Purchasing dinnerware sets can be confusing if you are shopping in a store that carries fine china or an antique shop that specialises in Victorian pieces. Most of us are familiar with dinner plates, soup bowls and other pieces commonly found on most tables. Shopping becomes more challenging when you need to know the difference between pasta and grapefruit bowls, or bread and butter plates versus fruit plates.
Family dinnerware sets are dishes used most often for everyday meals and informal dinners. These sets include servings for four to 12 people. Family dinnerware sets traditionally include dinner plates (with a diameter ranging from 9 to 11 inches); smaller plates, such as salad plates that double as dessert plates (7 to 8 inches in diameter); and small bowls for soups and cereals (6 to 7 inches). If the set includes tea or coffee cups, some sets will include saucers.
As the name implies, these sets are used for fancier occasions or holiday celebrations. They include more pieces than the family dinnerware sets but might not include everything necessary to serve a six- or seven-course meal. They are commonly sold in sets with place settings for eight or 16 people. The highest-quality dinnerware pieces sometimes are so expensive that they are purchased individually and collected over time. These sets usually include dinner plates, salad plates, soup or cereal bowls, tea or coffee cups and matching saucers. They also might include bread and butter plates (5 to 6 inches in diameter), fruit plates or saucers (4 to 6 inches) and rimmed bowls for soup or pasta (8 to 9 inches).
Speciality plates and bowls can be purchased separately to build a complete set of formal dinnerware for six- or seven-course meals. These include chargers, accent plates, cream-soup bowls, bouillon-soup bowls, grapefruit bowls and finger bowls. Some of these items are used infrequently these days and might be found only in antique dinnerware sets from the Victorian period.
Chargers are 13-inch to 17-inch plates used as decorative pieces that remain on the table throughout the meal. They hold the plates and bowls from all courses except the dessert course. Because no food touches them, chargers can be made of metal, wood, leather or other materials not commonly used for dinnerware. They are a popular entertainment item these days; some hostesses even use them to add a creative flair to an informal dinner party.
Accent plates are small plates with a slightly different pattern from the rest of the dinnerware set. They add colour and variety to the formal table setting and can be used for desserts or side dishes.
A cream-soup bowl looks like a wide, shallow tea cup with two handles. It measures about 5 to 6 inches in diameter. It usually is accompanied with a matching saucer that holds the soup spoon when it is not being used.
A bouillon-soup bowl is a smaller version of the cream-soup bowl, usually about 5 inches in diameter. These bowls also are used with matching saucers to prevent spills. They are used for serving light, broth-type soups.
A grapefruit bowl is about 6 inches in diameter. It has a wide, flat rim around its circumference that prevents a halved grapefruit from sliding around in the bowl.
Finger bowls are "V"-shaped items that are about 1.5 inches deep and 4 inches wide. They were popular in Victorian times, when hostesses offered them to guests for cleaning their fingers after a meal. Today they are mainly used in fancy restaurants. They might not be practical unless you plan to host many traditional Victorian teas and dinners.