Table Manners

Having impeccable table manners is always a good idea—especially when you're dining out with colleagues and clients—but the truth is your table manners should begin the minute you walk into a restaurant.

For starters when the host tells you to follow her to your table, do so. Don't rush ahead to where she's gestured you should sit but instead walk behind her.

And even though we live in an age of women's liberation, men should always allow any females in your party to walk first to your table. Men should always bring up the rear.

Seating Arrangements

Once you've arrived at your table, you should always defer to the meal's host as to where everyone should sit. If you're the host and this happens to be a business lunch, you should direct people where to sit so that you can take a seat that's somewhat in command. If you're dining at a rectangular table, this seat would be at the head of the table. If you're sitting at another shaped table, you should sit in what some called the “gunslinger's seat.” This is a centrally located seat that lets you see everyone at your table and the room itself—including the entrance. When you're entertaining clients, you never want to put them in this seat, because the activity of the room could distract them.

Those dining in mixed company should always let the women in the party sit down first. There's no need to pull out a lady's chair for her and then push it in, unless, of course, you're on a date and you want to impress her with your chivalry.

Manners at the Table

Once you take your seat, you'll need to remember another whole set of table manners—that is how to have good manners at the table. For starters, you should look at your menu immediately and decide what you're going to order. Not only will this help get your meal underway in a timely manner, it will also help you avoid delaying the waitstaff by having to ask them to come back again and again.

Ordering Etiquette

When it comes time to order your food, you should let your guests order first. Try to be as polite as you can when telling the waitstaff what you want by saying something like, “May I please start with the salad, and then I'll have the filet mignon? Thank you.”

As far as ordering a bottle of wine goes, whomever ordered the wine is the person to whom the waitstaff or sommelier (the wine steward) will bring the bottle. Here's what you can expect to happen:

  • The sommelier will present you with the bottle of wine.

  • Don't take it from him. Instead, you should examine the label to confirm that this is indeed the bottle you ordered.

  • The sommelier will open the bottle and hand you the cork.

  • You should check to see that the innermost end of the cork is moist, which is a sign that the wine is still good and has been properly stored.

  • Once you nod your head at the sommelier, he'll pour a small amount in a glass for you to taste.

  • After you've tasted it, you can give him your approval (by nodding your head) that it's OK to pour wine for the other guests at your table.

If you're not satisfied with the wine, you can send it back during this taste test. That's exactly why restaurants do this—they want to ensure your satisfaction with the wine you've purchased. If you feel that the wine has spoiled, tell the sommelier. He should take it back without argument and offer to bring another bottle to replace it. Then you get to go through this tasting ritual again.

You should never be charged for an uncorked bottle of wine that you tasted and sent back because you found it to be unsatisfactory. If you notice a charge for that wine on your bill at the end of the evening, you have every right to dispute the charge.

Napkin and Utensil Use

Once you've ordered and the waitstaff has collected your menus, your next move should be to put your napkin in your lap. Do not tuck it into your collar or tie it around your neck, Western style. Napkins belong in the lap, so be sure to remove it from the table when you sit down. It doesn't matter if it's paper or cloth; the same rule applies for both.

Next, start your meal by using the utensils the farthest away from your plate, and then work your way in as you work your way through your courses. If you order an item for which there are no utensils already on the table, such as a soup spoon, your waitstaff will bring it to you before that course arrives. Make sure you use it for your soup only.

You may notice a spoon or fork that's laid out on the top of your plate— those are to be used for dessert and coffee. Your bread plate is to your left, and your drinking glasses are to your right.

You'll find clues about the proper way to use your fork and knife in how your place setting appears. You'll notice that the fork is on the left, so it should be held in your left hand. With your knife on the right, you should hold your knife in your right hand.

Don't let your manners slide once your food arrives. You shouldn't eat until everyone else has his or her food. Always offer to pass the bread, salt, pepper, butter, or other condiments nearest you to your dining companions.

Make sure you chew with your mouth closed, swallow before speaking, and eat at a slow pace. Try to remember to place your utensils down in between bites, and don't forget that napkin in your lap—use it to wipe your mouth if necessary.

Speaking of utensils, you should consider following European etiquette as far as signaling the waitstaff regarding your meal's progress. If you lay your fork and knife point to point (almost like a triangle with no bottom), that says, “I'm still eating.” However, if you lay your fork and knife parallel to one another, on the side of the plate, that says, “I'm done, and you can take my plate away.”

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