Most people set their tables rather informally these days for any number of valid reasons, the lack of time being the main one. Who has time to fuss over linens, crystal, and china, much less polish the silver?
However, if you're planning a formal dinner, do make a special effort. On these occasions attention to detail and doing things right are important.
When you are entertaining more than eight guests for dinner, use place cards even if you have a seating chart.
Place cards are either folded tents or single cards meant to lie flat on the table. The tent-style cards have the advantage of standing up on the table so that you can write the name on both sides. In this way, others at the table can see who's sitting where.
The most elegant and costly place cards are made of thick white or off-white stock, with a narrow border of silver, gold, or another color. They measure about 2 by 31⁄2 inches, and you can purchase them from a good stationer or jeweler.
Never hesitate to make your own place cards from materials readily available in your home. If they serve the purpose, use them.
Place cards can go in any of the following locations on your table:
- On top of a napkin, set in the middle of the plate
- On the table at the upper left of the place setting (above the forks)
- Leaning against the stem of a water or wine glass
- On the table, just above the middle of the plate in the place setting
Write the names in black ink. You may type them for a business meal. The important thing is to make sure the names are readily legible and large enough to see from across the table. If possible, use calligraphy on them or have someone do it for you.
If all the guests know each other at an informal dinner, just write the first name of each person on his or her card. If two or more guests have the same first name, use first and last names on their cards. If not all of the guests know each other, use both names on all of the cards.
At a formal dinner party, such as a business dinner or official function, or any meal at which persons of rank will be present, use only surnames on the cards, for example, Mr. Fleischmann. If two Mr. Fleischmanns are at the table, use full names on their cards: Mr. Daniel Fleischmann.
Use the full titles of military officers and persons who hold or have held political or high appointed office, whether or not they still hold that office or title.
Place cards for the mayor and governor read The Mayor and The Governor. If they no longer hold those offices, the cards read Mayor Rendell and Governor Ridge.
Once an ambassador, always an ambassador. And a military officer is called by his or her retired rank forever.
Mind Your P's and Q's
Don't forget to breathe before the party. Literally. Give yourself a few quiet minutes—five will do it. This will clear your mind and center yourself. Then you can put all your energy into your guests.
Menu cards can make a dinner more of an event. They also provide useful information to those concerned about diet. For example, knowing that the entree is poached fish might give a dieter license to finish off the cream soup or look forward to enjoying the dessert with a clear conscience.
Menu cards may be typed, done in calligraphy, or written in black ink. Lean them against a glass, rest them flat on the table to the left of the forks, or lay them centered over the plate above the dessert fork and spoon. Two guests may share one card, or each may have his or her own.
Write the date or the occasion at the top of the card. The courses follow in a vertical list. Wines may or may not be included.