What is a formal entertaining? The components that are required in a formal dinner setting have become impractical in modern times. Because they require a spacious facility and experienced, professional staff, they only still exist at formal state occasions. Think of it as a ceremonial performance with an elaborate setting, complex script, cast and wardrobe. That doesn't mean that you can't come close with a little less formality. This is not quite "informal" but rather "less formal"! In a formal dinner, the food is brought in from the kitchen on individual plates and served to each guest one course at a time. Thus, no serving dishes are placed on the table. If a dish is passed, it goes from guest to guest and either returned to the kitchen or placed on a side table.
We will describe the elements that you must include to call it formal so that you can decide how you can adjust to suit your circumstances.
- You must have a table covering. Ideally, your table cloth should have a 12 inch drop all the way around. This means that there should be 12 inches from the edge of the table to the hem of the table cloth. The unfortunate complication of this is that your guests can get tangled in the cloth as it will hang in their laps. If you napkins match the cloth, it is easy to pick up the cloth thinking it is the napkin. Though it may be a little less attractive, Lady Virginia recommends an 8 to 10 inch drop as that will just brush the top of the lap when the guest is seated.
- You must have a centerpiece. This can be flowers, fruit or some ceramic piece. Resist the temptation to make too grand a centerpiece as it can be a distraction. Keep it low so your guests can easily see over it and feel comfortable talking with those across the table from them. Also, when selecting a centerpiece think about how appetizing it may or may not be. Don't bring in a bunch of things from outdoors that may have a strong smell or contain bugs or drop pieces on the cloth or in the food. Lady Virginia of Lady Personified.com likes to use silk flowers as there are less surprises. For added interest, place the center piece(s) on mirrors.
- You will place a service plate at each place. We'll stop a moment to explain these items as they are often misunderstood and misused.
- The service plate should be slightly larger than your dinner plate.
- The place in front of the guest should never be empty and a dirty plate is not immediately replaced with the next course. There must be an empty plate at the guests place in between courses. Therefore, the service plate allows you to remove a dirty plate and put the plate with the next course on it. At the end of a course the dirty plate is removed, leaving the service plate in place.
- For example, the first course is placed on the service plate. It is removed and the soup bowl is placed on the service plate. Then when the soup is removed the service plate goes along with it and the entree is placed in front of the guest directly on the cloth. The entree is removed and the table crumbed before the desert is brought in. "Crumbed" means that the staff come around with a special utensil that scoops up the crumbs in front of each guest. Though it sounds a bit awkward, it is absolutely correct. This task cannot be performed by the host or hostess but must be performed by the uniformed staff. Frankly, if done correctly it is a bit of a performance.
- Dishes are served from the left of the guest and removed from the right side. Some cultures have strict taboos about offering something with the left hand. Research may be necessary if you are entertaining guests from a culture that you don’t know well.
- You must have Candlesticks or candelabra.
- You must have dishes with sweets and nuts. Remember the old saying that suggests very formal, "From soup to nuts"? This refers to the courses in a formal dinner.
- You must have salt and pepper at each place (or for every two guests)
- You must have individual place cards.
- Never put bread and butter plates on a formal table!
For a fuller explanation and illustrations of formal and informal, visit www.ladypersonified.com
Formal luncheon: A formal luncheon should be set on a bare table. There can be place mats or runners. There are no candles on a luncheon table and bread and butter plates are included on the table of a formal luncheon setting. The cloth napkin is smaller than the one used at a formal dinner. Depending on the weather you will probably find a clear soup served in cups.
Informal table setting: Most of us want to be able to honor our guests with a "formal" feeling but are limited both by space and experienced help. When the hostess goes to the trouble of preparing an elegant setting with silver, crystal and china the guests feel very special. It gives everyone an opportunity to dress up and feel pampered. You've seen us express this before, entertaining is a wonderful gift a lady can offer. Opening up our home for guests is a very personal thing. Most people appreciate being included for such an event and will cherish the memory for some time to come.
There is always anxiety about using the proper utensil at a formal dinner or restaurant. As the host or hostess it is your responsibility to ensure that the table is properly set. As a guest, you get your clues from how the table is set. For the most part, you can look at your place and know what is on the menu. If you see that the salad fork is set on the far left, you know that the salad will be a separate course before the entrée. On the other hand if you see that the salad fork is placed next to the plate on the left and the dinner fork is to the right of the salad fork, you know that your salad will be served after the entrée. This is actually the correct order of courses for a formal meal, but people are becoming more accustomed to having the salad before the entrée. You really don’t even need to know which is the salad fork because you simply use the utensil that is next in line. Forks on the left, and knives and spoons and cocktail fork on the right. Occasionally, the utensil comes in with the course, so once again, you don’t have to worry about what to use. If all else fails, watch your hostess. She will pick up her utensil first as a signal that it is time to eat the course in front of you and you can simply follow suit with confidence. One other convenient trick to help you know what is yours. Look at the service in front of you and think B..M..W. Bread…Meal…Water. Of course we did say that you will not have a bread and butter plate in a formal service, but at least it gives you a reference point. Once again, more detail and examples are available at www.ladypersonified.com.