Rob’s Rules: Table Manners

November 1, 2007


Table Matters

This featured column, Rob’s Rules, is meant to provide you with all the practical advice, tips and rules of engagement you need in the meeting and event planning industry. If you have a question, whether it’s how to dress, how to address your guests or what to serve as the main course, e-mail Rob at [email protected]. Your question might just inspire the topic of his next column!

We live in a world where culinary art is constantly changing. What was once an old dish is new again and vice versa. Not only are menu items being updated, but also the ways in which items are being served seem strange and confusing. Although the standards of etiquette hold true for most dining circumstances, modern methods of munching do apply. I believe the key to planning any successful event is to imagine yourself as a guest. Take into consideration what you are serving, when you are serving and how you are serving it. What comfort level are you providing for your guests and will they know what to do? Do you know what to do? As I always say, “Make it sensational but servable.”

When you are planning an event, it is exciting to offer modern hor d’oeuvres with unique presentations. Hors d’oeuvres have evolved from simple canapés to bite-sized works of art. The serving vessel or utensil has become as important an element of design as the actual hors d’oeuvre. The standard toothpick has been replaced with cocktail forks, demitasse spoons, metal picks with handles, small plates, espresso cups and shotglasses. Remember, as new menu items are developed, adaptations to the rules will soon follow. If you are planning a menu, ask the chef what his vision is and how he sees things presented.

The shotglass and espresso cup are popular vessels for serving chilled soups and items with dipping sauces. When presented with a soup shot, treat it as you would a liquor shot – down it in one swallow. An espresso cup allows you to sip the item and is ideal for richer liquids. When serving soup shots, the server should present them on a tray with a cocktail napkin. Always accept the napkin. Never try to hand your empty shotglass back to the waiter or try to place it back on the tray. In fine establishments, a second waiter should follow behind the first and take the drained shotglass from you. If no one appears, set the shotglass on a nearby table. Worst case scenario, hold the glass until another waiter goes by.

Items such as cocktail forks, modern picks and demitasse spoons should hold an item that can be eaten in one bite. The waiter should present these on a tray with another napkin-lined container for used utensils. If that is not an option, simply ask the waiter what you should do with the used item. Only take one hor d’oeuvre from a tray at a time and dip only once in the accompanying sauce. NEVER double dip your hors d’oeuvres from a passed tray.

The martini glass is often used for ceviche, seafood, risotto and pasta. These items are rarely passed but should be served on a table or station. Use the appropriate fork or spoon offered. A passing waiter or strategically placed waiter tray should be used for the empty glasses and utensils. Never place your empty glass back on the station! It is considered both unsanitary and rude. The same rule applies to small plates or an amuse-bouche or tidbit plate. Also remember, a skewer is not a toothpick. Excuse yourself if you feel something trapped in your teeth.

For a light hors d’oeuvres reception served before 5 p.m. and not intended as a meal, I estimate 2-4 hors d’oeuvres per guest. I estimate 3-5 hors d’oeuvres per guest when serving them before a multi-course, plated dinner. If heavy hors d’oeuvres are indicated on the invitation and intended as a meal, then I plan on 6-8 per guest. But always consider the crowd! I feel that with large groups, passed hors d’oeuvres should not be served as a meal. Guests are hungry at dinner time and either don’t want to wait or will “mob” the server and tray as soon as they appear. Hors d’oeuvres at the dinner hour should preempt a meal.

Food stations and supper buffets are designed to be a substantial meal, regulate guest flow and eliminate the wait – guests can eat when they want. Carved meats, pasta, grilled vegetables, breads and soups are standard fare. Food stations and buffets should open as soon as the guests enter the room. As a rule, buffets are open one to two hours depending on the menu. Always discuss the culinary timeline with the catering contact or chef so that your event and culinary timelines are the same. I suggest assigning select staff or the guest of honor to start eating. Guests are often hesitant to be the first in line but feel comfortable after seeing someone “break the ice.” Items such as crudités and dip, cheese and crackers and dry snacks are filler food and I never consider them a meal option. I use them to preempt or enhance a meal at the dinner hour.

Attending a sit-down meal does not need to be stressful. When approaching the table, gentlemen should always assist the ladies in seating. Napkins should be unfolded and laid across the lap, not used as a bib. Bread and wine are offered first. If the butter or margarine is not preset on the bread plate, take a small amount for your bread plate. Bread and rolls should be pulled apart with your hands into small pieces. Butter each piece with the butter knife. The butter knife or spreader is laid across the bread plate. If a bread basket is on the table, it should be passed on the right.

Although formal dinners can have more elaborate flatware pieces, most events are set with the standard flatware, glassware and china. The basic rule of etiquette is to start with the outside pieces of flatware and work inward toward the plate. The charger plate is a decorative preset plate used to enhance the look of the place setting. The charger plate is removed before the entrée course is served. Never place your bread, butter or flatware on the charger plate.

Many facilities use a multi-purpose glass for all beverages. With finer dining, glassware will vary by size and includes a water glass, red wine glass and white wine glass. The white wine glass is thinner with a smaller bowl. This is to prevent your hand from warming the chilled wine. Red wine has the fullest bowl to allow maximum surface space and release the bouquet of the wine. Champagne glasses have a narrow “flute” to prevent the bubbles from escaping too rapidly. If you do not drink wine, inform the wait staff immediately so they can remove the glasses. If you don’t, they will try to fill it all evening.

Once you are seated for dinner, the waiter will serve the courses on your left and empty plates are cleared on your right. Wine and water are filled from the right. When the waiter approaches you, sit still while courses are being served and beverages poured. Keep your napkin and your purse in your lap and avoid gesturing or jostling. Eating your dinner is preferable to wearing it!

When the host or hostess begins to eat, it is the unspoken cue to begin. If there is no host or hostess, you may begin eating after all guests at the table are served. Ladies should be served first and then gentlemen. At a large banquet table with 20 guests or more and no guest of honor, it is acceptable to begin eating once 3-6 guests next to you are served.

The salad fork is on the far left of your charger and soup spoon is on the far right. The soup spoon is larger and deeper. When eating a thin soup or consommé, it is acceptable to tilt the soup bowl away from you in order to gather it on the spoon. Do not fill the spoon to the brim with soup or there will be drips. When finished with the first course, lay your fork across the top of the plate facing ten o’clock. The soup spoon should be placed on the right side of the bowl. This indicates that you are finished and the waiter may clear. Once the entrée is served, use your dinner knife and fork. These are usually the largest of the utensils. If a filet or steak is served, you may be given a steak knife. Again, when you have finished, place your flatware across the top of the plate with the points facing ten o’clock. This holds true for the dessert course as well.

Coffee or tea service should be offered before dessert presentation and poured at the table. If coffee is on a separate station, it is acceptable to get up once dessert is offered and fix your own. However, I highly recommend when planning a seated dinner that you ensure a plated dessert is accompanied with coffee service at the table.

We have all had moments when we have taken too large of a bite or discovered a bone or piece of fat in our mouths. Etiquette teaches us to use our fork to spear the item and either place it on our plate or in our napkin. After more than 20 years of event dining, I believe that you should simply remove the item with your fork or fingers and place it on the side of your plate discreetly. Since your napkin is being used throughout the meal, I feel that hidden items can often be forgotten. Then they fall in your lap or on the floor usually in front of everyone! Avoid a red face and don’t hide food in your napkin.

Once the meal has concluded and the host or hostess has removed his or her napkin, place your napkin on the left side of your plate. Never place your napkin on top of the plate or bowl. During the dining experience, the napkin should be on your lap. If you excuse yourself and leave the table during dinner, place the napkin in your chair. Often, the waiter will refold the napkin in your absence. If you are hosting an event, be sure to use napkins that are lint-free. I prefer a polished cotton blend. Nothing is more irritating than finding white lint all over your dark pants or skirt at the end of a meal.


Rob’s Top 10 Dining Tips…

1) Always ask your guests in advance if they have any special dietary restrictions or allergies. The night of the event is not the time to try and fix a conflict. It is the guest’s responsibility to tell you in advance. However, if a last minute emergency should arise, be polite but practical. A facility may not be able to produce a sugar-free or gluten-free meal in ten minutes. Give your guest the options available and smile.

2) Listen to your facility coordinator and caterer and let them do what they do best! Work with them to customize your menu but don’t ask them to sacrifice culinary integrity.

3) Pair your food and wine choices appropriately. Consistent quality ensures a fine meal. Cheap wine with fine food is a party killer and vice versa.

4) If you make a mistake and use the wrong flatware piece, don’t sweat it. Correct yourself if you can. If you can’t, slide the flatware closer to the plate and move on.

5) Keep your elbows off the table and don’t talk with your mouth full.

6) Eat in small bites and take your time. We live in a world where people often rush through dinner. Employees who appear starving or rushed send the wrong vibe to their employer.

7) Never ask a waiter for a soda or a condiment not on the table during a sit-down dinner. Stick with water and coffee if you do not drink wine, and try to survive without ketchup.

8) RSVP when indicated on the invitation or company e-mail. Never assume a place will be set for you. Under no circumstances should you bring a date or guest if you did not indicate so on the RSVP. Tables are set to exact guest counts. A timely response to an invitation is a sign of class and character.

9) All cell phones should be put on vibrate during any corporate or social dinner. Excuse yourself to return the call only if it is an emergency. I have witnessed guests’ phones going off while the CEO is talking – it isn’t pretty!

10) Always thank the host or hostess, company meeting planner and/or executives for the event when leaving. Also send a follow-up note or e-mail.

Gratitude and thoughtfulness never go unnoticed!

(Rob Schaefer is the Catering and Event Specialist and the Principal Designer for Steven Becker Fine Dining in St. Louis. Please send questions or comments to [email protected].)

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