Set the Mood for Your Formal Dinner Party

Set the Mood for Your Formal Dinner Party

Hosting an impressive gathering at home is a superpower. A sophisticated get together has the ability to transform relationships, bring joy, and to dazzle your loved ones.  Many of us these days have limited knowledge of how to host a formal dinner. In some ways, it’s become a lost art in our fast-paced and busy world. The good news is you don’t have to be Martha Stewart to host a truly magical dinner, one that stands out to your guests shows how much you care about them.

Setting tonights mood: 1. get the rsvp 2. add a bit of ambiance, lighting always matters 3. set your table ahead of time 4. be ready with the drinks - cocktails, water, wine, all the options 5. course out the meal to match the flow of the evening

Whether you’re hosting dinner for friends and family, planning a date night, or in charge of hosting the next board meeting, there are simple things you can do to make an impression. Here are 5 tips to awe your guests and up your dinner game for big and small gatherings.

  1. Get the RSVP. 
  2. Add a bit of ambiance, lighting always matters.
  3. Set your table ahead of time.
  4. Be ready with the drinks - cocktails, water, wine, all the options.
  5. Course out the meal to match the flow of the evening. 

The Importance of Invitations:

Every scale and type of gathering has an appropriate invitation method. If it’s just you and your friends, send a text, lock in a date, and send the Google Calendar invitation. Let’s be honest. If it’s not on the calendar, it won’t happen. For larger gatherings or a broader swath of friends, send invitations to set the tone and stay organized.

Although paper invitations are awesome, everyone is busy in today’s world, and they have a tough time RSVPing to most things, let alone handwritten letters or phone calls in a timely manner. One of the most popular e-invitation tools is Paperless Post. They have free card options and each one has its own theme and style. For a couple of cents, you can even send out Kate Spade themed cards.

Sending out e-invitations makes it super easy for your guests to reply and lets you be clear if they can bring a +1 guest.This will help set the mood in letting people know that they can’t just bring some people to tag along at the last minute, and they can’t just “pop in” if they have time. They know that they need to let you know for certain if they can attend, giving you a heads up way ahead of time so that you know how many people to prepare dinner for. 

Of course, be sure to match the tone of the invitation to the tone of how formal your dinner party is. While it’s good etiquette for the host to send out invitations, a handwritten note or an e-invitation is always fun for guests to receive.  If you want to up it a notch and do very formal, invest in a stationary brand to craft invites for you, which is a step up from hand-writing ready-made invitations yourself.

No matter what type of invitation you select, get the RSVP - the final guest count matters. It's every hosts’ worst nightmare to scramble at the last minute to get more food or make more space. The secret to success is to confirm, and then reconfirm. Even for the most casual gatherings, set a date, get a confirmation that they are coming, and the day before text your friends and tell them you’re excited to see them & ‘John Doe’ tomorrow! It’s an easy way to send a gentle nudge and make sure they are still coming.

How to Add Oomph to the Ambience:

First impressions matter. When a guest walks into your home, it’s your first chance to show your personality and style. Your home speaks volumes about your personality, and what you do to prepare the surroundings will speak volumes about how much you care for your guests. So treat this as an opportunity, not a last-minute thought. 

Mood Music:

There is nothing more of a mood killer than dead silence, so turn on the music before your guests arrive. Think about the feelings you want to evoke and select a playlist. Luckily, Spotify makes this easy. Here’s our favorite playlists: 

  • For a more upbeat evening, try “Good Vibes”. 
  • Looking for a smooth swanky feeling? Try “Late Night Jazz”.
  • Love the classics? Try our playlist “Sounds of the Steer”.

You’ll want to test the volume to make sure it’s loud enough to hear, but not loud enough that your guests are shouting. When in doubt, it is always better to select a lower volume. 


Lighting is vital in setting the mood! It can make a complete difference in the atmosphere of the whole evening. Something simple and elegant to achieve this is candles! They add elegance to the simplest of tables and are inexpensive and easy to obtain!  Real or battery-operated candles can make all the difference to your evening. Just watch out for anything too smelly - it’ll overpower the smell of your dinner. So avoid that cheap vanilla candle.

If you’re hosting often, it’s worth adding dimmers to your home. They are a simple but powerful way to rapidly adjust the ambiance and give a sultry air to a meal.

Formal Linens and Napkins:

Use real linens and napkins! Don’t use paper napkins, and if your table doesn’t have a great surface, then add a tablecloth. These items don’t need to be matchy-matchy, but they also shouldn’t clash. It’s why we like to have a backup white or black tablecloth because it’ll go with anything. 

If You want to get Really Fancy, Add a Charger: 

Use a charger when you want to spruce things up and add some extra pop to the table! Also, known as service plates or under plates, chargers are meant purely for decoration and not for eating off of. Different bowls and plates for each course are stacked on top of the charger. These are especially handy when you want to serve multiple course meals and want to do so in style. Pick the perfect one to complement the mood that you want to set for your dinner party. 

Place Cards:

Place cards are fun because they make the dinner an intimate affair. They add a personalized touch to the party. Not only are you showing your guests that you put a lot of thought into this, but it also is a great way for them to sit by new faces and mingle. It can make it less awkward when people are trying to figure out where to sit as well. 

Center Piece:

A fun centerpiece goes a long way and can tie everything together. Just make sure that it’s not too big and prevents your guests from seeing each other! 

An easy option that will beautify any table is flowers! You don’t even need to make it elaborate or expensive. Many stores offer greenery and flowers that will go a long way. Whether it’s some vases with flowers, succulents, or anything that you whip up, flowers can be an essential item to the table. They add life and color. 

Make sure that you take into consideration allergies! Flowers with little pollen, succulents, or artificial flowers are all great options. Our Founder’s favorite hack is to use dried flowers. You can buy them once, and they'll last 6 months to a year.

Decorative serving platters:

Depending on the meal, everything might be prepared and set up ahead of time or you might be cooking as you go. We always recommend utilizing serving platters for food when possible so guests can choose their portions and abstain from anything they don’t like without awkward refusals.

The Art of Setting Your Table:

Taking the time to set your table shows your guests how much you care and builds up the anticipation for the meal. The dinner party table setting is of the utmost importance. Don’t skip over this; this ties the whole dinner party together. Presentation is almost as important as the food itself!

First thing’s first, spot check and wipe down your surface. It's always good to do it one more time before you spend the time to set the table. Next, count out and space the chairs at the table, making sure you have a spot for everyone and their seating isn’t too close together. Now choose your table setting based on your dinner format.

Things to keep in mind when setting your table:

  • Be sure to geometrical space everything (space all plates and balance all silverware).
  • Be sure to give everyone enough elbow room at the table and not to crowd them. 
  • Use silverware with the same pattern. Now is not the time to mix and match.

How to Set Your Table for a Simple Dinner: 

  1. Set out a dinner plate with a smaller salad plate on top of it. 
  2. Place the napkin to the left of the plate. 
  3. Set out two forks on the left (one for salad and one for dinner).
  4. Set out a knife and a spoon on the right. 
  5. Set out a wine glass and a water glass on the right of each setting (this is because most people are right-handed).

How to Set Your Table for a More Formal Dinner:

  1. Always put the napkin to the left of the plate and two forks. 
  2. There should be two forks to the left of the plate, with the smaller one being the “salad fork” and the larger one being for the main course (put the smaller one on the outside of the larger one). 
  3. The plate should be centered and big enough to have “white space” with the food on it. You don’t want an overstuffed plate because that would lead to a messy look. 
  4. Put the knife and bigger spoon to the right of the plate, with the knife closer to the plate. Check you’re using the soup spoon, and not the dessert spoon. 
  5. Put the little spoon and fork above the plate, with the spoon facing west and the fork facing east. 
  6. Place the water glass and wine glass above the knife and spoon and to the right of the plate. Later on in the meal, you can place a cup for a hot beverage  to the right as well, when serving dessert. 
  7. The charger should be placed at the base of each place setting, as it’s the decorative base on which you place other dinnerware. Each should be placed two feet from each other to give guests enough room and should be on the placemat if there is one. 

How to Select Your Beverages:

Hands down the best way to kick off the evening while your guests settle in is asking them one of the most beloved lines of all time - “Would you like a drink?”.  Ease the flow of things by preparing ahead with the basics such as, having flat and sparkling water on hand as well as ice. Start with a cocktail, and give them their options (a specialty cocktail is always fun), rather than just asking what they would like, unless you really are an expert bartender. 

Think through wine pairings. If you’re doing a longer meal, maybe add bubbles, and if you’re not, perhaps a white to start and a red with dinner. Keep in mind, some wine needs to be chilled and some need to be decanted, and be sure to have them ready to go if they need to be aired. 

Don’t forget small details, such as changing the glasses according to the type of drink. Consider adding wine glass jewelry/charms to help distinguish glasses from each other.

How to Course Your Meals:

No matter the size of your gatherings, whether  there are 2 people or 20, you’ll need to think about the menu. What do you want to serve, and how will it match the flow of the evening? It’s much more obvious with larger scale events, 40+ guests, but smaller and medium get-togethers take nuance and thoughtfulness. Do you want to eat 30 minutes after everyone arrives, or an hour? Then, how heavy do your hors d’oeuvres need to be - something small to nibble on, or more substantial like a charcuterie board? Is everyone drinking before dinner? If they are, add something with bread to line their stomachs before the food is ready.

The most important factor to consider is dietary restrictions - who’s a vegan, vegetarian, pescatrian, and who has a nut allergy or lactose intolerant? Ask your guests ahead of time if they have any dietary preferences or allergies before you risk that scene from Will Smith’s Hitch

Next, be honest about your culinary prowess and your tolerance for stress. Never choose a recipe that you’ve never tried before or something that is radically different from your usual repertoire. If it doesn’t turn out, you’ll be stuck scrambling for other options. Decide early on if you want to cook everything before your guests arrive or are comfortable finishing up in the kitchen once they arrive. That’ll dictate your cooking times and order of operations. 

Here are two sample menus for a simpler and more fancy meal.

The Simple but Winning Line-Up:

  • Charcuterie Board - 1 soft cheese, 1 hard cheese, raisin crackers, baby tomatoes or grapes, and hard salami
  • Entree - steak recipe, one with a sauce or crust
  • 2 sides - green beans and potatoes
  • Dessert - chocolates

A Chance to Wow:

A Slam Dunk Tip:

With your fantastic meal and great ambiance, you’ve already impressed your guests. If you want to go the final and “extra” mile, go old school and offer an after-dinner beverage. Whether you serve coffee, tea, lemon and water, or a fancy digestif, like a cordial, you’ll be sure to dazzle.


Photo credit: Krakenimages