Table Etiquette

Table Etiquette

Gulp. You’ve been invited to dinner at a swank restaurant, but rather than be excited, you find yourself surprisingly nervous. How will you make a good impression? How will you know what’s appropriate? A lot of life's important events take place at a restaurant table—business deals, first dates, meeting the future in-laws. Regardless of the occasion or the company, good manners can help ensure everything runs smoothly. Here’s a quick rundown of common expectations at the table.

First things First

Do a bit of preparation before you arrive. Call the restaurant to find out the dress code, and dress appropriately. Find out directions and plan for both driving and parking so you won’t be late. Find out if you will be meeting your party at the restaurant or elsewhere. Take care of situations such as babysitters, dog walkers, and any other obligations so you can focus your attention on your experience at the restaurant.

Before You Eat

If a cloth napkin is included in the place setting, unfold it and place it across your lap just after sitting down. In some higher end restaurants, a server or host may unfold the napkin for you—if this is the case don’t be surprised, just graciously accept the napkin with a nod of thanks. If you need to get up during the meal, neatly fold your napkin and place it on the table, traditionally to the left of your fork. At some restaurants, a staff member may refold or replace your napkin while you are gone.

When ordering, pay attention to what your companions are ordering. If no one else seems to be ordering a soup course, you may not want to be the only one at the table ordering soup. The same goes with alcohol, especially at business meals. Conversely, if everyone seems to be ordering an appetizer course before the entrée, feel free to order or share one as well.

Navigating the Table

If place settings are close together, there may be some confusion as to whose utensils, plates, and cups are whose. The simple rule “eat to your left, drink to your right” should help clarify. Your glasses—whether water or wine glasses—will be set to the right of your plate; your bread plate will be set to your left.

If you’re confused by the myriad of forks set before you, remember this: eat from the outside in. Use the outer most utensils for each course, working your way closer toward the plate. If only one fork or knife is set, use that for the current course—it will generally be removed and replaced for the next one.

Whether or not you can reach it, it is advisable not to reach for something on the table that is in front of someone else, especially if you have to reach a hand across someone else’s plate or fully extend an arm. Instead, ask the guest seated closest to the item you want to pass it to you. If you are asked to pass the salt and/or pepper, always pass them together, even if someone asks for just one—this way other guests won’t have to search around the table to find one or the other.

What about your posture? Don’t feel obligated to sit bolt-upright, but try to refrain from slouching in your seat, and certainly avoid tipping back your chair. It’s generally advised to keep your elbows off the table, although gently resting your forearms on the table is usually acceptable. If you must rest your elbows on the table, do it only between courses, when there is not a plate in front of you. When in doubt, refrain from resting either.

Time to Eat

If bread is on the table, feel free to take a piece at any time, although it is polite to offer the basket to others first. Use the bread plate, if provided, to rest the bread that you aren’t eating, and rest the butter knife on the bread plate after you are done. It is considered proper to break off small pieces of bread, and butter them individually, one bite at a time.

When food arrives for any course, it is again important to pay attention to your dining companions. As a general rule, you should not begin eating until everyone at the table is served. If you are a guest at a large meal, or if the meal is for a particular occasion, someone may want to make a toast before the table starts eating. However, if most of the table is served and those not yet served request that everyone begin eating, it is ok to begin.

Don’t be afraid to pick up food that is clearly meant to be eaten by hand, such as sandwiches, ribs, corn on the cob, or chicken wings.  It is also acceptable to eat some foods with a combination of hand and utensil, such as whole artichokes, crab legs, or oysters. Note, however, that in fine dining restaurants, it is more acceptable to use a fork with some foods you might ordinarily eat by hand, such as French fries or asparagus spears. If you don’t want to be faced with the question of whether or not to eat with a knife and fork, consider avoiding ordering dishes that fall into this grey area.

It should go without saying that certain behaviors—exposing the food in your mouth, making nonverbal noises—have no place at the dinner table. Be sure not to chew with your mouth open, talk with your mouth full, groan, burp, slosh, slurp, or chomp. Whether or not you practice these habits at home, you should always take care to avoid them in a restaurant. As a rule of thumb, try not to draw attention to your eating in any way.

While not an explicit rule, it is often polite to match your eating pace with the pace of the table. Even if you are famished, try not to gobble down your meal in five minutes. If there is a slower eater at the table, feel free to slow down with them. This helps avoid any awkwardness when some plates are cleared before others are finished.

Leaving the Table

While getting up from the table during the meal should be avoided, in a few circumstances, it is preferred. If you need to touch up your makeup, blow your nose, clean something out of your teeth, or fix any other grooming issue, it is best to excuse yourself and head to the restroom.

And always, always excuse yourself if you need to answer a cell phone call or return a text message while at the table. In many situations, it’s best to turn your phone on silent or vibrate to avoid answering it altogether. Keep in mind that when deciding whether or not to answer a phone call, the impression you give when picking up your phone is that the party on the phone is more important than the party in your presence.

After the Meal

When you are done eating, you should place any utensils you have used on your plate, not on the table. In general, placing the fork and knife together on the plate signals to the wait staff that you are done eating. If you want to pause during eating, resting your knife and fork at different places on the plate generally signals you are still eating.

Don’t move any dishes or push them aside when you are done. You can leave them in their place and allow a server to take them away. After the last course, it is appropriate to fold your napkin and place it on the table.

Overall, try to remember to be polite, courteous, and aware of others. This applies to your dining companions as well as to the restaurant staff members you encounter. Remember, everyone at your table ultimately wants to enjoy the experience. Rather than worrying about remembering every single etiquette rule, just make sure your behavior contributes to that enjoyment, and you’ll be fine.


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