20-40-60 Etiquette: Setting the table, tone for your dinner party
QUESTION: Should I use place mats or a tablecloth for my dinner party? There will be 10 people seated at my dining table.
CALLIE’S ANSWER: Place mats usually seem to be informal while tablecloths are for more formal events. Although tablecloths also can be used for festive, fun, informal celebrations. Both can be used, though, depending on what your vibe is.
LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: Set your table according to the tone you want to set. I think tablecloths are more formal, but place mats brighten up a table, too. If you have a tablecloth and haven’t entertained in a while, it might be fun to bring it out for a formal dinner party. You also can consider table runners, too. What fun to think about setting a table, bringing out your dishes and table decor and serving a dinner to friends! Entertaining has definitely gotten more casual in recent years, but I think you can decorate your table based on what colors and tone you want to have, whether that includes a tablecloth or place mats or both.
On a side note, I know people are missing their gatherings — I am, too — but I’d still be cautious when getting together with people outside your family, especially when people are close in small indoor spaces, until we get a better handle on this pandemic. I’m hoping that comes soon, but for the short term, please be aware of social distancing and mask guidelines.
HELEN’S ANSWER: It is wonderful that you are entertaining! A beautiful tablecloth would highlight your dinner plates and be amazing. Most of us are in the habit of using place mats for every meal, so, bringing out the “good stuff” makes everyone feel special. My mother always kept her lace tablecloth ready to use. She washed it herself and took such good care of it.
There are formal place mats available, too. Monogrammed white mats are always great to have on hand.
There are so many colorful tablecloths and place mats for informal use. They come in all patterns and can be chosen to go with any color scheme.
GUEST’S ANSWER: Kathy Walker, local community leader: I love the fact that you are planning to entertain guests at a table for 10. Nothing is nicer than being included in such a gathering. Whether you cook and serve the dinner fare yourself or have something created by a caterer, your friends, acquaintances and/or those to be feted will be utterly charmed!
For an indoor formal dinner party, it’s always elegant to use a white damask tablecloth. You can always use a lovely cloth runner down the full length of the center of the table. If you don’t have one, get one! This table linen is hard to find at an affordable price, so shop the antique and vintage stores and estate sales where you can select something beautiful for a very reasonable price.
Some say that place mats should not be used at affair such as this; however, if you have a stunning table that would enhance the table setting, why not use elegant place mats instead of a tablecloth? If the place mats are delicate linen or organdy, make sure you have a protective under pad. The same goes for a tablecloth.
For a less formal dinner party, I have used colored tablecloths that blend in with my dining room colors. Also, try using a runner on the cloth or a runner with place mats, as well. There are a wide variety of place mats such as round, oval, rectangle and very small rectangle. And if you are entertaining outside, there are no limits to your creativity with different fabrics. No wonder my children call me a hoarder. I collect all of the above.
For my daughters’ wedding breakfast and dinner, I used file and taffeta runners in muted colors running crosswise across the long tables dressed in white tablecloths. This marked the pacesetting at each guest’s chair. This is another feature that can easily be used at home when one is entertaining.
I suppose my fixation on tablecloths emanated from memories of my childhood when my paternal grandmother always served Sunday lunch on a stark white damask tablecloth, one that I have since inherited and use today. When I take it out and throw it over my maternal grandmother’s table, I can still catch the aroma of the overcooked beef roast from Kamp’s grocery, mashed potatoes swimming in butter and green beans with pearl onions, homemade pie, and all of it served on occupied Japanese Noritake china, which I use today. And during these uncertain times, I yearn for that warm feeling of comfort and warmth around her table for 10 once again.
Since 2009 Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth, 40-plus and Helen, 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.