How to Set Silverware

Laying out silverware in a specific way may seem at first like much ado about nothing, but it can really add to both the visual appeal and functionality of your dining table. This article tackles many of the questions you’re likely to have about setting silverware for a variety of casual, semi-formal, and formal events. So if you’re suffering from “soup spoon anxiety,” fear not—you’ve come to the right place!


[Edit]How do I decide what to set out?

  1. Only set out silverware that will be used during the meal. Don’t overcomplicate things! If the meal you’re serving doesn’t include soup, don’t bother setting out any soup spoons. Likewise, if only one fork is needed, only set out one fork per person. Let your menu be your guide.[1]
    Set Silverware Step 1 Version 2.jpg
    • So, does that mean that if you’re serving food that doesn’t require any utensils, you shouldn’t bother setting any out? You might go that route, but you might also see it as a common courtesy to set out a knife and fork just in case.
    • Setting out unnecessary silverware just confuses your guests—they’ll have no idea what to use that little fork for!

[Edit]What goes to the left and right of the plate?

  1. Set the fork to the left, the spoon and knife to the right. This is the basic rule for most styles of silverware setup. That said, when you get into more formal silverware settings, certain spoons, knives, and forks might be placed above the plate as well. But even then the primary dining silverware typically follows the forks to the left, knives and spoons to the right setup.[2]

    • There’s really only one time you’ll want to set a fork to the right of the plate: if you’re serving a meal that requires the use of an oyster fork.

[Edit]How do I order the items on the left and right?

  1. The silverware you’ll use first should be furthest from the plate. In other words, you should work your way in towards your plate as you pick up the main pieces of silverware for your meal. So, if the salad course is coming before the main course, set the salad fork to the left of the main course fork.[3]

    • This standard outside-to-inside setup signals to diners which pieces of silverware they should use for each course.

[Edit]It’s not silverware, but where does the napkin go?

  1. Place the napkin to the left of the plate—or on it, if you prefer. Some table-setters really like to set the napkin on top of the plate, but putting it to the left of the plate is the classic and still most common setup. You then run into another table-setter dispute: should you put the silverware on the left on top of the napkin or to the inside of it? The classic setup avoids putting the silverware on top, but it’s become increasingly acceptable to put the silverware on the napkin.[4]

    • Here's the one thing everyone seems to agree on: don’t set the napkin to the right of the plate!

[Edit]Which way should the knife blade point?

  1. Set knives so their blades are facing the plate. If you’ve never put much thought to how you set out silverware before, little details like this one might seem like nitpicking. But there really is a functional reason here! Think about it: with the knife blade pointed inward toward the plate, it’s ready to use when you pick it up in your hand.[5]

    • If you’re including a butter knife, put it on top of the bread plate placed above and to the left of the dining plate. Set it so the blade is on the left side of the bread plate and is facing toward the diner—this puts it in the correct position for a right-handed person to use without turning it over.

[Edit]How close to the plate should I set silverware?

  1. Place the closest silverware about from the plate. No, you don’t have to get out your ruler, but this general distance is both pleasing to the eye and functional. Place the additional pieces of silverware slightly closer to each other—around apart—with the aim of keeping the entire place setting around wide.[6]
    Set Silverware Step 6 Version 2.jpg

[Edit]Should the silverware line up with the plate?

  1. Yes—align the bottom of the silverware with the bottom of the plate. There isn’t much of a functional reason for this “rule”—it just looks really nice! Lining up the bottom of the dining plate and all the pieces of silverware to its right and left is a simple but classy touch that works with any basic, casual, or formal table setting.[7]
    Set Silverware Step 7.jpg
    • Since the different pieces of silverware are likely to be different lengths, it’s also easier as a practical matter to line up the bottoms rather than trying to line up the tops.

[Edit]How many styles of settings are there?

  1. It depends on who you ask, but at least 3—basic, casual, and formal. Some experts say there are 2, or 4, or 5, or a dozen or more different primary styles of table settings. However, if you master the ins and outs of 3—basic, casual, and formal setups—you’ll be in good shape for pretty much any type of dining situation.[8]

    • No matter how many primary silverware setting styles you contend there are, they should always be both functional and visually appealing.

[Edit]So how do I do a basic setting?

  1. Put the fork to the left, knife and spoon to the right—that's about it! Lay the napkin to the left of the plate and put the fork on top of it. Put the knife on the right, blade facing toward the plate, and the spoon (if being used) to the right of the knife. Put the drinkware above and to the right of the plate—imagine the plate as a clock face and put the drinkware at 1 o’clock.[9]

    • Pay attention to detail to add visual appeal. Line up the bottoms of the silverware with the bottom of the plate, and set the fork, knife, and drinkware about from the plate.
    • This setting is great for everyday dining, or maybe a weekend breakfast get-together.

[Edit]What about a casual setting?

  1. Build off from the basic setting with more dishes and drinkware. This one mirrors the basic setting with the fork on the napkin to the left and the knife and spoon to the right. Then, as needed, set a salad plate and soup bowl, in that order, on top of the dinner plate. Also put both a water glass and wine glass (as needed) aligned at the one o’clock position above and to the right of the plate.[10]

    • Add, subtract, or substitute drinkware as needed.
    • Center the plate on a nice placemat to further refine the look.
    • This is the ideal setting for typical dinner parties with friends and family.

[Edit]And how about a formal setting?

  1. Add to the casual setting with more silverware and accessories. Start with the dinner fork to the left and the knife and spoon to the right. As dictated by your menu, add a salad fork to the left of the dinner fork and a dessert spoon and/or fork placed horizontally above the plate (spoon handle pointed to the right, fork handle pointed left). If you’re serving bread, put a bread plate at the 11 o’clock position and lay a bread knife horizontally on it, handle pointed to the right.[11]

    Set Silverware Step 11.jpg
    • Add forks, spoons, and knives to the left and right as needed depending on the courses you’re serving. Remember to lay them out so that your guests are able to work their way inward while picking up silverware—that is, the silverware for earlier courses goes to the outside.
    • Replace a placemat with a charger, a decorative plate that remains under the serving dishes—soup bowl, salad plate, dinner plate, etc.
    • Add additional drinkware at the 1 o’clock position as needed and, if desired, individual salt and pepper shakers and a placecard above the dessert silverware.


  • Leave ample space between place settings so guests can sit and move comfortably throughout the meal. Too many place settings will also make the table appear cramped and small. By allowing the guests to spread out, it opens the table to look wider, even if it is just an illusion.
  • Polish your sterling silver before your dinner party so that it does not look tarnished. Sparkling silver enhances a formal setting along with crystal glasses and fine china.
  • Your silverware setting does not need to match. Piecing together a complete set takes time. Replace utensils as you acquire new ones.


  • Do not place utensils on the table that will not be used throughout the meal. This will clutter the table and confuse your guests.