When entertaining, how you set your table tends to indicate what diners can expect from formality, as well as how comprehensive the meal may be. There's certainly a time and place for the classic Emily Post "Miss Etiquette" style of comprehensive table setting, but today's homeowner seldom has the array of dishes required for a formal table setting. Knowing this, it's good to grasp the formality of a full table setting, but it's okay to celebrate modernity by dialing things back for a cleaner, simpler table.
Formal Versus Informal
A formal table is quite the thing to behold. With a minimum of 10 utensils, four glasses and three plates per setting, plus a cup, saucer and other bitsies, it's a mammoth undertaking to set this scene. In today's world of shrinking urban homes and rising costs of living, it's less common for homeowners to have the abundance of cutlery and china needed to pull off the Buckingham Palace-style table setting. More importantly, the grand old dining table isn't as common in today's smaller square-footages, so using comprehensive settings can put a damper on table space.
In fact, look at some of the world's most celebrated high-end restaurants, and it's evident that the everything-at-once style of multi-course table setting has fallen out of vogue. Today's dining world sees food as the star, and it's become more common to change the place setting with each course rather than having it all there from the get-go.
The Eternal Compromise
When serving a multi-course meal, having a sideboard or buffet to organize each course's dishes can be quite helpful. There, dessert dishes, soup spoons, coffee cups and tea settings can all be organized for quick dispensing as you work through your courses. Simply clear away each diner's dirty dishes to the kitchen, then set out the new dishes as needed for the next course.
Instead of worrying about having the full complement of cutlery, such as the fish knife and fork, it may be more beneficial to you, in the long run, to simply double up on the standards: Dinner, salad, soup and dessert cutlery. This way, you'll have enough for multi-course meals, but also enough to have suitable cutlery for the entire gang when hosting informal potlucks with larger crowds.
Two Kinds of Table Setting
Ignoring the ultra-fancy formal setting doesn't mean there isn't a good compromise. There is the "informal" setting. This is not to be mistaken with the "casual" table setting. What's the difference? Think of informal as being "not black tie, but no jeans," and casual being anything goes.
Casual Dinner Setting
The casual dinner is for every night of the week. If you'd like a place mat, start with laying that down. The rule of thumb is the place mat should begin about 1 inch from the edge of the table. Center the dinner plate upon the place mat. Put the dinner knife and soup spoon on the right side of the plate and the fork on the left. Again, cutlery should be about 1 inch out from the edge of the plates. Always put the knife down with the blade facing into the plate. A bit of trivia for you: This was done in the fancy days partly so that the cutlery maker's name would be face-up and the diner could be impressed the caliber of cutlery they were dining with.
Above the knife, place the wine or drink glass. If serving wine along with water or other beverages, it's wine glass above the knife, then water or other glass to the right of the wine glass. If you're having bread or rolls and you'd like a separate plate for these, it goes to the left, above the fork.
The informal begins the same way as the casual setting does above. Placemat, plate, knife and spoon to the right, fork to the left and so on. After all these components are laid, the extras for the informal setting are added.
With any table setting, you only use what you're serving, but it's customary to serve a soup spoon regardless of whether there will be soup. If serving a dessert that requires spoons, then you can put the soup spoon on the outside because it would get used first, then put the dessert spoon between the knife and spoon. An alternative is to put the soup spoon horizontal to the table's edge, above the plate, with the eating end pointing to the left. Both work, it's just a matter of the table setter's preference.
On the fork side, the dinner fork should be closest to the plate and a salad fork should be on the outside. To the left of the salad fork should be a salad plate.
As for napkins, again, it's a matter of preference. People often place the napkin under the knife and spoon, and others will fold the napkin and lay it on top of the dinner plate. It's up to you.
Holding Back: Plates and Cups
If you're serving a meal where you plan to put the main course on each plate, then serve it to the guest, keep the plates together in the kitchen or wherever you plan to dole the food out. After you've plated the food, bring each portion out and lay it on the table in front of the diner.
There's an argument to be made for putting coffee cups and saucers to the right of the water glass with each setting, but it takes up a lot of space. Plus, in today's dinner party world, it's just not as common to serve coffee and tea after dinner. So to keep your table simpler, leave the cups and saucers on the sideboard and serve accordingly.