After years of having my water glass stolen by the person sitting to my right and my bread plate stolen by the person to my left, I decided to get even … by writing a lesson on basic table etiquette.
I grew up in a tiny town in Texas, in the middle of nowhere. A formal meal setting would have meant using paper napkins instead of paper towels. Even among our poor, economically depressed farming community, my family was poor, which I guess made us the poorest of the poor. But dreams are free, and my dream was to live a more sophisticated life and to be able to “blend” in any group or situation with confidence. And so I educated myself.
Still, I’m continually surprised when people, who I know grew up in a more “well rounded” environment than me or have traveled more than me, remain clueless about what fork to use or which glass to pick up.
Knowing basic manners allows you to be comfortable in social situations. I know it’s not every day we sit down to a formally set table or even circulate around outside of our immediate family or circle of friends, but most people do at some point reach that unsettling moment when they are confronted with an avalanche of dishes, glasses, and flatware. So here is a basic road map to a formally set table.
The Basic Layout
There will often be a charger plate in the middle of the setting. This plate is not to be eaten from – it is sort of a decorative “place holder” for the setting, on top of which other plates are placed. This is typically removed after the soup or salad course but may stick around until after the main dish is served; it’s really up to the server or host/hostess.
To the left of your place setting is your bread plate (do not use the one to the right – that one is mine, or somebody else’s). There will usually be a service knife in the butter dish, and this is used to place a serving of butter onto your bread plate. Never use the service knife to butter your own bread (that’s sort of the equivalent of licking someone else’s silverware). If there is no service knife, you may use your own butter knife to remove a serving of butter from the butter dish to your bread plate, then butter your bread with the butter placed on your plate – again not directly from the butter dish.
As a little side note, the proper way to butter your bread is to break off a piece and butter it, one bite at a time, with the butter from your plate, not the service plate, and with your own butter knife, not the service knife. It is declasse to slather butter over the entire roll or, god forbid, split it down the middle and butter it up like a little hamburger.
To the right of your setting are your glasses, which will include a water glass (left) and wine glass (right), and sometimes a champagne glass (usually slightly behind). There may be glasses for both red (larger bowl, allowing the wine to breathe) and white (more slender, so the wine maintains a correct temperature). There may be a coffee cup to the right of your plate, or cups may be brought out at the end of the meal.
The napkin is placed either in the center atop the charger plate, or to the left of the plate. The napkin should be quietly unfolded (never “popped” or shaken obnoxiously) and placed in your lap. If there is a host or hostess at the table, take your cue from them as to when to place your napkin in your lap, otherwise it is done at the start of the meal. If you leave the table for a brief time, the napkin should be placed in the seat of your chair. When the meal is finished, it should be loosely folded and placed to the left of your plate (don’t plop your nice linen napkin on top of dirty dishes). If the dishes have been removed it may be placed in the center.
The maze of silverware is set up, very practically, to work your way in. Depending on the courses being served, there may be a salad fork, fish fork and dinner fork on the left. To the right of the plate, from the outside in, there may be a soup spoon, salad knife, fish knife and dinner knife. There may be more or less utensils but just follow the rule of “work your way in” and it will all work out. The spoon and fork placed above the dinner plate are for dessert.
And please notice that in all this array of glass, china and silver, there is no spot dedicated to an iPhone or any other electronic device. Cell phones don’t belong at the table. Remember, there was a time when we didn’t have a phone in our pocket or glued to our hand every moment of the day, and we somehow survived. If you absolutely must take a call or reply to a text, excuse yourself and keep it brief.
A few other points on basic etiquette –
Don’t talk with food in your mouth or chew with your mouth open – just gross.
Ask for dishes to be passed. Don’t reach across someone or get up to retrieve a dish that has floated downstream. And if a meal is being served “family style”, pass along the dishes that come to you.
And, as George Constanza learned the hard way, don’t double-dip.
All this may sound very fussy, but knowing the rules eliminates that awkward, deer-in-the-headlights feeling when sitting down to a formally set table. Plus I get to keep my bread plate.