Dining Etiquette

Okay, you have been invited out to a fancy dinner. Now what? Well first you are going to dress appropriately so you feel comfortable. Click here for more information on that!

Secondly, you are going to go armed with some quick tips that will make you a dining etiquette master! Table manners are not what they used to be and there is no need to feel intimidated.  This is all about feeling confident!

Key Tip: If you are really unsure, wait and see what others do then do as they do.

This is pretty basic but  if you are caught without knowing which bread plate is yours this tip can save your life!  Okay...kidding...it may save your ego's life.

Let's start with some really basic stuff to put you at ease.

1. Don't be the first to sit down. Again this seems pretty simple but ideally you will wait until invited to sit and then move to the table and stand behind a chair. As others arrive and stand behind theirs you can follow their lead and sit down when they do.

2. Holding the chair for the woman. Very few women expect to have their chair held and then moved in by a man these days so if you are unsure - don't bother. However, doing so can really set you apart as someone who knows how to treat a lady! I know there is some fear about this being a throw back to the past when women were seems as weak and fragile but to be honest with you - this gesture has been appreciated by every woman I have ever done it for. Sometimes they have been taken aback but so what? Just remember this isn't about jamming the woman into the table - it is the gesture more than the action that counts here.

3. Napkins Okay so now you are seated. First take your napkin and place it on your lap. It may be in a fancy shape on the plate in front of you or it may be in a wine glass in front of you. Sometimes it is under your cutlery. No matter. Take it out and gently drape it across your lap. No tucking in! Also be aware than in some more expensive restaurants that the waiter may well take your napkin and place it on your lap for you. Nice service eh?

When it comes time to use your napkin, think dabbing discretely rather than wiping vigorously.

Think BMW

4. Wine Glasses, Bread Plates and so on. One of the biggest questions ever to confront humankind is "Which is my bread plate?" so here is the best way of remembering this for all time.  Place settings are set up as BMW.

BMW. That's it. Everyone should be able to remember this automotive icon right? Well in our case it stands for Bread/Meal/Wine. How simple is that - your bread plate is the one on your left and your wine glass is the one on your right. Now you are the pro!

5. Selecting the Wine

Key Tip: It is absolutely fine to ask for an opinion just be cautious that the waiter isn't upselling you to a $300 bottle!

This may seem like a cop out but let's face it some people see a wine list and all of sudden become inspired to show off. My point here is, let them! Chances are they will welcome the chance to demonstrate their wine expertise.

If however you are with a date and the waiter has passed you a wine list or perhaps you are at an important dinner and the obvious head of the table asks you to select the wine - well you have two options. The first is: "I don't drink wine and so I would prefer someone else to select an appropriate bottle" and the second is to recognize that very few people are going to do a better job of it than you are anyway and just go for it. Besides, what restaurant stocks their cellar with terrible wine? The downside of the first response is that you don't get to drink any wine (or else be called a liar!). In the second case, well here is my most basic approach.

  • Ask if people would like a red or white or both
  • If red, go directly to the French or American section
  • If white, go directly to the German section
  • Pick a wine that is at the top of the bottom third of the price scale. No one or at least very few will appreciate you ordering a $500 bottle of wine on their tab. Nor is picking the cheapest swill on the list going to win you any friends. Mentally slice the prices into thirds and pick a wine at the top of the bottom third.
  • If anyone says anything, just respond with "I have heard this is a great wine for the money" and leave it at that!

If you order the wine you are likely going to be asked to sample it. Click here for more information on how to do that.

6. Eating Bread If and when you passed the bread plate or platter, simply place a piece on your bread plate. The butter dish will follow along with a butter knife. Use the butter knife to put butter on your bread plate and then return the butter knife to the butter dish. Note that the idea here is that nothing touches the butter knife but butter.

The next step is to break a mouth size piece of bread or the bun off, butter it with a small amount of butter from your bread plate and pop it in your mouth. Note that breaking the piece off should actually happen over the break plate so that it catches most if not all the crumbs. Simple!

7. Cutlery When you sit down you will likely be faced with a huge array of cutlery. Don't panic. Here is the Key Tip: Use cutlery from the outside in.

If the menu is set you may be required to use all of the cutlery at your disposal however if you are actually ordering from a menu, what you order will largely define what cutlery is presented. If you order soup for an appetizer for example, the wait staff may well remove the appetizer fork and replace it with a soup spoon (larger and with a round bowl). Similarly if you order a steak, often it will be served with a steak knife.

8. Washroom Breaks If you are at a long business dinner, you find yourself having to use the restroom facilities before dinner is finished. In this case, just say "excuse me" in a discrete manner and place your napkin on your chair. If you place your napkin on the table not only will everyone be able see what you wiped off your mouth but it will also signal the waitstaff that you are done. Placing it on your chair indicates you will be returning.

9. Finishing After desert and during either coffee or a digestif, (a post dinner drink)you may be tempted to push back from the table and cross your legs. I know I am regularly tempted by this but it is good advice to refrain. Remain engaged in the conversation as you did during the dinner.

10. The Bill. Well it's all done but the crying. Usually the wait staff will present the bill to the oldest gentleman at the table or the one who is clearly hosting. In business dinners it is usually quite clear who is hosting. They should be allowed to pay for the meal and then thanked for it. Do not offer to split the bill or pay your share. They wouldn't have asked you to come if they couldn't afford it and making the assumption that they can't is an insult.

If you are hosting the dinner, this is a time to demonstrate some class by tipping the wait staff appropriately. Often with large groups of more than six people a tip of 15-18% will be added automatically. If you received exceptional service feel free to add to this although it isn't necessary.

If no tip is added, the usual expectation is that 15% pre tax is appropriate for "good" service. Less than ideal service should be tipped somewhat lower but keep in mind, if the food wasn't good it is not the fault of the waitstaff. I never recommend tipping nothing because then it appears that you either forgot or you are classless and cheap. Tipping 5% sends a much clearer signal that you were less than pleased.

Similarly, if you were delighted with the service - and it will be obvious to you when you are treated particularly well, then tipping 20% or even a bit more is appropriate. Please keep in mind that these guidelines are appropriate for North America and that other countries have different approaches to tipping. Be sure to look this up before visiting anywhere outside North America.

11. Bonus I think it is a great gesture to send your host a handwritten note (even if it is to his or her office) thanking them for the meal. This is rarely done these days so it really gets noticed.

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