A Guide to Good Table Manners
Restaurant Seating Etiquette
Traditionally, a man cedes the inside seat, whether a banquette or a chair, to his female companion. “The woman faces out, and the man faces in―he should want to look at the most beautiful thing in the room,” says Tracey Spillane, general manager and partner of Spago Beverly Hills. If you’re dining with someone of the same sex, the guest gets first dibs on the best seat (and view), says Peggy Post, coauthor of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th edition ($40, amazon.com). With friends, anything goes.
Place your napkin on your lap either when you take your seat or when your drink arrives. “If you wait for the food to arrive, the server will have no place to set your plate,” says Robert Burke, a waiter at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Feel free to tuck your napkin into your collar when eating spaghetti or another potentially messy meal. It’s not the most elegant look, true, but napkin tucking is acceptable if you’d otherwise worry about your clothes.
If you leave the table during the meal, loosely fold your napkin and place it on the table to the left of your fork. While some authorities recommend putting the napkin out of sight on the chair, Nathalie Dupree, a cookbook author and the host of the PBS series Nathalie Dupree’s Comfortable Entertaining, says, “Napkins are meant to get messy; there’s no need to hide them.” Besides, the napkin could soil the chair, which could then soil your clothing. At the end of the meal, set your napkin on the table.
Using the Right Utensils
The general rule: Start from the outside and work your way in toward the plate as the meal progresses. Usually the big fork is for the entrée; the big spoon, for the soup. Any utensils placed horizontally above your plate are meant for dessert. “With different textural elements on one plate―puddles, solids―one utensil won’t necessarily serve all well,” says Alan Richman, a contributing writer for GQ. “I tend to grab what is functional.” When in doubt, “the host and hostess should be your guides,” says Dupree. “Use whatever they are using.” At a restaurant, everyone at the table might be stumped. William Grimes, former restaurant critic for the New York Times, once encountered “a strange device that looked like a medical plunger mechanism.” (He later learned that it was meant for handling a single stalk of asparagus.) “If you can’t tell what something is for, then it isn’t much of a tool, and it’s fine not to use it,” he says.
Proper Placement of Used Utensils
Once a utensil has been sullied, it never goes back on the table, says Post. When you’re taking a break, rest your fork and knife entirely on the plate. When you’re finished, place them diagonally on the plate, side by side, with the handles at four o’clock. The knife blade should face the center of the plate, not point out toward another guest (an ancient sign of aggression, according to Spillane).
Navigating Table Turf
Memorize two simple rules: Your glasses are on the right; your bread plate is on the left. (If you forget, think BMW, for “bread, meal, water”―the left-to-right order of items when you’re seated at your place.) “If the poor person next to you took your bread, don’t make him feel ill at ease,” says Dupree. She recommends asking the unwitting thief, “I might be mistaken, but isn’t that mine?” Post advises claiming the bread plate on your right (as the original perpetrator did) and hoping that the whole table plays along. Cynthia Rowley, a fashion designer and the coauthor, with Ilene Rosenzweig, of Swell: A Girl’s Guide to the Good Life ($22, amazon.com), suggests playfully telling the person you’re happy to share your bread. Of course, at a restaurant, you can just ask the server to bring you another plate.
Fixing a Dining Faux Pas
If your fumble was subtle and did not harm another person, his clothing, or his possessions―something fell out of your mouth and back onto your plate, for instance―move on as if nothing has happened, says Post. If you spill a drink or break something in a restaurant, discreetly signal a server for help. The aim is to avoid distracting others from their meals or drawing attention to yourself. But if you spill something on a fellow diner, hand her a napkin, apologize profusely, and pay for the necessary dry cleaning, says Grimes. Also offer to pay for the cleaning if you’ve spilled red wine on your host’s tablecloth (that conversation should take place in private, after the meal). “If she refuses―and she should―it is nice to send a special gift,” Post says. Consider a new tablecloth or a bottle of wine, with a note of apology.
Eating With Your Hands
The more formal the meal and setting, the less inclined you should be to eat with the utensils you were born with. Post has a lengthy list of acceptable finger foods: bread, crisp bacon, pizza, hors d’oeuvres, corn on the cob, asparagus (provided it is cooked al dente and is not dripping with sauce), fried chicken (though perhaps not the breast), French fries (unless you are eating the rest of the meal with a knife and fork), and tacos (except for any filling that falls out, which you should retrieve with a fork). Of course, if your host is using a fork, you should do the same.
Tasting a Companion's Meal
There are several ways to share without reaching across the table and leaving a telltale line of sauce or crumbs across the white cloth. Colin Cowie, an event planner, slides a bite-size portion onto the side of the recipient’s dinner plate. Grimes passes samples on his bread plate. Richman sometimes asks the kitchen to split a dish so it arrives at the table on two plates.
Table Manners When There’s No Table
It may be tempting to think that picnics and clambakes are free-for-alls, but they’re not. You may not have to worry about putting your elbows on the table, “but some manners should never be discarded,” says Dupree: “politeness, graciousness, making others feel at ease, and ensuring that you don’t damage anyone’s body or clothes.” Decorum enhances any dining experience: It slows you down and makes you pay more attention to the food. “Even when you are by yourself, if you eat like a slob, you don’t appreciate the food as much,” says Richman. “You can’t stick your head in a trough and enjoy it.”
When in a restaurant, remember: Volume matters. “Occasional loud laughter is fine, as long as there is no hyena at the table,” says Mario Batali, chef-owner of Babbo and several other restaurants in New York City. “But a constant uproar is not appropriate.” If someone is seated too far away for you to speak at a normal volume, wait until after the meal to talk. Also try to avoid speaking over the person next to you in order to talk with someone else. At formal dinners, there used to come a time when the hostess “turned the table,” moving from speaking with the person on her left to the person on her right―a cue to her guests to do the same. While this formality is rarely observed, avoid monopolizing one person and pay equal attention to the two people sitting next to you. And try to bring into the conversation anyone who appears to have no one to talk to.