The tea table setting for your party will primarily depend on what resources you have available and how you envision your guests mingling. Do you want everyone to be seated at the table when taking tea or will guests choose chairs and couches in living room? There’s no need to get overworked by the details of setting the tea table, such as becoming stressed if you don’t own dessert forks. And sometimes, breaking the rules just makes more sense. Simply arrange whatever you have available in the most attractive way.
If you plan to have the eating and mingling take place outside of the dining room for an afternoon tea, the dining room table can still be used to serve the food and drink. Remove the chairs from the table and arrange the dishes in a buffet style. Envision the flow of traffic and arrange the stacked side plates, utensils, and linen napkins near one another at a place where the guests can easily grab what they need before making their way around the table to the foods. Place the clotted cream and jam bowls by the scones and be sure that the teacups, saucers, and teaspoons are by the teapot which should also be within easy reach of the milk pitcher, lemon plate, and sugar bowl.
Or if you have a low tea table in the living room, you could arrange the teapot and a few foods on it instead. In Victorian times, the fashionable upper-crust held their afternoon tea in the drawing room and the lady of the house served the tea from a low side table (thus the name “low tea” for an afternoon tea). Simply arrange this table in whichever way makes the most sense and allows guests to easily help themselves to the food dishes as you serve the tea.
Now, let’s assume that you would like your guests to all sit down at a table to enjoy the tea and the food. If you plan to serve a high tea, which is similar to a dinner, each seat will either require an informal or formal place setting depending on the occasion.
Informal Tea Table Setting
Formal Tea Table Setting
The foundation of the tea table setting lies on a pretty table cloth. The utensils should be placed approximately one inch away from the edge of the table and run from the outside to the inside of the place setting in the order of use. Therefore, the utensils needed last would be closest to the plate. Forks are placed to the left of the plate and knives and spoons are placed on the right with the knife closest to the plate and the blade facing in. Glasses should be to the right of the setting and above the knife and spoons. The linen napkin is either laid across the plate or to the left of the forks, as you prefer. Arranging place cards ahead of time is a nice touch that makes your guests feel special and relaxed, especially if many of them do not know one another.
In the formal place setting, a bread plate goes on the left side above the forks with butter knife laid diagonally across it. Both a dessert spoon and cake fork are placed above the dinner plate and a salad plate is laid on top of it.
And of course, there is the teacup and saucer which is set to the right of the knife and spoons. For the typical dinner party, these are usually not placed on the table until the dessert course. But if you are hosting a tea party, the cup and saucer will be an important feature of the table setting for each course.
Adjust your tea table to best accommodate the dishes and drinks that you plan to serve. The setting may fall somewhere in-between the informal and formal table setting depending on the supplies available and the menu. For example, a salad plate would be a silly addition if you do not plan to serve salad but you still may want to use a cake fork or bread plate in the tea table setting.
To make the serving of the tea as easy as possible, the tray with teapot, milk pitcher, sugar bowl, lemon dish, and waste bowl can be arranged on a side table as the main dining table can quickly become cluttered with plates, glasses, cups, and utensils.
For a list and descriptions of all the tea dishes and serving supplies you may need for the table, take a look at the page on tea equipment.