Whether you’ve grown weary of your dishes or are looking to furnish your cabinets for the first time, setting an Instagram-worthy dinner table doesn’t have to be stressful or expensive.
Michael Sullivan, kitchen writer at Wirecutter, has held multiple restaurant jobs, from dining-room manager to pantry chef. He’s researched and tested water and wine glasses, tableware, and linens to find practical and beautiful settings that add effortless elegance to any meal.
Upgrade your glassware
Choosing a complete set of water glasses is an affordable and easy way to add a unifying motif to an otherwise eclectic table. Restaurants the world over — from casual street cafes to Michelin-starred establishments — rely on $5-a-pop Duralex Picardie glasses because they’re as tough as they are pretty. Their tempered-glass construction allowed them to survive multiple drops onto a marble slab in our test kitchen, and they should last for many years of regular use in your home.
Although the Picardie’s gently flared sides also make it well-suited for presenting table wines, consider investing in proper stemware for the nicer stuff. But don’t buy into the marketing hype surrounding specific glasses for specific varietals of wine. As Mr. Sullivan concluded after interviewing sommeliers, oenologists, winemakers, chemosensory experts glass engineers and wine experts — including Eric Asimov, The New York Times’ wine critic — for his guide to wine glasses, a good, all-purpose wine glass will highlight all varietals of both red and white wines well.
Our favorite wine glass, the Libbey Signature Kentfield Estate, is narrow enough to preserve the delicate nuances of most whites, while its 16-ounce capacity makes it big enough for swirling reds. Its lip is thinner than those of most other glasses in its price range, making it easy to sip from. And its narrow, seamless stem and wide base make it pleasant to hold and stable when you set it down.
Don’t fret over dishes
Unlike glasses, matching plates and bowls have little appeal outside of a formal dining room setting. Formal dinners are largely a thing of the past, but plain china can be helpful for adding contrast. When Mr. Sullivan and his husband throw parties, they supplement their daily-use colorful dishes with plain pieces. Alternating between the two styles gives the table a more vibrant look overall that’s still anchored by a touch of class.
Our top pick for dinnerware, Fitz and Floyd’s Nevaeh, is sold in four-piece settings that consist of a dinner plate, a dessert plate, a mug, and a bowl, as well as open-stock, in case you need a specific item. Each piece is made of a bone china that’s thinner, lighter, and more delicate looking than porcelain, yet is surprisingly durable and chip resistant for daily use. If you need only a few pieces, IKEA’s 365+ line of plates and other china is even cheaper and also sold open-stock, but those pieces are heavier and a bit rougher in design and finish.
Update your silverware
Hosting a crowd may mean you need extra forks, knives, and spoons. Mr. Sullivan visited Sherrill Manufacturing, the last flatware maker in the United States, and spoke with design experts and a metallurgist to come up with a set of guidelines for how to choose flatware that both looks great and will last a long time. “First settle on a general style that appeals to you,” he advised, “then compare materials, which can differ between even very similar designs.”
If you need a classic set that lasts, Wirecutter tested 60 different silverware sets, and the Cambridge Silversmiths Julie Satin line emerged as our unanimous favorite. Mr. Sullivan praised its simple, understated design, and noted most people will find its clean look appealing for everyday use and fancy affairs.
If you prefer heavier cutlery, Crate and Barrel’s Caesna is similar in shape but heftier. Both are made of 18/10 stainless steel, which is more rust and scratch resistant than another common alloy, 18/0. Designs that incorporate wood, plastic, or coatings like silver plate or physical vapor deposition (P.V.D.) — most familiar as trendy black or rose-gold coloring — tend to be less durable, and may not be dishwasher-safe.
Linens without labor
“Even though they’re referred to as linens,” Mr. Sullivan said, “most restaurants use plain cotton for napkins and tablecloths.” Cotton is easier to clean and less wrinkle-prone than linen, and less expensive too.
Williams Sonoma’s napkins and tablecloths topped our testing. Made from 100 percent tight-weave cotton, they’re the best-quality table linens we found for the price, and they’re available in the widest assortment of sizes and sets.
The napkins are soft and absorbent, and the thick tablecloths look smooth and elegant. After dinner, Michael just tosses his in a bucket of water and detergent or OxiClean to loosen up any stains, leaving the washing for the next day. When you do wash, use the cold cycle, and inspect the items for remaining stains before drying them — the dryer’s heat will set anything that’s left.
A few candles or flowers can dress up any table and add to the special occasion. “Just avoid anything tall, like tapers and big bouquets,” Mr. Sullivan said. “You want your guests to be able to see each other.”
You also want to avoid distracting scents from candles and flowers alike. Simple tea lights are just right. These scentless candles from Richland lasted longer and produced less smoke than the others we tested. Throw them into a ramekin or a glass on short notice, or thrift-shop for decorative candle holders to suit your style.