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Experts Share the Right Way to Set a Dinner Table

From basic to casual to formal

flower centerpiece

Sofia Crokos Events

Whether you love the idea of entertaining friends and family at home or are a beginner host, it's important to brush up on common table setting skills. If you're not sure how to set a table for an occasion that's basic, casual, or formal, the pros are here to assist.

We spoke with entertaining experts who share how to master all three types of tablescapes to ensure that your next get-together is a total hit.

Meet the Expert

pink tablescape

Proper Table

Setting a Basic Table

1. Grab Some Placemats

When it comes to everyday dining, there's nothing wrong with keeping things nice and simple, says Dana Lewis, founder of Proper Table. One accessory she always includes on her table? Placemats. "Whether it’s kid dinner at the kitchen counter or take-out for two, I always use placemats and coordinating linen napkins," Lewis explains.

Layering beyond the placemat or charger is one way to take a table from basic to casual or casual to formal, notes Stacy Borocz, founder and president of etúHOME. "The more you add, the more formal it can become," she notes. "But, layer with intention—every piece should serve a purpose and have use."

table with placemats


2. Utilize Small Bowls and Platters

"Whip out the platters and have your tablescape be a 'family style' dinner," suggests Cathleen Holloway, founder of Holloway Events, and be sure to decant condiments when possible. Even plaid old ketchup looks cuter in a little jar, after all.

Holloway suggests putting condiments in ramekins, noting, "It’s an easy way to elevate a Tuesday night without going overboard."

Setting a Casual Table

1. Keep Servingware Casual

Sofia Crokos of Sofia Crokos Events & Lifestyle appreciates embracing a more minimalist approach during casual gatherings. "I integrate clean lines, minimal colors or patterns, and any type of decor I’d use would be flowers and small floral arrangements, as well as small candles and votives for enhanced lighting," she comments.

2. Add a Touch of Festivity

Even if you're just hosting a spur-of-the-moment cocktail gathering that turns into dinner, there are ways to make your tablescape festive in a pinch, Lewis says. "When setting the table, I still like to keep things simple and often draw inspiration from the season," she comments. "Tying napkins with a piece of ribbon or twine and adding a sprig of rosemary or boxwood from our garden is a fun way to make each place setting feel festive."

Lewis agrees that keeping some candles handy is key. "Candlelight is ideal and makes it a party, and consider buying a case of votives so they are always at the ready."

table with placemats and rosemary

Proper Table

3. And Don't Forget to Have Fun

Why not think a little outside the box when hosting a casual event? Holloway chimes in with some suggestions. "Add a pretty throw blanket on the back of each chair for an outdoor dinner and give guests a small fall-smelling votive as a party favor," she says. "A birthday party for your best friend? Bust out the Elton John glasses and crank the music high."

Setting a Formal Table

1. Start Planning Ahead of Time

Lewis makes a point to give herself as much time as possible to prep the table for a more formal event, starting on her tablescape planning days—if not weeks—before her gathering. Turn to Pinterest or Instagram to gather some inspo.

"Collected inspirational images in an album on my phone are easy to reference as I plan," Lewis says.

formal tablescape

Sofia Crokos Events

2. Make Use of Precious Pieces

Now is the time to stop letting that set of fine china collect dust. "Formal dinner parties are the perfect occasion to pull out wedding gifts or inherited pieces that usually sit high on shelves or behind glass," Lewis says.

And don't be afraid to mix and match dinnerware. "A favorite look for me is mixing several sets of dishes inherited from my mother and grandmother, all within a similar color story—unexpected and unique," Lewis adds. "I combine vintage and new glassware in the same style."

outdoor tablescape

Cathleen Holloway Events

3. Add Chic Place Cards

Borocz finds that place cards are essential for any formal gathering. "A formal table in my house has proper place settings for each guest," she notes. "I love thinking about the seating chart and having a special name card when friends come over, or monogrammed linen napkins for when it’s my family."

You can go the DIY route here or outsource your place cards. "Have a local calligrapher write the names of your guests on a pretty place card you buy at your local stationery store," Holloway suggests. This is a simple way to make a gathering in your dining room feel extra elegant.

4. Display Some Florals

Crokos finds herself using florals most often when hosting formal dinners. "I love to embellish traditional tablescapes," she says, and notes that the appropriate amount of florals to use depends on the season.

That said, you can still have fun incorporating other items, such as food into the design. "I love making food, and china and flowers all complement one another," Crokos says. "I work to unite or pair the colors, fragrances, and flavorings. It really shows the effort I put into an intricate and thoughtful design."

formal tablescape

Holloway Events

5. Light it Up

Finally, don't forget to add some taper candles in varying heights, says Bria Hammel, CEO and Creative Director of Bria Hammel Interiors and founder of Brooke & Lou. "The candles make for a beautiful visual when your guests arrive to take their seat and sets the mood for the evening," she comments.