How many people
know how to give a dinner, set a table properly,
and serve foods and wines as they should be
served, in an orderly, appetizing way? In 1891, the famous New York restaurant Delmonico's explained that one must first learn how to set a table. Epicureans might differ as to what constitutes
a perfect dinner, but no one will deny that a
dinner properly cooked and well served, is a
delight. Moreover, if the guests are agreeable,
it is perhaps one of the chief pleasures of
For generations, the New York restaurant
Delmonico's stood for all that was good in elegant dining.
Many of the famous men and women who visited New York
during the nineteenth century also crossed the threshold of this
world-famed restaurant. Famous dinners were
given in its great white and gold dining room – politicians,
statesmen, editors, artists and ministers dined and then thundered forth their after-dinner eloquence
at Delmonico's. Moreover, the restaurant has
sheltered beauty and wealth at hundreds of great private
entertainments like the one pictured above, where rare gems gleamed and the odor of
thousands of roses made one almost believe that fairyland
was a reality. During the late 1800s, Delmonico's had no
rival in America, if indeed in the world. Everything was on
the most lavish scale – rich, rare and costly.
A detail of a vintage Delmonico’s menu from October 23, 1917. This menu featured over 200 items to feast upon, including: Lobster Cocktail, Beluga Caviar, Blue Point Oysters, Smoked Salmon in Oil, Gumbo, Creole, Green Turtle Soup, Mignon Of Lamb Benoit, Boneless Squab Stuffed Foie Gras, Roast Saddle Of Spring Lamb, Roast Pheasant, Oyster Bay Asparagus, Brussels Sprouts With Chestnuts, Potatoes Hashed In Cream, Watercress Salad with French Dressing, plus assorted Ice Creams, Puddings, and Desserts. The New York Public Library has this complete menu in its irresistible collection of 17,000 period restaurant menus with the oldest dating back to the 1850s.
Throughout the late 19th century, city
dinner-giving in New York City was carried on to an extent only equaled
in London and Paris. Much use was made of flowers,
candelabra, colored lights, silverware, silver and gold
plate. But all people cannot serve the exotic
foods found on the Delmonico's menu on gold or silver plates; and not all of us
possess handsomely decorated period dining rooms. For the lack
of these, you can still create the ambiance of the well-to-do Victorian and Edwardian New Yorkers in less expensive ways. And one of
the most important factors is a well set and attractive table with snowy
linen, polished glass and china, and brightly burnished
silverware. In 1891, Delmonico's gave this advice on how to set a formal dinner table to the
readers of The Ladies
A dining room featuring a center large table with a round table setting including flowers, table linens, china and crystal, and every appointment necessary for an intimate formal dinner party. A round table lends itself more easily to decoration than a square one and makes it easier to engage in general conversation.
#1 Round Table Setting
to Delmonico's, one must first learn how to set a table. A
round table is better than a square table, if the
dining room is large enough to permit it. It is easier to
seat people at a round table setting, as well as it provides a more intimate atmosphere for conversation. If a round table is not
available, then the
ordinary oblong extension table can be used. Nevertheless, if more than six or eight guests are to be seated, the greater diameter of a sufficiently large round table is likely to remove opposite guests to too great a distance to be sociable.
Floral centerpieces in a formal table setting should be simple and not high enough to obstruct the view across the table. The lights should be shaded and placed no higher than the heads of the guests. Candles may stand just outside the centerpiece or may be placed near the four corners of a square table. [PHOTO: DINING ROOM TABLE AT THE SAINT JAMES HOTEL, WHICH OPENED IN 1875 IN RED WING, MINNESOTA. PHOTOGRAPHS IN THE CAROL M. HIGHSMITH ARCHIVE, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION]
Flowers should never
be absent from the dinner table. No matter how homely, they
add to the picturesqueness of the feast. The table
decorations of flowers must always be in keeping with the
color of the dinner decided on, and consist of a large
center vase of flowers, not high enough to obstruct the view
across the table. It should extend within ten inches of the
inner edge of the plates. A few hostesses like to have large
bouquets at each end of the table also, but this is not
necessary. A pretty idea is to decorate the chandelier above
with smilax and flowers.
bouquets for the ladies are placed at their right hand, just
in front of the plate; while the gentleman's boutonnière is
placed on his napkin, with his dinner card.
Furthermore, it is
important that the temperature of the room is kept a
little cool, rather than a degree too warm. An over-heated
dining room is an abomination for guests.
The table should be supplied with a handsome and spotless damask cloth over a heavy silence cloth. The tablecloth should extend at least a quarter of a yard over the edge of the table. At times an elaborate lace tablecloth covers the damask table linens. [PHOTO: DETAIL OF THE DINING ROOM OF THE MCFADDIN-WARD HOUSE IN BEAUMONT, TEXAS. PHOTOGRAPHS IN THE CAROL M. HIGHSMITH ARCHIVE, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION]
#3 Table Linens
formal dinner party, on the table is first placed a
thick flannel cloth, the thicker it is the better as it
prevents noise from the dishes as they are placed on it.
Over this is spread a snowy white damask tablecloth; it
should be monogrammed if possible. Sometimes over this is placed still
another, of elaborate embroidery and lace, lined with pink
or yellow satin, as taste dictates, or whatever color is to
predominate at the dinner. The plates are first placed upon
the table. As these are to remain until after soup is
served, they are always the handsomest in the gold or china
sets, as the case may be.
#4. Table Setting
crowd. Each guest should be allowed a space of two feet or
twenty-six inches, if the table will permit it, and the
plates placed at equal distances apart. Place two
dinner forks to the left of each plate and also an oyster
fork with prongs resting on the edge of the plate. On the
right must be a dinner knife and a spoon for soup.
glasses are arranged at the right of each guest on a line
with the inner edge of the plate. The water glass is set
next to the plate; then glasses for whatever other
beverages are intended to be served. If wines are
objectionable, any of the best mineral waters can be used
throughout the dinner, with French coffee at the close. A
glass, whether of water or any other liquid, should never be
filled more than three-quarters full.
#5 Table Centerpiece
In the middle of the table
is the big centerpiece of silver and at each end a handsome
candelabra of silver or crystal. In between
are silver composers of fruit, one at each end, and four low compotiers — two at each end — filled with cakes and
marron glacés. Two other dishes of fruits glacé
are placed one at either end. These dishes of glacés
are used principally at winter dinners. In the summer,
different kinds of fresh fruit are substituted in their
Two compotiers, which stand on either side of the
centerpiece, are filled with favors for the ladies, and may
be anything that the fancy dictates. Six silver shells,
three on each side, are filled with olives and salted
almonds, to be served after the soup. Six or eight handsome
salt-cellars are usually placed on the table, each one
serving two guests.
#6 Napkins or Serviettes
The napkins or serviettes to be used are large damask,
over-folded so as to reveal the monogram, and each forms the
receptacle for a dinner bread roll. When the roll is taken
out of the napkin by each guest, it should always be placed
at the left of the plate. The name cards must be placed on
the top of the napkin, and the menu cards at the right of
#7 Side Table
On a side
table is all the extra silver and china
required. The plates are of course changed, after soup, with
each course, until cream and fruits, which are the last
things on the menu.
decanters, handsome glass jugs covered with silver, are
used, they are placed at opposite corners of the table — one
at each corner, making four in all. These generally contain
claret and sherry.
finger bowls, which may be of gold, silver, or enamelware,
or very fine glass, are not placed on the table until after
the ices and fruits have been served. They are then put on
handsome dessert plates with fine embroidered doilies.
[Edited from The
Ladies Home Journal, 1891. Author: Foster
Coates. Photographs: the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]