Here is your ultimate guide to setting your table the French way. Whether you’re hosting an intimate dinner party or finally taking on Thanksgiving or Christmas for the whole family, in this article, I’ve laid out all the steps to properly set your dinner table like the French do. It’s no secret that the French has perfected the art of the table for generations (l’art de la table in French). Indeed, the French have a strong sense of tradition, which is why you’ll often find even their most casual family dinners adorned with fine silverware, crystal glasses, and porcelain plates. Their tables are always beautifully set, and also very simple to put together.
If you’re not sure how to set your table, I’ve listed below a few rules for the French table settings. This is useful to know the positioning of plates, utensils, napkins, and the rest, in case you are hosting a formal dinner at home. But you can always opt for a simplified version of these rules and adapt the following advice to fit your own personal taste and needs.
How to Set a French Table Setting
Here are the materials you need to set your table à la Française:
- A table protector and a tablecloth (une nappe)
- A presentation plate, dinner plate, and salad plate for every guest (des assiettes)
- Utensils (des couverts)
- Water, wine, and Champagne glasses (les verres à eau, à vin et Champagne)
- Cloth napkins (des serviettes en tissu)
- Place cards (des marque-places)
- A carafe of water, salt shaker, and other ramekins for condiments (une carafe d’eau, une salière, des ramequins)
- Some decorations for your table: floral arrangement, candles, etc. (des décorations de table)
It’s always best to cover your table with a tablecloth even if you have a truly beautiful table. First, before laying your tablecloth, cover your table with a table protector. Indeed, table protective underclothes will dampen noise (such as when you set down your silverware) and will also provide some comfort to your guests when they rest their arms on the table. Then, choose carefully your tablecloth depending on the event (Christmas, Thanksgiving, formal dinner), the theme of your dinner, and the shape/size of your table. The French usually prefer a classic white tablecloth that easily goes with any table decorations. My favorite one is this elegant tablecloth Embroidered Fleur-de-Lis Design.
Then, make sure to properly set your tablecloth on your table: the corners of your tablecloth should cover part of the table’s legs (it should hang down 20 to 40 centimeters from the table). Finally, if there are any creases in your tablecloth, you can iron the tablecloth directly on the table (as it’s commonly done in luxury restaurants in France).
At any elegant French dinner, there is always an abundance of courses and therefore plates. And because each course makes its appearance on its own plate, there are usually already several plates on the table at the start of the meal such as the presentation plate (or charger plate), the dinner plate, and the soup or the salad plate. The bread plate is placed at the top of the fork (or forks, if you are serving multiple courses), always on the left. If you don’t have a bread plate, that’s fine, your guests can just put their bread on the table.
In order to properly set your table like the French, there are a few rules to follow when it comes to placing eating utensils (les couverts in French). First, the forks should always go to the left of the plate on the napkin and with the tines pointing down, called à la française. Next, the knives go to the right of the plate with the cutting surfaces pointing towards the plate. If you are looking to invest in quality steak knives, the French Laguiole knives are a solid option for any Francophile. Lastly, the spoon goes to the right of the knife and is placed face down. At more French informal dinners a dessert spoon will be placed above the plate whereas, at more formal affairs, it will be brought with the dessert.
In any case, make sure you place all silverware to be used throughout the meal. For example a serrated steak knife for red meat, a fish knife, and any accessories needed to eat shellfish like an oyster fork next to the knife, or a snail tong next to the fork. In a French table setting, eating utensils, or les couverts, are placed in the order in which you will be using them. The utensils furthest from the plate are the ones you will use first. French tip: For beautifully clean plates and silverware, wipe with a cloth dampened with white vinegar.
Your drinking glasses should always go right above the knife, to the upper right of your plate. If you serve red and white wines during your dinner, you should place 3 types of glasses. First, the largest “wine” glass on the table is reserved for water and is placed on the left. The other glasses are placed to the right of it, in descending order of size. The second-largest glass will be for red wine, and the third-largest for white. You can place a small glass for a liqueur or a champagne flute as well. You can align your glasses in a row or set them in a triangle formation. French tip for immaculate glasses: clean them with steam: pour hot water into a small pan, hold the glass upside-down over it until the inside fogs up, then wipe with a cloth.
At any French elegant dinner, the French always use cloth napkins and not paper napkins (it’s more refined). And it’s even nicer to use old embroidered white napkins with a monogram. You can either place them to the left of the dinner plate or directly on the top plate. There’s no need to fold the napkins into complicated origami shapes, just fold them in a simple way with only two or three folds.
6. Seating Arrangement
If you really want to elevate your dinner party and set your table the French way, consider adding beautiful place cards to each setting. Personally, I think it’s a great way to avoid that awkward “where do I sit” shuffle that happens at every dinner party. Here are some tips to assign seatings properly: first, the host and hostess should sit at either end of the table. Then, make sure to alternate men and women and split up married couples (unless they have been recently married). On the other hand, fiancés are always seated together. If in doubt, just fall back on common sense and don’t seat two best friends together or two people who have a hard time staying out of arguments.
7. Water, Wine and Condiments
On every elegant French table, there is always an open bottle of wine and a beautiful carafe of water (avoid by all means plastic bottles). Indeed, no drink or condiment plastic bottle is acceptable on the table, except for a bottle of wine, and maybe a jar of Maille’s traditional Dijon mustard. Also, set bread, butter, and other condiments in small ramekins or decorative plates for a pretty table. Prefer to use a salt shaker, but if you don’t have one, just put salt in two small dishes on either end of the table (the French prefer the fleur de sel de Camargue over regular table salt).
8. Table Decorations
Once you have placed plates, glasses, utensils, and napkins on your table, you can think about how to decorate your table adding a French finishing touch as inspiration. The French avoid cluttering their tables with a large centerpiece. In addition, they usually avoid tall floral arrangements that can limit the conversation across the table. Instead, the French prefer to opt for a few fresh low-scent flowers in small personalized containers that effectively divide the space for the meal.
For special occasions like Christmas for example, just a pretty Christmas decoration surrounded by a couple of twinkling candles, greenery, berries, or pine cones is enough to make a statement on your table. Also, you can put on the napkins a small present for each guest like a small box of chocolates. When it comes to colors for your table decorations, make sure not to use more than three. Two colors are usually enough white/silver, red/gold, pink/copper, or green and red. To summarize, French table decoration is always simple, chic, and elegant through simple and stunning small pieces of decorations.
Leonce is the founder and editor of Leonce Chenal, a lifestyle platform launched in 2018. Originally from France, Leonce offers a fresh perspective that comes from her experience at top tech companies in Paris and London. Having spent several years in Paris and now residing in Amsterdam, she combines her professional expertise with a personal passion for French and Parisian styles. Leonce is committed to guiding her readers through the intricacies of Parisian chic, empowering them to embrace the elegance and sophistication of French style.