How To Set The Perfect Table For A Dinner Party

Everything you need to know about how to set a table but were afraid to ask

This weekend I went to a really posh wedding. The kind where the table itself is a work of art, with stunning flowers, impeccable linen napkins, orderly rows of shining silverware and more glasses than I could keep up with. In the past, tables like these have overwhelmed me, leaving me muttering: "What fork do I use? Will people notice when I misuse the fish knife?" (The one on the far left. And nobody cares.)

These days I don't let fancy table settings worry me. For one, I understand why some traditions exist (the fork goes on the left because most Europeans eat with a fork in their left hand and knife in the right). And I know that rules are made to be broken. Most of us aren't setting tables for formal weddings, and it's perfectly fine to serve wine in a jar (très Brooklyn!) or bundle silverware in twine and pop it right on top of the plate. The main thing to remember is your table should reflect your own style. Here are a few more tips for setting the table at your next gathering.

Forks on the left, knife and spoon on the right. Many Americans switch their fork to their right hand after cutting, but it's considered more elegant (and generally more efficient) to eat in the European style. Plus it's just how things are done: A table looks better set this way.

Bread plate on the left, drinks on the right. In the (probably) unlikely event that you'll be using a bread plate, it should go above the fork closest to the plate. Glasses should make a diagonal line starting above the knife and going down towards the bottom right corner of the plate: water glass, red wine and then white. One easy trick to remember is to make a little circle with your thumb and index finger in each hand—the left looks like a lowercase "b" and the right a "d," to signify bread on the left, drinks on the right.

Get crazy with the napkins. Traditionally, they go under the fork on the left hand side of the plate, but this is an easy element to personalize. I love folding them and placing them on the plate, draping them on the back of chairs, or rolling them up and tying them with a piece of string and a little place card.

Tablecloth or no tablecloth? Personally, I skip 'em. They're fussy, and I hate to iron. But a nice compromise if you're not ready to bare all is a runner. This strip of fabric runs down the middle of a table, which can add a nice pop of color, texture and elegance.

Flower power. Stay tuned for next week's post, which is all about how to make floral arrangements. For now, suffice it to say that flowers are one of the best ways to create a gorgeous table without investing in a new set of dishes or glasses. I use all white plates and napkins, and let the color on the table come from the food and the flowers. I keep my arrangements small and simple, so I can see people across the table (and also to keep costs down).