There are many different ways to set a table. A good hostess knows that the effort she puts into finishing touches makes the difference between the ordinary and the elegant. It is like adding chopped chives for the soup or chocolate leaves on chocolate cake – it adds much more than the little effort required in the preparation would make it appear.
I am going to discuss 2 different table settings that a good hostess must acquire: 1) Formal Dinner Setting, and 2) Informal Dinner Setting.
- Formal Dinner Setting
In France, we have a strong sense of tradition, which is why you will find even our most casual weekday dinners decorated with fine silverware and candlelight. Pleasant surroundings include not only your own attitude as a hostess, which sets the tone of the meal, but also the appearance of the table itself. The table should be covered with a tablecloth – however, during summer months, a bare table gives the impression of coolness. A pretty bowl or a vase of flowers will do much for a great atmosphere!
- In French table setting, the tablecloth hangs 9-15” over the table on all sides. Napkins are folded three times (as illustrated above).
- The silver is placed about 1” from the table edge. About 18-24” of dining space is allowed each guest. The dinner uses the pieces on the outside first, working his way in as the meal progresses. As a general rule, not more than 3 pieces of silverware are set to each side of the service plate. A butter plate is optional. In some parts of the country, the salad course replaces one or the other of these courses. Formal dinners used to be served by servants who clear the utensils, plates, and glasses after each course. But who has servants to clear their tables, right? Not my house! This is no longer the case throughout the country.
- Anytime the plate is removed and the next course is not served immediately, a service plate is set in front of the guest, except after the meat course when only the water glass remains. The table is cleared of crumbs and the dessert course is served.
This type of dinner setting is appropriate for almost all occasions. It is similar to the formal setting. The seafood appetizer may be on the plate when the diners are seated. A glass of water is always placed on the right side and the wine glass on its right.
I am going to break it to you: there are many things not to do in France at the dinner table! France has many rules to follow when it comes to eating in public. The French word “étiquette” means “faux pas,” so it is no one’s surprise that prescribed behaviors are important to French people.
- The knife remains in the right hand, and the fork remains in the left. When the meal is finished, the knife and fork are laid parallel to each other across the right side of the plate.
- When not holding utensils, guests’ hands should be visible above the table (something difficult for me to do in the United States as it is the opposite!)
- Most meals come with bread. If you don’t have a side plate, putting the bread on the tablecloth beside your plate is OK!
- Guests are expected to eat all food on their plate and should not ask for seconds. They may always have additional beverages; drinking enough to cause the glass to be less than half-full.
- Do not begin eating until the head of the table or host says, “Bon Appétit!
At the restaurant:
- When ready to order, set your menu down on the table, closed.
- If you need to get your server’s attention, say “s’il vous plait” – Do not snap your fingers (extremely rude gesture in France) and do not say “”
- If you want to leave the table momentarily, but are not done eating, leave your knife and fork on your plate with each handle pointing out towards the hand holding it, as if ready to be picked up again.
- Ask for the bill (chèque) when you are done. Signal the waiter by holding your hand in mid air, pretending to sign a cheque.
- Avoid talking about money with your French friends. Don’t split the bill either. Whoever inviting you will pay for your meal and it is generally the understanding that it is up to the other party to invite and pay next time. Money is a personal matter in France that is not shared with friends so avoid the subject whenever possible.
- Gratuity is included but you should generally round up a little, particularly if you enjoyed the service.
Interested on learning about the 5 meal courses in France. Click here: How to Eat the French Way!