The observance of table manners is a tricky thing. I am by no means a stickler for table manners – I often catch myself with elbows on the table or talking with my mouth full.
I’ve had the occasion to learn some of the finer points of dining etiquette, which makes for some interesting people-watching. As a guest at one of Houston’s most august country clubs, I’ve watched a Fortune 500 CEO push peas on to his fork with his fingers. As a volunteer at a soup kitchen, I’ve watched elderly patrons sip (never slurp) soup from a spoon with a technique worthy of the Queen of England.
So after decades of eating in restaurants, and especially the last few years eating in a lot of restaurants, I often get asked about how to deal with certain dining situations. Here are a few tips I’ve collected over the years, and that I find myself using on a regular basis.
1. Don’t sniff the cork.
When evaluating a bottle of wine in a nice restaurant, never pick up the cork and smell it. I can tell you now what it smells like: cork. You can squeeze the cork and look at it to make sure it’s in good shape. Then smell and taste the wine. For ladies on a date with Mr. Smooth Operator, if he picks up the cork and smells it, you know he’s just winging it.
2. Never offer to do the math on a group check.
If you are in a big group and you can’t split the check, somebody’s going to have to figure what everyone owes and collect it. This is a good time to go to the bathroom. If you get stuck doing it, no one will believe they owe what you tell them they owe. “How much? But I only had one glass of wine!” You will be despised as you take their money, and in the end you will probably end up paying any shortfall yourself just to get it over with. If I’m with a group of friends and I’ve organized the event, I will occasionally just hand a credit card to the server and pay for it myself, then collect later.
3. If you have a reservation at a restaurant, don’t get upset if your table isn’t ready when you arrive on time.
It happens. Just sidle up to the bar and have a drink while you wait. If the wait is 30+ minutes after your reservation time, let the host know. If the restaurant is on the ball, they should offer to comp your drinks. On the other hand, if you are seated immediately and the host tells you that you have to be finished by a certain time so the table can be turned, you should say “No, thanks” and get up and leave. There are better ways for a restaurant to handle this. For instance, if a table is lingering (unreasonably) in a busy restaurant, the host should politely explain that other guests are waiting for tables and suggest that you adjourn to the bar with their coffee/wine/digestif.
4. Don’t drink your dining companion’s water.
Even after decades of eating in nice restaurants, occasionally I’ll forget how the place setting works, especially on large 10- or 12-person tables where you’re sitting all squashed together and the table is a sea of glasses and utensils. The trick to remembering is the 4 and 5 letter word rule. Fork and dish (4 letters) on the left (4 letters), knife and glass (5 letters) on the right (5 letters).
5. Food goes out on the same utensil it went in on.
It’s always a conundrum: you’ve bit off a piece of steak that’s too gristly to chew, or you’ve got a bad mussel. What to do with it? If you’re in a casual atmosphere, no problem: just grab a paper napkin, raise it to your mouth and spit out the offending material. In formal restaurants, it’s a bit more complicated. Etiquette suggests that you cup one hand over your mouth, raise your fork and spit the food out on to it, then discreetly lower the masticated food to the side of your plate. I’ve got about a 50 percent success rate with this one. Half the time the food rolls off the fork and plops into the middle of my dish. If a society-type lady is at the table and gives me a funny look, I just respond with a saucy wink.
6. In a restaurant, say “Please” and “Thank you” to your servers.
Waiters have endless stories about obnoxious guests, so we as diners can balance that out one thank-you at a time. I always say thank you to the server when they bring or remove my plate. Busboys in particular seem absolutely shocked and appreciative when you thank them for refilling a water glass. Of course, at those restaurants where they seem to refill your glass after every sip, you may want to pace yourself.
This blog entry was originally posted 24 November 2010 on the www.29-95.com website.