Table design, setting key to creating mood for dining

May 16, 2016 by Alene Keenan

I recently had the privilege of assisting as a guest and sponsor with Aqualuxe Outfitting’s Top Notch Tabletop Challenge 2016 at the Palm Beach Boat Show. With four categories and 21 stews participating, the event is not a “competition” as such. It is not judged or critiqued. Instead, it is a Facebook event where the number of likes determines the winner. The categories were:

  • Luxe Interior
  • Chic
  • Menu Design
  • Tip of the day

The main reason for this event is to inspire and be inspired. Some stews don’t participate because they fear they won’t measure up to the competition. Maybe their boat doesn’t have much “stuff” and there is no budget to go out and buy anything new. Keep in mind that some of the best ideas are the simplest, and this is the perfect opportunity to tap into your creativity by finding new ways to re-purpose your decorations. It’s all about sharing, getting new ideas, and commenting on others’ designs.  

If you have not already done so, check them out on Facebook. This is a real opportunity to see what designs are being created. Sponsorship is growing every year, and the impact that events like this have on encouraging professionalism for stews is commendable.

Table top design is frequently on a stew’s mind, and many people are surprised to learn how elaborate and amazing they are. When guests are onboard, food is in focus and meal planning is a large part of the day. Guests anticipate the table décor as much as the food. Requirements vary from boat to boat, but generally speaking, the evening meal is usually the most elaborate. Ranging from simple to elaborate, the table décor can set the mood for the meal.

There are rules about table setting, but many times there is room for flexibility. Imagination and variety can add to the enjoyment of the food. Table cloths, placemats, and table runners define each place setting and are the foundation of the design. Accessories add special touches and provide color and harmony to the theme. Napkin rings, candles and other colorful items add variety and dress up the table.

Here are some basic rules of table setting:

  • A place setting is called a cover.  It includes the napkin, dinnerware, glassware, and flatware to be used.
  • The rule is to allow 24 inches of width for each person, but the dining space you are serving may not be large enough to accommodate that.
  • The bottom tip of dinnerware and flatware should be about one inch from the edge of the table or place mat. We call this the “rule of thumb”. If you place your thumb on the edge of the table, the length of the thumb nail is about the right distance.
  • Spatial symmetry is important.
  • The menu determines what utensils are used.
  • Use only the items necessary for the foods you plan to serve.
  • Silverware is arranged in order of use, from the outside in. Forks go on the left and knives and spoons on the right. Knife blades always face in towards the plate.
  • Place water or beverage glass about one inch above the point of the knife. Wine glasses go to the right and slightly below the water glass, according to their use.
  • You may also arrange glasses in a triangle.
  • Lighter wines are served before heavier wines. The glass used first is farthest to the right.
  • When used, cup and saucer are placed outside the flatware slightly above and to the right, with handle facing right. A teaspoon may be placed on the saucer or to the right of a coffee mug.
  • Bread and butter plates are placed directly above or to the left of the forks. A butter spreader lies across the top of the plate with the blade parallel to the edge of the table, or parallel to the other flatware with the blade facing the plate.
  • Salt and pepper shakers should be within easy reach and in a consistent pattern. If individual shakers are used decide which side the salt will go on and set each setting identically, every time.
  • Salad plates go to the left of the fork. The napkin goes left of the setting or in the center of the cover as a decorative accessory. Dessert silverware may be placed above the cover horizontally with fork handle to the left and spoon handle to the right. The item pulled down to the right goes on top. It may also be brought to the table when dessert is served.
  • Centerpieces should be low enough so diners can see and talk to the person across the table. Candles should be lit with flame above or well below eye level to prevent glare.

There are many ways to set a table, and many styles of service to take into consideration when planning. Stews are acting as designers each time they set the table, by choosing and arranging elements according to a plan for beauty and order. Whether it is a special occasion, a holiday, a theme dinner or a simply reflection of the natural beauty of the surroundings, setting a table is an event and an accomplishment. Good job, Stews!!!

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at and on Contact her at


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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