Much like choosing an automobile or remodeling your bathroom, dining room tables ask us to balance the most practical and essential functionality with our style and the space in which it will reside. In some ways, all tables are the same – flat on the top, one or more legs or pedestals holding it up. They are usually surrounded by chairs. Of course, in all the best ways, no two tables are the alike, and every table is different based on its surroundings.

When choosing a dining room table, there are three basic things to consider: size, shape, and style. The first two are mostly about functionality, but influence overall style. The third is about style, which also cannot help but impact functionality.

Let’s start with the most practical elements – size and shape.

In Good Measure

If you’re going to be looking at tables, whether you think you’re ready to buy or not, bring some numbers with you:

  • First, the measurements of the space where a new (or new-to-you) table would go. DON’T TRUST YOURSELF TO “EYEBALL IT.” As a species, we’re mediocre (at best) with that sort of on-the-fly estimation. Frankly, some of us are horrible at it.
  • Second, the number of people likely to sit at the table at any given time.
  • Third, your budget for the right table (and any accompanying chairs, benches, etc.)
  • Finally, a measuring tape and notepad. The numbers on that measuring tape combined with the numbers you’ve already compiled on the available space are going to help you visualize what each possible table will look like in your home.

When Size Matters

In general, you want a table to “own” the space it’s in – to effectively “fill” it while still leaving room for seating and moving around within reason. Too big, and people feel cramped. Guests are uncomfortable, and the family grows less likely to eat at the table because they feel stifled. Too small, and the room looks, wrong, and maybe a little sad. Like the furniture hasn’t grown up enough to take on the role it’s been assigned.

Most people need about 24 inches side-to-side to eat comfortably. A few inches less is doable when we all know one another well; a few inches more borders on awkward. Keep in mind that dining is traditionally a “communion” of sorts – as in “community,” or “in common.” To “break bread together” is meant to be relationship-building, perhaps relationship-affirming. We don’t want to put too much symbolism on it every time we order pizza, but we do want people at the table to feel like they’re together – as long as it’s not much more together than 24 inches!

As far as the space behind each diner, ideally you leave between 24 and 36 inches for scooting in, out, or around. You don’t want folks bumping their chairs into the walls, but much more than that and the space feels empty. If you do find a table you love, and that works for the number of people eating around it (we’ll get to that in a moment), but it doesn’t quite fill the space persuasively, this is where planters, bar carts, decorative shelving, and whatnot can help flesh out the room. Don’t overdo it – the purpose of a dining room is to dine comfortably, not to look like a thrift store or local museum with a diner in the middle.
Obviously, small spaces can make this tricky. For moderately-sized apartments or homes with a conservative dining area, round tables with a central podium (instead of legs) can help offer dining for more bodies in less space. Large spaces can be tricky as well, though, because there are practical limits to just how wide you want your table to be.

What Dining Room Tables Are For

Picture a round or rectangular table which stretches, say, 72 inches across from diner to diner. See any potential problems with this? Besides feeling like you have to shout to one another (or send little notes via the butler or carrier pigeon, I suppose), no one can reach the food comfortably. It’s as bad as those salad bars where the sneeze guard is so extended that you can’t actually add anything from the back two rows to your spinach and cauliflower – it’s all simply out of reach without some very unattractive contortions.
The ideal width of any table is between 36 and 48 inches. That should give enough room for most items to be placed on the table without requiring public transportation to be available for any diner needing more gravy.

Aren’t you glad you brought those room dimensions and that measuring tape? Oh, and just to add one more wrinkle, tradition says base the size of your table (after considering all of the other factors we’ve already discussed) on the number of people you normally expect for dinner, plus two. That way you avoid big-empty-sad mojo on normal nights, but you can still manage guests from time to time.

Getting in Shape

There are generally only a few practical shapes which serve the vast majority of dining room needs. We’re including how the table is supported as a function of “shape” as well, although obviously, that’s also a “style” issue. Let’s talk about typical pros and cons of each shape and how it’s supported.

Square Tables

Typically, square tables only work well in square rooms and in homes with a limited number of regular diners. They usually have four legs (as opposed to a central “podium” support), and one person sits on each side. Any larger than that, and you run into awkwardness with conversation and practical access to the food. (You’ve probably noticed on TV and in the movies that very large rectangular tables at which many people are dining generally have exactly one chair at each end.)

One compromise is a square table with leaves allowing for expansion on special occasions, but of course, that requires that both sizes and shapes work with the available space.

Rectangular Tables

These are, by far, the most common shape for dining room tables. They’re amazingly versatile, and they work for six people as well as for sixteen. Rectangular tables generally have multiple legs, which provide great stability but limit how many people can comfortably sit where. Depending on how formal your dining space is intended to be, some families choose benches rather than individual chairs for one or both long sides of a rectangular table.

In short, if you’re going for elegance or if you have a large family and eating together is important to you, these are a great way to go.

Circular Tables

As mentioned above, a round table offers the maximum seating in a small space, especially if chosen with a central support instead of traditional legs. Families of 2 – 4 can eat comfortably at a round table in limited space, and on special occasions, a few extra chairs easily add to that without worrying about bruised knees.
One other feature of round tables which may or may not be a factor in your world is that they lack a “head of the table” position. You may recall King Arthur famously selected to seat his knights around a round table so no one could claim a more favored position than anyone else. It’s also the preferred shape for card games and such because of that same sense of shared space. This won’t be an issue for everyone; it’s subtle and more about interpersonal dynamics than your home and living styles. But it seemed worth mentioning.

Oval Tables

These are a compromise between the rectangular and the round, offering a little more space (both literally and visually) and flexibility while still letting you seat more people and fill a larger room. These are common with both pedestal supports or traditional legs, so make sure you consider how either one changes your logistics.

The Elusive “Style” Factor

Style encompasses pretty much everything else there is to consider when selecting a dining room table. It’s usually the things we notice and care about first, which is why we started with the less-exciting, “make sure it’s practical for your circumstances” stuff. Distinguishing “style” elements include things like decorative flourishes, finishes, thickness, and anything else making the table special or unique. All of this starts with materials. Of what is your table made?

Wood is by far the most common, although as you’re probably aware, there are endless varieties of wood combined with many possible finishes. The better the wood and the higher quality the finish, the more durable the table and – usually – the higher the price. Veneer finishes, a layer of wood on top of cheaper materials, can still look nice while making a piece more affordable, but don’t tend to hold up as well over time and can’t usually be refinished.

Glass tops are popular with singles or couples without children. They don’t “feel” like they take up as much space, and of course, they allow light and color to pass right on through. On the other hand, they’re heavy and, while not necessarily fragile, they’re not as durable over time.

Painted woods or other materials can look modern or cheap, depending on the quality and the surroundings. We see these regularly on those flea market, or budget remodeling shows because they’re relatively inexpensive to do. Very lovely tables can come in painted woods, plastics, or even metals, but they’re very much a function of your style and the space in which they’re placed. There’s nothing wrong with them – they’re merely less universal and not what most would consider “classic” or “traditional.”
You’ll also want to be honest with yourself about what you’re likely to be doing at or on the table in addition to eating. If it doubles as a homework station, arts-and-crafts desk, painting easel, or other activities, durability and the ability to easily clean (or even refinish) it may be priorities. If it’s going to be in a formal dining room and only used for meals (and maybe even then only on occasion), then the visual impact may be your number one concern.

Closing Thoughts

There’s one thing we haven’t really talked about yet, but which is arguably the single greatest factor in your decision when it comes to purchasing a dining room table – new or new-to-you, round or rectangular, epic or small, fancy or practical. I know I’ve hit you with a lot already, but there’s one more thing you really must ask yourself, Do you like it?

That’s what it’s all about in the end, isn’t it? It doesn’t really matter how many of the “rules” it meets or how practical it is if it doesn’t feel right to you or make you happy to have. Conversely, a table you truly love which only offers 20 inches between diners or leaves a few feet more than you’d like on one side of the dining room might nevertheless be the right table for you.

You may recall we began by comparing choosing a dining room table to buying a car or remodeling your bathroom (although hopefully far less expensive than either of those endeavors!) Of course the functionality matters, and of course, you should consider everything we discussed above. Those are very real and legitimate factors in choosing the right table.

But so are the style and the feel and the intangibles of a piece of furniture you’re not only going to eat at and work at and walk around and decorate, but live with – in your home, as part of your world. Be practical, sure – but be honest with yourself as well. The number one rule for buying a dining room table is that it should make you happy. And that’s OK.

I’d still bring those measurements, though.