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.