Let's pretend you get to a fancy table like this (with chairs, of course) and you sit down. Why do you have 3 forks? 2 knives? Multiple glasses? What's what and how do you prepare yourself for the unknown meal that is about to be presented to you?
...or maybe you're eating over a friend's place and it's a little bit less formal. Do all of the same rules still apply?
Here's what you need to know:
The number of utensils laid on the table initially is determined by the number of courses. A place setting for a multi-course meal is crowded with flatware and stemware. To alleviate clutter, no more than 3 forks, 3 knives and a soup spoon are laid on the table initially.
Because most people are right-handed, the knife and spoon are laid on the right side of the plate and the fork on the left (left-handed diners can reverse this setting if they'd like). The prongs of the knife face the plate. This custom dates back to the middle ages when an inward-facing blade represented goodwill, versus an outward-facing blade, ready for swift retaliation against an enemy.
Flatware is placed on the table based on common sense, comfort, convenience and symmetrical alignment (this is why a well-set table is so pleasing to the eye). The lower edges of utensils are lined up with the bottom of the plate, about 1 inch from the edge of the table. Utensils should be placed about 1 inch from the sides of the plate/bowl so as not to be hidden. They are placed on the table in the order of use for each course, starting on the outside of the place setting and working their way inward toward the plate.
When salad is served as a side dish to the main course, we would use one fork and knife for both. However, if salad is its own course, you would use one set of flatware (fork and knife) for salad, then send it away, then use another set for your main course.
If you start out the meal with a place setting like this (see the middle picture first), here's how you'll eat and send your dishes away. Looking at the flatware (aka silverware), we can tell that there will be two courses for which we'll need a fork and a knife, and that before these, we'll be using a spoon for soup (sorry I don't have any soup spoons at home. They're usually more round). The top left plate and knife are for bread and butter and can be sent back with any course's dishes (it's okay to hold onto them and finish your bread with your main course). In the first picture for each course, flatware is placed as if we're still working on the (delicious, invisible) food. In the 2nd picture, flatware is placed to indicate that we are finished. Notice where it is on the plate. Some people may criss-cross the knife and fork to show that they are finished, and that's okay, too! After the soup course, salad course, and main course, we can slide the fork and spoon down for dessert and coffee. (Note: Each meal is different, so the setting will not be the same for every event you attend. Look for a menu on the table for more guidance and remember, if you make a mistake or send a knife or fork that you need away, it's okay- you can always ask for another).
This place setting is also set for drinks. The top glass is for wine (sometimes you may see two wine glasses- one for red and one for white), the next one is for champagne, and a third will be placed with water closer to the event's start time.
The top silverware position would be used if you had to step away from the table but did not want your food to be cleared yet. Use this kindly, as your server will be awaiting the space for your next course.
A soiled utensil should not be laid on the table after it is used. This includes spoons for iced beverages (where you would leave the spoon in the glass while drinking) and tea/coffee (where you would leave the spoon on a saucer).
Did You Know...?
In the Middle Ages, European noblemen owned 2 knives: A large one used as a kitchen tool and a small one used as an eating utensil and a dagger.
In Medieval times, a host did not supply dinner knives. Noblemen carried their own carried in a leather sheath on their belts. Peasants carried knives in stockings strapped to their legs. The saying 'to whet the appetite' came from the same time when a whetstone was placed at the entrance to a great hall so that guests could sharpen their knives before a great feast? When we say 'whet your whistle' today, we can be grateful that we don't actually have to!
The knife was the first utensil and was initially used as a tool to cut and to spear large sections of meat. Soon the fork was developed and the knife's shape was changed accordingly.
Louis XIV was the first king to provide guests with a knife, fork and spoon, and by the 18th century, suites (sets) of matched flatware were fashionable throughout Europe and England. By the mid 18th century, these sets were available and affordable enough for those of average means to have their own sets.
I think you're ready for your next meal now. When we eat at home, we tend to create a very informal setting for ourselves and our families, but it can be fun to set the table in a more formal, traditional way. Try it for your next meal or your next party, and remember that these traditions have been around for centuries, and will be around for many, many years to come!
Source: The Art of the Table: A Complete Guide to Table Setting, Table Manners and Tableware by Suzanne Von Drachenfels (A GREAT book!)