The Order of the Formal Dinner
The order and manner in which food is presented at a formal dinner varies from culture to culture, country to country. And to further complicate matters, the order in which food is presented on the menus of restaurants that offer national cuisines oftentimes varies from the traditional order of food presentation in the respective countries. It is therefore necessary for a modern-day gentleman to have a basic understanding of the various gastronomical traditions of the world if he is to successfully navigate the ever-increasingly eclectic world of social dining. (See chapter, “International Customs”).
In the Gilded Age, it was not uncommon for hostesses to present ten-course meals—with all the required eating and drinking implements proudly presented on the dining table at the commencement of the meal. Some hostesses were renowned for setting their dinner tables with 24 pieces of silver and 10 glasses for each guest. It was a time when less was not more; it was less. The April 12, 1912 dinner on board the RMS Titanic, regarded by many as the final dinner of the Age, featured:
Hors D’ Oeuvres
Cream of Barley
Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce, Cucumbers
Filet Mignons Lili
Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise
Vegetable Marrow Farci
Lamb, Mint Sauce
Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce
Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes
Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes
Roast Squabs & Cress
Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette
Pâté de Foie Gras
Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly
Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs
French Ice Cream
Each course was served with a different, complementary wine. And after the Tenth Course, fresh fruits and cheeses were made available. Thereafter, cigars were offered with a choice of coffee, port, or distilled liquors.
Today, however, even the most formal of meals in the finest of homes are limited to six, or, perhaps, seven courses, and no more than three eating implements are presented on each side of the plate setting at the beginning of the meal: The additional implements are brought to the table as needed, when needed.
The Menu Card
Some hosts take delight in surprising their guests with each meal presented. Many guests, however, especially those with modest appetites, prefer to know the scope of the dinner before it begins so that they can take portions—if the dishes are presented à la russe—which will not exhaust their appetites before the culmination of the meal at dessert. And the most practical way to afford guests advance notice of the courses is via menu cards. At large dinners, menu cards, either engraved or written in calligraphy, are placed onto the table, one between every two guests, or sometimes onto each place plate under the napkin. At smaller, private, formal dinners in a home, there is usually one menu card, which is placed before the hostess.
The typical order of a meal in a fine restaurant in the United States is: appetizer, soup, salad, main course (also called the entrée), dessert, and coffee/tea/after-dinner drink. That, however, unbeknownst to many Americans, is not the classic order in which food is to be presented at a formal dinner in Western culture.
A 21st-century, Formal, Six-Course Dinner
Meat or Fowl Course
In some countries, or regions thereof, a sherbet/sorbet/granité is served between the fish and meat/fowl courses to “cleanse the palate.” And long gone are the days when a game course (of some wild meat) would be served after the meat course. Today, if game is to be served, it will be presented as a substitute for the meat/fowl course.
In Italy, one of the founding fathers of Western European culture, the typical order of a formal meal would include a course of pasta (in the south) or risotto (in the north) because of the prominence of those staples in Italian cuisine.
Main Course (Meat, Fish, Poultry)