What to Expect at the Formal Dining Table


The manners associated with eating are almost as varied as the great cultures and cuisines of the world that give them rise. But because of the prominence of Western culture in the modern world, and because this is a book on modern manners, the focus of this chapter is table manners from the Western perspective. In the chapter titled “International Customs,” some of the eating customs unique to and distinguishing of many of the world’s great cultures are explored.

 Also, in this chapter, because of the modern tendency to minimize gender distinctions and because of the increasing prevalence of single and same-gender heads of households, the words “host” and “hostess” are to be understood jointly, severally, and/or interchangeably.


Manners at the Table

If there is one place where manners are put to the test, it is the formal dinner table—a veritable theater of war, albeit a social one. There, at the dinner table, placement, positioning, timing, maneuvering, artifice, stratagem, and diplomacy are all let loose in a hand-to-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, face-to-face combat of sorts, where everyone is at once gladiator and spectator. And like in the great coliseums of the ancient world, there are casualties—usually in the form of a bright-eyed young man who unwittingly says or does the improper thing to his social demise: holding a glass of red wine by its stem rather than by its bowl; dicing his entire filet mignon into “convenient,” bite-size pieces upon being served; placing his fork tines-downward onto the plate after enjoying his salad of hand-picked spinach leaves and asparagus spears au vinaigrette; not knowing that his bread plate is the one situated to the upper left side of his dinner plate; turning his cup upside down onto its saucer as a tacit—and tactless—announcement that he will not be having coffee. It is at the dinner table that the proverbial cream rises to the top, wheat is separated from chaff, and fish and fowl align accordingly. And it is at the dinner table where all goes aflutter when birds of a feather realize that one not of like plumage is within their midst.

Many 21st-century young men would agree that the pen is mightier than the sword—especially these days when very few men tote sabres. But the verdict is still out as to whether the force of the pen exceeds that of a well-handled dinner fork, for it is not uncommon for young graduates from some of the world’s finest universities to lose appointments with some of the world’s most revered firms because of an unsuccessful dinner interview—on account of substandard table manners. No reasonable young man would engage a game of neighborhood basketball or sit down to a chess match without knowing the rules of the game. And the same should apply to sitting down to the formal dinner table, where the stakes may be even higher.

The “formal dinner”—in the “classic” sense of the term—has almost become a thing of the past, being regarded today as one of the last vestiges of the “Gilded Age.” Who today, for example, has a dining room large enough to seat the traditional 34 for a formal dinner? And even if one has the space, who has the china and the crystal and the table linens and the silver and the service staff (One for every three guests!) and the chef or cuisinière and the…. The modern-day alternative, therefore, is to hold such dinners in a suitable restaurant or in an appropriate room in a great hotel (Or better yet, to be the invitee rather than the invitor!) And if such an event simply must be held in a private home, a reputable catering service is usually engaged. But whether in a private home or in a public space of formal dining, a gentleman must know how to conduct himself at what is oftentimes considered the ultimate test of civility:  the formal dinner.

A “formal dinner,” as it has come to be understood in the 21st century, is one during which guests sit and are served by table attendants. While the table manners appropriate for a formal dinner are separate and somewhat distinct from those suitable for a July 4th backyard barbeque in the United States or a crayfish-and-schnapps party in Sweden in August, manners at the formal dinner table serve as the high-water mark, with diluted versions thereof being employed at the less formal gastronomical events—the way haute couture tends to inspire and inform prêt-à-porte in the world of fashion.

The Layout of a Well-Set Table

Art is perhaps best defined as that which is skillfully executed such that it appeals to the aesthetic, the intellect, the emotions, and/or the senses. As such, almost anything can be elevated to the level of art—provided that it is done with skill.

In the art of warfare, reconnaissance is a key ingredient of a successful campaign:  A soldier should be as familiar with the topography of the battlefield as with the weapons in the arsenal of his adversary. Likewise, in the art of formal fare, a young gentleman should have advanced understanding of the layout of a typical dinner table with its sometimes-formidable flatware—where those implements for eating are to be positioned, how and when they are to be deployed, then, finally, decommissioned. And as witticisms are fired across the table, as bottles of champagne pop open, and as guests explode in laughter and merriment—with all the din that typically accompanies dinner—a young gentleman’s most faithful ally through it all will be knowledge; for when it comes to handling oneself elegantly at the dinner table, nothing triumphs over experience. At the formal dinner table, being forewarned is truly being forearmed.

The general rule for setting a table is that forks are to be situated to the left of the plate, while spoons and knives should be to the right, the logic being that though people use both hands to eat, certain things are done exclusively with the left hand, while certain other things are done exclusively with the right hand—thus the left-side, right-side placement. While in the United States a person eating with a knife and fork simultaneously will take the knife into his right hand to cut his food as he holds the food in place with the fork held in his left hand, thereafter laying the knife onto the plate as he switches the fork to his right hand to convey food to his mouth, in Europe and most of the rest of the world that uses knives and forks simultaneously, the fork is always held in the left hand and the knife in the right. (Of course, when no knife is involved, the fork is held exclusively in the right hand).

But regardless of the logic behind the left-side, right-side setting of a table, hands down, the greatest cause for consternation in the mind of an inexperienced young man is:  not knowing which eating implements are to be used for the various courses presented before him.

Very few hostesses today will set their tables like their Victorian-era ancestors, who sometimes brandished as many as eight forks to the left of each guest’s plate at the commencement of the meal. But a gentleman, especially one who dines cross-culturally (and many do nowadays), must always expect the unexpected. So whether a hostess has unleashed her entire ancestral silver inheritance upon her guests, or has exercised minimalistic chic and reserve as defined by the modern era, one rule remains constant:  Start with the silverware farthest from the plate; then proceed—implement by implement as each successive course is presented—towards the plate. But alas, sometimes due to innocent oversight, the person setting the table makes a mistake. In such instances, it helps if a gentleman is familiar with the various types of eating implements so that he, with the aid of the menu card or upon being presented with the dish, can select the appropriate implement despite its misplacement. It would behoove a gentleman, therefore, to know the difference between a fish knife and dinner knife, or an oyster fork and a salad fork, for example, such that he would not dare use them for any other purpose. Of course, when doubt rears its unsavory head, a young man may use his peripheral vision to see what implement those in his immediate vicinity are using; but  the preferred approach is to be independently informed since there is no guarantee—especially these days—that the tablemate is any more the wiser.

Then, of course, there are those rogue implements—those forks, knives, and spoons, such as the seafood fork, the butter knife, or the tea spoon—that are not usually nicely and neatly aligned in formation on either side of the plate. They are off elsewhere—missing in action or assigned to outposts. But again, logic accounts for their apparent AWOL status. Basically, those are the implements that do not have right-hand, left-hand counterparts:  They are lone rangers. Consequently, if they were lined up in formation with the other implements that flank the plate, the unwitting diner, accustomed to reaching for two implements simultaneously—one from each side of the plate—would retrieve them along with an implement designated for the another course. So to simplify matters, most hosts place those rogue implements out of “harm’s way,” away from the fray:  The seafood fork is laid, askew, onto the soup spoon, completely away from the other forks—thereby being one of the few exceptions to the “forks on the left” rule; the butter knife is placed  horizontally across the “northern” portion of the bread plate; and teaspoons are brought to the table—on the right side of the saucer that supports the teacup—when tea or coffee is to be served at the dining table.


Dinner is Served!

When guests enter the dining room, they will encounter a table already decorated and set to receive them. The formal dinner table will feature a centerpiece, traditionally comprised of flowers and lit candles; but modern hosts and hostesses also use the centerpiece as an opportunity for creative expression beyond that dictated by tradition. Whether traditional or trendy, the centerpiece should not be trite; instead, it should surprise and delight even the most seasoned socialite—without obstructing the view or flow of conversation across the table.

Each guest’s place will be designated by a place plate, onto which the folded dinner napkin will have been laid (Alternatively, the folded napkin may be placed to the immediate left of the forks, with its lengthwise fold facing left; or the napkin may be stylishly arranged and placed in the water goblet, though that placement precludes the filling of the water glasses prior to the arrival of guests to the table). To the left of each place plate will be the forks for the various courses, and to the right will be the spoons and knives.  The tines of the forks and the bowls of the spoons will be facing upwards; the blades of the knives will be facing towards their corresponding place plate—not towards the diner to the right, since it is always impolite to “present” a blade to a friend.  Today, unlike the opulent, arguably excessive Victorian era, no more than three of each type of utensil should flank the place plate—except that the oyster fork, which is either placed with the other forks or, as is oftentimes the case, laid askew (in the “4 o’clock” position) across the spoon farthest from the plate, that spoon usually being the soup spoon, may account for a fourth fork. If, in keeping with the “no more than three” rule, the number of courses to be served exceeds the utensils present on the table at the commencement of the dinner, the additional silverware will be brought to the table as the subsequent courses are presented.

At the formal table, the dessert implements will flank the place plate or, in keeping with the “maximum of three” rule, be brought to the table at the appropriate time. In some less formal settings, however, the dessert implements, as dictated by the nature of the dessert, are placed horizontally, centered directly “north” of the place plate, when the table is being set. When both spoon and fork are to be used  (to eat apple pie à la mode, for example), the spoon is placed immediately “north” of, but directly parallel to, the fork, the spoon’s handle pointing towards the right (since spoons are otherwise always on the right side) and the fork’s handle pointing towards the left.

(It should be noted that in less formal settings, such as picnics, or at simple dinners or lunches where only one spoon, fork, and knife will be used, the folded napkin is placed just right of the plate, with the eating implements placed, centered, atop the napkin:  the fork, tines up, to the left side of the napkin; the knife to the immediate right side of the fork, with its blade facing the fork; and the spoon, with its bowl upwards, placed to the immediate right of the knife. When only a knife and fork are presented, both are placed atop the napkin, the fork, tines up, to the left of the knife, the knife’s blade facing the fork. When only a fork or a spoon is presented, it is centered atop the napkin, tines/bowl upwards. In America, where a fork and spoon may be used together to eat spaghetti, the fork is placed  to the left of the spoon, tines/bowl upwards).

To the upper left side of the place plate will be the little, saucer-sized, bread plate, onto which the butter knife is placed horizontally within the “northern” half of the plate, midway between the “horizon” and the “north pole,” blade facing “south.” Until the middle of the 20th century, bread, if at all served at a formal dinner, was laid directly onto the tablecloth towards the left side of each diner’s plate. As the century progressed, however, bread plates became the norm, thankfully, since bread and its attendant crumbs left onto  an impeccably dressed table only seemed to distract from an otherwise beautiful presentation.

And while on the topic of bread, gentlemen should take particular note of bread-plate etiquette:  It is not uncommon for people to improperly help themselves to bread from the wrong bread plate, the bread plate to their right side usually being the one “violated.” In such instances, a gentleman should discretely inform the “intruder” of the violation, directing him to his bread plate—the one to his immediate left. “Excuse me, sir, but you have inadvertently helped yourself to my bread. Your bread plate is to your left. Table settings can be so complicated sometimes…,” is usually sufficient to settle the minor mix-up. While the matter may seem trifling, its discrete resolution is preferable to a scenario where the blind leads the blind, with each person successively taking bread from the wrong bread plate because of one person’s faux pas.

At large, private gatherings, coffee and/or tea is rarely served at the dinner table at the end of the meal—mainly because at such gatherings, serving those beverages in the living room or some other suitable space allows guests to intimately interact with people besides the two between whom they sat during the dinner. In the Victorian ear, when interaction between the sexes was much more restricted, women and men would separate after dessert, women going into the parlor for tea and coffee, while men would remain at the dinner table to indulge in coffee, cigars, and after-dinner drinks. But even today, if coffee is served at the dinner table at a large dinner in a private home, the teacup, saucer, and teaspoon for each guest will be brought to the table at the end of the meal, usually with, or immediately after, the  dessert course. At small, private, formal dinners, however, where the table is large enough and space permits, the teacup, with its saucer and spoon, may be on the table from the commencement of the meal. In such cases, it is placed slightly above and to the left of the bread-and-butter plate, with its handle towards the right and the teaspoon placed onto the saucer, to the right side of the teacup. Then, when coffee and tea will be served, it is placed directly before the guest by the table attendant. Some authorities insist that the proper placement of the teacup and its saucer—when it is placed onto the table before the commencement of the meal—is towards the lower right side of the spoons and knives. That placement, however,  creates unnecessary congestion in an area of the place setting that is already congested and need not be additionally cluttered by items that will not be used until the absolute end of the meal. Slightly to the upper left of the bread plate, however, is a more open area with much less activity during the course of the meal. But regardless of where the tea/coffee dishes are placed, if a gentleman does not intend to have coffee or tea, he does not, like a defiant toddler in his “terrible twos,” turn his teacup topsy-turvy into the saucer! Instead, he simply indicates to the table attendant, when tea and coffee are being served, that he does not wish for either. Also, at many formal, public banquets and dinners, where guests will leave shortly after the meal, or at wedding receptions, for example, coffee and tea will usually be served at the table. In such such instances, each guest’s tea setting—the teacup, the saucer, and the teaspoon—will sometimes be on the table from the commencement of the meal.

There are very few rules carved in stone regarding how glasses are to be positioned on the formal dining table. Several factors must be considered:  the relative sizes of the various glasses; the amount of glasses to be placed onto the table; the order of the meal; the frequency with which a particular glass is likely to be used during the meal; and the available space, so as to avoid mishaps. What is not open for discussion, however, is that the glasses are to be placed to the upper right side of the place plate, just above the placement of the knives and spoons; and the water glass must lead the formation, which proceeds from right of the water glass. While a young, inexperienced gentleman, upon entering a dining room and seeing six or seven glasses set before each place plate may experience some degree of trepidation, he need not be overly concerned, for at a formal dinner, wine will be poured into the appropriate glass by the butler, the sommelier, or a table assistant, so the young man need only take his cue from what is being poured and proceed accordingly. It would behoove a young man, however, to know generally about stemware:  The largest drinking glass on the table will be the water goblet, followed in size by the red wine glass, then the white wine glass; the smallest glass will be the sherry glass, which is usually V-shaped; and champagne is served in either a wide, shallow-bowled glass or in a flute, which is taller and much narrower. The glasses suitable for after-dinner drinks that will be served at the table are never on the table during the meal. They are, instead, brought to the table after it has been cleared of the dinner settings. And as such, the person serving the various after-dinner drinks will be sure to pour them into the appropriate glasses.

 At simple meals of three or four courses, even if formal, only one or two wines will generally be served. In such instances, the water glass will be placed above the knives, followed on its right side by the red wine glass and then the white wine glass. This formation takes into consideration frequency (water first), the order in which the food is presented (white wine glass preceding red wine glass, from outside in), and the size of the glasses (from largest to smallest). Some hostesses—especially when many courses are being served, each with its accompanying glass—prefer to place the glasses in descending order based on size, with the largest glass (the water goblet) placed first, to the upper right side of the place plate, just above the knives, followed by the other glasses according to their relative size, ending with the little sherry glass, which is used during the soup course—if the soup itself is flavored or compatible with sherry. Other hostesses prefer “triangle” formations, and “diamond” formations. But again, at formal meals, guests will not pour their own wines, and it is the responsibility of the server to know which glass is appropriate for which course.

Some hosts prefer to have the water glasses filled before guests enter the dining room. That custom seems to be disappearing, however, since there is little need or justification for it. After all, pouring iced water from a pitcher or carafe is relatively quick, easy, and can even be done with some ceremony—to  the delight of guests. And though long gone are the days when enemy-guests were routinely poisoned at the dinner table by dishes specially “prepared” for them, frankly, no one, not even today, prefers food or drink left unattended, no matter how briefly. Some hosts also prefer to have the first course on the table when guests enter the dining room. That tradition, too, needs to be reconsidered for several reasons:  A hot first course can become cold, a cold one can become lukewarm, and a fresh one can sometimes wilt by the time guests locate and take their seats, especially at a relatively large party; appetizers somehow seem less appetizing after guests have been leaning over them in pursuit of their names on place cards; and food already placed onto the table impedes ice-breaking conversation between unfamiliar dinner-partners since people begin eating immediately rather than engaging in conversation as the first course is being served.