantelpiece, but one of our favorite chapters is the one on setting the table. The French have perfected a table styling manner that looks both chic and effortless—a true feat. We spill their entertaining secrets below.
"To set a table for a dinner party, there's no need to invest in a full set of china," the authors write. "The table should reflect what you have, and not be overly coordinated. Au contraire, the china can be a mottled collection of your finds at flea markets."
In other words, mixing and matching also applies to the art of the table in France.
"Your glasses don't have to match either, but they should be clear (nothing colored) and should all have stems," the authors say.
In fact, when held properly, the stem serves an important purpose: it keeps the wine at the intended serving temperature—and the French are not about to mess with the quality of their wine for a trendy stemless glass.
"For the napkins, it is nice to use old embroidered white ones with a monogram," the authors say. "These cost next to nothing on eBay or can be taken from your grandmother's drawers."
The French pass china, flatware, and even linens down through generations, so don't be afraid to buy vintage.
"There's no need to fold the napkins into complicated origami either; simply place them on or alongside the plates," the authors say.
"At a Parisienne's table you will often find Laguiole folding knives, named after the French village where they are made," the authors say. "You can recognize them by the insect engraved on the handle."
If you are looking to invest in quality steak knives, Laguiole is a solid option for any Francophile.
"It's probably better to cover your table unless it's a truly beautiful one," they say. "Old linen sheets make excellent tablecloths. They can be white or dyed."
But don't spend precious minutes ironing your tablecloth. Do as the French do, and keep it effortless—linen is made to look wrinkled anyway.
"On every table there is an open bottle of wine and a carafe of water (not a plastic bottle)," the authors say.
In fact, no drink or condiment bottle is acceptable on the table, save for a bottle of wine, and maybe a jar of Maille's traditional Dijon mustard.
"If you don't have a salt shaker, put salt in two small dishes on either end of the table," suggest the authors.
One note: The French prefer fleur de sel de Camargue over regular table salt.