Practicing Proper Restaurant Dining Etiquette

Dining out should be enjoyable, and certainly not a chore.  Getting familiar with the basics of proper restaurant dining etiquette will allow you and your guests to enjoy the experience more deeply.

Practicing proper restaurant dining etiquette during a business meal especially will help you make a great impression.  For whatever reason you’re celebrating, it’s important to understand the basics of restaurant table manners.  These basics are the foundation to a comfortable, enjoyable meal.

The following article from goes over the basics of table manners, whether you are dining out at a restaurant or at any formal or informal dinner party.  Brush up on your restaurant dining etiquette with these helpful table manner tips.

Table Manners

Handling Utensils

In most situations, following the “outside-in” rule will tell you which knife, fork, or spoon to use at the dinner table.

  • Use utensils on the outside first and work your way inward with each new course that is served.
  • If you are not sure which utensil to use, wait to see what is served.
  • Or, watch others at the table and follow their lead.

Continental Style v. American Style (for right-handed dinners)

Continental Style

  1. Hold your fork in your left hand, tines downward.
  2. Hold your knife in your right hand low to the plate, an inch or two above. Extend your index finger along the top of the blade.
  3. Use your fork to spear and lift food to your mouth.
  4. If your knife is not needed, it remains on the table. Hold your fork in your right hand, tines upward.
  5. Hold your fork like a pencil (never used it to stab at food), with the shank extended between your thumb and second and third fingers. Your fourth and fifth fingers rest in your hand.
  6. For leverage, the index finger is extended along the back of the fork, as far from the tines as possible.
  7. Hold your knife with the handle cupped in the palm of your hand, along with your third, fourth, and fifth fingers. Your second finger is placed on the back of the blade. Your thumb is held against the side of the handle.

American Style

Two Utensils. Using two utensils as opposed to one is preferred because food is easier to manipulate with two utensils. In formal dining, two utensils are used for the appetizer course, main course, salad course, dessert course, and fruit course.

Utensil Etiquette

Resting Utensils

Soiled utensils are laid on the plate or bowl it is provided with (not on the table). Never rest a utensil half on a plate and half on the table. The rules are, of course, different when using chopsticks.

You can rest your utensils in one of two ways when taking a break from eating:

  1. Put your fork and knife in the center of your plate with the tips facing each other in an inverted V (slightly angled); Or
  2. Rest your knife on the top right of your plate (diagonally) with the fork nearby (tines up).

These two resting positions, recognized by trained wait staff, signal that you’re not ready to have your plate removed.

  • At most restaurants, used utensils are replaced with clean ones for the next course.
  • If, however, a waiter asks you to keep your dirty utensils for the next course, it’s okay to ask for clean ones.

Soup Spoons.

  • Soup Bowl. If soup or dessert is served in a deep bowl, cup, or stemmed bowl set on another plate, place your utensil(s) on this underplate when you finish. If the underplate is too small to balance the spoon, the spoon is laid in the bowl.
  • Soup Plate. If the bowl is what is called a soup plate (shallow and wide), leave the spoon in the bowl.

Finished with a Course. When each course is finished:

  1. Place the knife and fork parallel with the handles in the four o’clock position on the right rim of the plate;
  2. The tips rest in the well of the plate in the ten o’clock position;
  3. The blade of your knife should face inward;
  4. The fork tines may be either up or down.
  5. This position signals to the server that you’re finished. It also decreases the chance that the utensils could fall to the floor when the plates are cleared.

Temporary Placement During a Conversation. For temporary placement of the fork and knife in conversation:

Continental Style-

  1. The fork is laid on the side of the plate with the tines downward and the handle in the eight o’clock position.
  2. The knife handle is laid in the four o’clock position.
  3. If space permits, the tines are rested over the blade of the knife.

American Style-

  1. The knife is rested on the right rim of the plate with the handle in the four o’clock position.
  2. The fork is laid near the knife.
  3. Fork tines upward.

Placement when Passing a Plate. To prevent flatware from falling off when the plate is passed for a second helping,

  • The fork and knife are centered vertically in the six o’clock position toward the middle of the plate.
  • Leave enough room to grasp the plate in passage and to provide ample space for the extra serving.

Napkin Etiquette

Placing the Napkin in Your Lap. Wait for the host or hostess to take his or her napkin off the table and place it in his or her lap. (An exception to this rule is buffet-style meals, where you should unfold your napkin when you start eating)

Unfolding the Napkin. Unfold your napkin in one smooth motion without “snapping” or “shaking” it open.

The size determines how you unfold a napkin in your lap.

  1. Large napkins provided at more formal dinners, are unfolded halfway.
  2. Smaller napkins are unfolded completely and cover the lap fully.

Tucking the Napkin. Don’t tuck a napkin into your collar, between the buttons of your shirt, or in your belt.

When messy finger food is served before tucking the napkin under the chin or tying it around the neck, look to the host to see if he does the same.

Using the Napkin. Use your napkin frequently during the meal to blot or pat, not wipe, your lips. Blot your lips before taking a drink of your beverage-especially if you’re a woman wearing lipstick.

Napkin Rings. If a napkin ring is present, after removing your napkin, place the ring to the top-left of the setting. At the end of the meal, grasp the napkin in the center, pull it through the ring, and lay it on the table with the point facing the center of the table.

Temporarily Leaving the Table. When leaving the table temporarily, put your napkin on your chair. If the chair is upholstered, place the napkin soiled side up.

Placing the Napkin at the End of the Meal. At the meal’s end:

  • The napkin is loosely folded at the end of the meal.
  • If a plate is in the center of your place setting, when leaving the table lay the napkin to the left of the plate.
  • If the center of your place setting is empty, the napkin is laid in the middle of the place setting.
  • Leave your napkin in loose folds that keep soiled parts hidden.
  • If after-dinner coffee is served at the table, the napkin remains in the lap.
    • Food is brought to each diner at the table;
    • The server presents the platter or bowl on the diner’s left,
    • The food is either accepted or refused.

Serving Etiquette

Formal Meals

(Alternatively, plates are prepared in the kitchen and then brought to the table and set before the diners.)

Casual Meals

  • the host will dish food onto guests’ plates to pass around the table; or
  • the diners help themselves to the food and pass it to others as necessary.

Using Serving Utensils. Some general guidelines for using serving utensils:

  • Serving utensils are placed on the right side of serveware;
  • When a serving spoon and serving fork are presented together, the spoon is laid on the right ready to cut and lift and the fork on the left to steady and hold.
  • The utensils are returned to the platter or serving bowl in the same position.
  • When a serving spoon is presented on an underplate, after use the utensil is replaced in the bowl (ready for the next person to use).
  • To protect the hand, the blade of a carving knife faces inward.
    • Traditionally, food is passed to the left – but the point is for the food to be moving in only one direction.
    • One diner either holds the dish as the next diner takes some food, or he hands it to the person, who then serves herself.
    • Any heavy or awkward dishes are put on the table with each pass.
    • Cream pitchers and other dishes with handles should be passed with the handle toward the person receiving them.
    • If a platter for sharing is present it is passed around the table, with each diner holding it as the person next to him serves himself, using only the serving utensils provided.

Passing Food

Salt and Pepper Etiquette

Taste Before Salting. Be sure to taste the food before putting salt or pepper on it. That way you can be sure it needs the seasoning.

Pass Salt and Pepper Together. Always pass salt and pepper together. If a person asks for just one, pass both anyway.

Saltcellars. Some hostesses prefer to use old ­fashioned saltcellars, which salt shakers have largely replaced.

  • If there is no spoon in the saltcellar, use the tip of a clean knife to take some salt.
  • If the salt­cellar is for you alone, you may either use the tip of your knife or you may take a pinch with your fingers.
  • If it is to be shared with others, never use your fingers or a knife that is not clean.
  • Salt you have dipped into should be put on the bread-and-butter plate or on the rim of whatever plate is before you.

Bread and Butter Etiquette

Bread is most often placed on the table in a basket that everyone shares.

  • If the bread is placed in front of you, feel free to pick up the basket and offer it to the person on your left.
  • If the loaf is not cut, cut a few pieces, offer them to the person to your right, and then pass the basket to your left.
  • Do not touch the loaf with your fingers, instead use the clothe in the bread basket as a buffer to steady the bread as you slice it.
  • Place the bread and butter on your butter plate – yours is on your left – then break off a bite sized piece of bread, put a little butter on it, and eat it.
  • Don’t butter the whole piece of bread and then take bites from it.
  • Don’t hold your bread in one hand and a drink in the other (the polite diner uses only one hand at a time), and
  • Don’t take the last piece of bread without first offering it to others.

In some restaurants, olive oil is served with bread. Dip your bite sized pieces of bread in the oil and enjoy.

Because butter is produced in rectangle form, and the butter knife is made with a dull blade to slice butter and a pointed tip to transfer cubes of butter to the plate.

Table Manners During the Meal

When to Start Eating

At a small table of only two to four people, wait until everyone else has been served before starting to eat. At a formal or business meal, you should either wait until everyone is served to start or begin when the host asks you to.

Refusing a Dish

If you’re allergic to a food or on a restricted diet, explain to your host (not to the table at large) why you have no choice but to decline.

Main Course

If you order for yourself, you can avoid some of the potential difficulties of a main course by ordering food that is easy to eat and that you’ll know you enjoy.

Clearing the Plates

  • If the meal is formal, plates will be removed by the staff.
  • At informal meals, the hostess will probably clear the plates, possibly with one or two guests helping.
  • At a family meal, members clear their own plates.

Want more table manners tips? See our table manners tips section for our list of the best 100 table manners tips.

Follow a few more restaurant dining etiquette tips for a truly pleasant evening:

1. Treat your waiter / waitress with respect.  As a diner in a restaurant, you deserve to get what you want, how and when you want it.  Just remember that your server is there to make your experience a great one, so remember to be courteous and don’t place blame where it doesn’t belong.

2. Put away your cell phone.  That means no talking, texting, emailing or surfing the web.  About 63% of diners so it’s rude, while 73% advise turning off ringers altogether.  For urgent business matters, excuse yourself from the table for a brief moment.

3. If you’re running late… call the restaurant to let them know how far behind schedule you’re running and when you expect to arrive.

4. Ask for the check.  When dining out at a restaurant, proper restaurant etiquette calls for you to initiate the check.  On calm nights, the waiter will most likely drop the check on the table only after you ask for it, rather than interrupt a wonderful evening.  When you’re ready to pay, let a little money or your credit card peek out of the bill so your server will know.

5. Separating the bill.  If dining with a group of people, you may want the check to be divided evenly among everyone or according to each person’s meal.  Either way, tell your server before you order to make the process easier.

One of the most important things to remember is to have a great time.  Dining at your favorite restaurant should be about the experience, so make it a pleasant one.  These restaurant dining etiquette tips should help you avoid the most basic mistakes so you can eat and drink in comfort and confidence.  If you do make a mistake, don’t worry about it, instead learn from it.

For an experience you and your guests are sure to enjoy, stop by Ceres Bistro in Worcester, Massachusetts.  You can put your newly-learned and polished restaurant dining manners to the test!