Table Manners 101: A Primer

Recently, I attended a rehearsal dinner because (a) my husband was a groomsmen to the wedding, and (b) I was the wedding coordinator. The couple getting married happened to be good friends of ours, and so we knew most of the bridal and groom’s party.

One of the groomsmen was a particularly good-looking young man that we’ve known for years. In our past experience with him, he’s been generally arrogant, misogynistic, and moody.

And he has the most exquisite table manners. Precisely and shockingly exquisite.

It was then that it occurred to me, as I was now completely re-evaluating a man who, up to that point, I had taken to be a complete charlatan, how important table manners can actually be in one’s perception of people.

On the flip-side, I was recently at another wedding rehearsal dinner (tis the season, ya’ll) where not one of the Bridesmaids knew how to eat in a formal setting. They rested their butter-laden knife on the linen table cloth, they talked on their cell phones, grabbed passing waiters by the wrists to put in orders for more martinis. I was so embarrassed for the Bride and Groom.

So I present to you, Table Manners 101: A Primer.

Is it ever okay to touch a waiter?

Not unless he/she assaults you with a wine bottle. Don’t. Touch. The. Staff. This rule goes first, before anything else, because that’s what I see people doing most often. Even a polite touch of two fingers to the wrist is unacceptable, to say nothing to reaching out and grabbing an elbow as they pass. These people are providing a service for you. They are in the service industry. For that, you should treat them with the utmost respect.

I was once dining in a very formal restaurant with my boyfriend at the time. Because the waiter had not removed the salad fork after my boyfriend had turned down salad, my boyfriend absently picked it up and started eating the entree with it. The waiter, who was French, immediately descended upon our table, grabbed my boyfriend’s wrist, and plucked the fork out of his hand, admonishing us the entire time, in French. “Now,” he said, pocketing the salad fork and picking up my boyfriend’s entree fork and placing it in his hand instead, “C’est meilleur, non?

My boyfriend – a 6’7″ young man built like a line-backer – simply stared in awe at the audacity of our waiter.

I was quicker on the jump.

Non,” I said, “Ce n’est pas meilleur. Please send the manager over. Le directeur. Oui. Merci.

Across the board, the rule is: no touching.

If I’m dining out, how much do I tip?

This question comes second, because it’s the second-biggest mistake I see most often. We’ll get into the hard-core stuff in a minute.

Here’s the thing about tipping in the service industry in America: almost everyone in the service industry does not make minimum wage. They make less than minimum wage. This is one of the few job industries in which this is legal, under the guise that they get tipped. If they work in an upscale establishment, they probably make more than minimum wage. If they don’t, then they probably make around or less than minimum wage, depending on their shift.

Mick Vann at the Austin Chronicle writes:

Restaurants pay waiters as little as $2.13 per hour in Texas. Minimum wage in the state is [$6.55] per hour, and the restaurant only has to make sure that between their hourly wage and their tips, they make at least the minimum wage. Of course, most do much, much better than minimum wage, or they wouldn’t still be waiting tables. Forget benefits like paid medical and vacations. Fifteen-minute breaks for every four hours worked? Not a chance. And contrary to what most anti-tippers believe, waiters do report their tips as income to the IRS, on Form 4070. To avoid an audit or an automatic allocation of tips, they report as tip income at least 10% or more of their total sales, which might or might not be what they actually make…

Waiters almost always have to tip out a portion of their total tips each shift to support staff: bus people, bartenders, dishwashers, etc. By law, that portion is supposed to be determined solely and independently by the staff, with no influence from management. Unscrupulous management often tries to find a way to dip into that total to supplement pay for other employees.

I recommend tipping 15%-20%. Less than 15% is inexcusable. If you’re making the choice to dine out, then you have to factor in the cost of tipping.

So remember – you are not tipping as a reward for good service. You are tipping to contribute to their basic cost of living. Cheap tippers or “I don’t tip” people are bastards, and there are no two ways about it.

How do I know what fork to use? / How do I set a table myself?

Emily Post rocks my world on table setting reference. As a child, anytime I would set a formal table in my house, I would go ask my father where the utensils went. And he would inevitably say, “Hell, baby, I don’t know – go get The Book.”

The Book was Emily Post’s Etiquette, and no one describes table settings better than she.

Appropriate diagrams for setting your table are posted here:

Do waiters really serve on a certain side? Which side, and should I serve like that when I’m entertaining in my home?

The general rule is “serve from the left, collect from the right.” In upscale restaurants, this is precisely what happens – if a server is bringing you anything, they’ll put it on the table to your left or come from the left-hand-side to put it directly in front of you. If the server is clearing or removing anything, they’ll do so from your right-hand-side. The exception to this is if the tables or chairs are arranged in such a way that it becomes difficult or dangerous to do so.

Will the servers do this at TGIFriday’s? No, do not expect “HI MY NAME IS Vanessa” to serve from the left and clear from the right at TGIFriday’s. And no, you don’t have to do it in your own home – typically, if you’re having a small group of people (4-6 total), everyone serves themselves.
What do I do if I don’t want any wine, or anymore wine?

If wine is offered, you can either say “No, thank you,” or, if you’re in the middle of a conversation, politely pass your hand over the wine glass when the waiter comes around to you. This does not mean to rest your palm on top of it – you don’t actually touch the glass. And be discreet with this gesture – not flashy.

Um, why does the waiter show me the bottle of wine and what the hell am I supposed to do?

So sometimes wine presentation can be showy. Some restaurants make a big production of it – truly, you expect the waiter to light sparklers and do a little tap-dance while he pours – and other times, a waiter will quietly show the bottle to the host, wait for his or her approval, and then pour.

The main reason a waiter shows a bottle of wine to you is so that you can verify that it is, in fact, the bottle you wanted. I didn’t understand this until, years ago, I was on a date with a man more educated than me on the subject of wine. He ordered a very specific Malbec, and then when the waiter brought it, it was incorrect – not the wrong year, or even the wrong label, but actually a completely different wine altogether. My date smiled politely, and quietly said “I’m sorry, I actually asked for the Mendoza Malbec.” The waiter immediately recognized that he’d actually brought us another table’s bottle of wine – a Merlot – and quickly hurried off to fetch us the one we ordered. Crisis averted for us, the waiter, and the other table.

Why does the waiter only pour a little bit of wine into the glass first?

This is for you to taste, to make sure that (a) it’s what you ordered and (b) it’s in good condition. Wine does sometimes go over, and the waiter wants to give you the chance up-front to let him know if it’s gone bad instead of trying to flag him down again after the fact. Do you have to swirl it around and hold it up to the light and all that jazz? Only if you truly know what you’re doing. Wine presentation is sort of like clapping at the Opera – if you don’t know how to do it, then don’t do it at all.

I simply taste it, or if I’m in the middle of conversation, say “I’m sure it’s fine, thank you,” which gives him the signal to pour for everyone who’s requested wine.

Am I supposed to sniff the wine cork?

Look, there are a handful of people in the world who do not look like a total moron while sniffing a wine cork. Odds are, you are not one of these lucky people. The waiter presents the cork to you to signify that (a) it’s in tact and he didn’t tear it all-to-hell trying to remove it, and (b) to let you smell it to see if the wine has gone over without actually putting the glass up to your nose or putting any wine in your mouth. Spoiled bottles of wine are rare, and so, no, as a general rule, please don’t sniff the cork.

As a sidenote, I like to pocket my corks and keep them as souvenirs of a particularly fun or memorable night. I have a little china bowl filled to the brim with the important ones.

Okay, enough with the wine stuff – down to brass tacks. What’s all the silverware for? How do I know when to use what?

Check out Emily Post’s diagrams, linked above, for a detailed description.

The quick-and-dirty rules are as follows:

  1. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right. If you have trouble with this, remember – “FORK and LEFT” have both have four letters; KNIFE and RIGHT have five.
  2. If you’re lost, start on the outside and work your way in. For example, if the salad is being served first (customary in America), then the salad fork will be on the far left, furtherest away from your dinner plate. If the salad is being served after the entree (as is customary in Italy), then the salad fork will be between your entree fork and your dessert fork.
  3. The smaller fork is for salad. If you’re not having salad, the waiter should remove it.
  4. The smallest and weirdest looking fork with funky tines (ditto for the funky looking knife) is likely a fish fork.
  5. The small, really funky looking fork with only two tines (looks like devil’s horns) is an oyster fork, and it’ll be the only fork to ever go on the right side of your plate.
  6. The largest fork is for your entree.
  7. The small, dull knife is the butter knife, and it’ll be placed across your bread plate.

Okay – what about all that glassware? Which glass do I use for what?

  1. The water goblet is usually the largest, most sturdy glass, and it’s placed the furthest inward, directly above the knives.
  2. Next is the red wine glass, which will be the larger of the two wine glasses, and then the white wine glass, which will be smaller.
  3. If a very small glass exists, it’s usually for sherry, port, or cordials, which is traditionally drunk after dinner or with dessert.

Is there a right way to eat bread?

Well, there’s a polite way. The polite way to eat bread is not to butter the entire thing at one time and then take bites out of it, but rather to tear it apart, one small piece at a time, and butter each piece. This isn’t as snobby as it sounds – this ensures that you will take small bites, which is not only better for your digestion, but also ensures that you won’t get excited and cram too much in your mouth at one time, thereby looking like an utter fool. (What? I’m talking from experience. I’m Italian; I get easily excited about bread.)

This also ensures that you won’t get overly excited about the butter and take more than your fair share while buttering your entire roll at one time. (What? I get overly excited about butter, too.)

The exception to this rule is if the bread is particularly crumbly, like a biscuit or cornbread. Then, it’s every man for himself. (Mmmm. Cornbread.)

As a sidenote, use your bread plate. No, for christ’s sake – USE. YOUR. BREAD. PLATE. The bread plate is there not only to give you something to sit your butter-knife on, but also to catch crumbs so that you don’t look like a toddler with the dead remains of smooshed, exploded cracker packets surrounding you.

What do I do with my napkin?

  1. Place your napkin in your lap immediately upon sitting down. The very instant. Otherwise, you may forget, and then you’ll be me – I remember half-way through the meal, and realize that my napkin is still on the table, signifying to everyone else that I have no idea how to eat. Put it in your lap first thing.
  2. If you get up from the table – to use the facilities, to take a phone call – leave the napkin on the chair. No, I mean it, ya’ll – leave it on the chair. No one wants to see your half-used, greasy napkin. And even if the napkin is pristine, a napkin on the table is often a sign to the waiter that the person has left for good and not coming back. Don’t confuse them.
  3. When you are done – entirely done, all courses finished, and asking for the check – you can loosely fold your napkin and place it on the table. Do not put a cloth napkin over your plate – someone is going to have to fish that napkin out of your sauce and crumbs that way. Don’t do it. Folding a napkin (loosely) and placing it on the table means the server can pick up all the used napkins in one swoop, without a mess. If you fold your napkin neatly and precisely, that implies that you think the host might reuse it without washing it – not good either.

As a sidenote, any time a napkin is folded in a complex manner (like an origami crane, for instance), I feel the urge to grab the little linen crane’s head and snap the napkin open all fancy, like a magician. I fight down this urge. You should too.

Can I place my used silverware on the table?

No. Not even if it’s plastic, and you’re at a BBQ joint. Used silverware should never touch the table or table cloth, because it can stain. And if there’s no tablecloth, still – you don’t want to be placing a utensil that goes in your mouth just anyplace. Rest your entire utensil on the side of your plate. Don’t rest the handle on the table and the other end on the plate – this is begging for it to slide off and clatter loudly, or worse, careen into a wine glass and break the stem. Some of the more trendy restaurants now have plates that slope so much they resemble bowls, making it impossible to balance anything on them. If this is the case, treat it like a pasta bowl – leave your fork and knife inside, if possible, with the handles resting on the edge.

How do I signal to the waiter that I’m finished?

  1. If you’re simply pausing for an extended period of time – for example, you need to excuse yourself, or the conversation has just become intense and you’d like to stop eating in order to listen – then place your fork on the left of the plate and your knife on the right, so that the cross like an “X” in the center. This signals that you are not, in fact, ready to have your plate removed.
  2. If you are going to be taking a second-helping of something, place the knife and fork parallel to each other on the right of the plate so that there’s room for food.
  3. If you’re finished eating entirely, place your knife (blade towards you) and fork parallel, at 4:00. (Meaning if the plate is like the face of a clock, 12:00 being the top and 6:00 being the bottom, the handles of your knife and fork should be resting at 4:00.)

How do I pass things correctly?

First, don’t ever reach across the table with a plate of food, a utensil, or anything else. It’s aggressive, rude, and increases the chance for disaster if your hand decides to have a spasm. If someone across the table asks for something small, like the salt and pepper, then place them on the table beside the person next to you. He/She should pick them up and place them on the other side, beside the person next to them. Items should never be passed hand-to-hand, unless they’re large (like a serving plate of food) and there is absolutely no way you can place them on the table between each person.

What can I eat with my hands?

Burgers and sandwiches are generally okay, as are burritos and other similar foods, unless they’re too big to pick up and fit easily in your mouth. Never under-estimate how much easier it is to eat a large cheeseburger if you cut it in half first.

Corn on the cob can be eaten by hand, but you’ll need to only butter 1-2 rows at a time, eat them, and then butter the next 1-2 rows. This ensures that you won’t end up with butter all over your chin.

Berries can be tricky. The rule is that you’re allowed to each the following three things with your fingers: (1) strawberries with the hulls on, (2) cherries with stems, or (3) grapes in bunches. Otherwise, if it’s something loose, like raspberries or blueberries, eat them with a fork.

The two As: artichokes and asparagus:

We’ll tackle asparagus first, because it’s easier. If there’s no sauce (nothing messy) on your asparagus, you can actually pick up individual stalks and eat them one bite at a time. If there’s sauce of any kind, eat it with a knife and a fork. I tend to wave food around if it’s in my hand for very long, so I generally eat everything with a knife and fork. (As a sidenote, don’t wave stuff around, especially not your knife. That’s all you need is to get overzealous while gesturing and be responsible for your dinner-date needing an eye-patch.)

Artichokes are harder. In fact, the person who serves whole artichokes should probably be smacked around, as they’re one of the most notoriously confusing foods to eat. A nice, illustrated guide on eating an artichoke is here.

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  1. […] Brush up on your basic table manners – because they’ll surprise you. You’re moving along at a perfectly nice clip, and then someone puts an artichoke in front of you, and the evening screeches to a halt because you don’t know if you eat it with your hands or a knife and fork. (A little rusty on table manners? See my article, “Table Manners 101: A Primer.”) […]



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