How Long Do You Hold Dinner for Latecomers?

Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist shares her experiences.

Photo by Marcus Nilsson
Recently I was at a friend’s for a small dinner party, enjoying the giddy chatter and the buzz generated by that first round of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. But after an hour had passed and dinner was ready, we were faced with that awkward quandary: Do we start the meal, even though two guests had yet to arrive? After a few moments of faux deliberation (let’s face it―people aren’t their most ethical selves when they’re hungry), the consensus of the group was: Yes, we eat! I tried to look blasé as I took my seat along with the others, but inside my stomach was in knots.

The truth is, this predicament hits close to home for me. Coming from a family that was notoriously late to holiday functions, I can sympathize with both the stragglers and the host. On the one hand, as the host, you’ve just killed yourself cooking, and the last thing you want to do is have your hard-earned meal sit and get cold, let alone force your guests to wait in low-blood-sugar annoyance. On the other hand, having been in the latecomer camp for most of my childhood, I can remember how embarrassing it was to enter a roomful of people already seated, glaring up at us with the subtext of “Shame on you! You couldn’t get it together to be on time like the rest of us?” Or, worse, we would arrive to find that the group had waited to start and was now sloshed from too many cocktails and seriously peeved (the not-so-subtext being “Finally! Can we eat now?”).

When I was growing up, my mother always, always, waited for every last guest to show up before we could sit down to the table―for any occasion. And while I admit that on some deep, subconscious level I might still associate being waited for with being loved and accepted (hence my nervous reaction that night at the party), as an adult I’ve changed camps on the matter.

Granted, a grace period is always assumed. That’s what the cocktail hour is for. But at a certain point, if the dinner is ready, the majority of the guests are there, and the cheese platter has taken on that sad, picked-over look, I say enough is enough. Feed your hungry, prompt guests their supper. By that point, it’s the latecomers who are rude, and the onus is on them to be apologetic, not you. That’s not to say you need to unduly punish these people. I beg you to resist the temptation to guilt-trip. In fact, I advocate greeting your tardy friends with open arms. It never hurts to throw in an “Oh, we just sat down!” either, no matter what course you’re on by the time they knock on the door. Because, I assure you, they’re already mortified. And even though I’ve tried to reverse my family’s tendency to be late, I’m still occasionally late myself. (OK, more than occasionally.) But I never mind if the others have started. As long as they save some dessert.

Read more of Julie’s advice about etiquette conundrums.