Dining Etiquette: The Rules of the Dinner Table

Table manners and dining etiquette are an important part of the dining experience, even more so when in the company of professional guests, clients, employers, and certain family members. Whether you grew up in a dinner-disciplined environment or not, the rules of the table are never changing in the formal setting. There are certain traits and characteristics that go by undercover rules at even the finest restaurants, and you can be confident and secure with your knowledge of the rules with the following tips on dining etiquette. Making a favorable impression will not only help you create your professional and polished image, it will also show your respect for the social group, event, and the rest of the party.

Formal dining can range from a company-sponsored event, banquet, gala, wedding reception, formal dinner invitation, or evening at a high-profile restaurant. Today even job interviewers and recruiters may invite you for a dinner interview in order to gauge your social strengths and general behavior. Regardless of the situation, making a strong and favorable lasting impression is one priority in your attendance.

For events that involves a sit-down dinner, your place and table settings are usually ready for you. In other cases such as buffet lines or hors d’oeuvres parties, you may be responsible for handling your plate(s) and silverware accordingly. To ensure your formal dining success, be sure to follow the guidelines of dining etiquette and it will soon become second nature!

You should always unfold your napkin after the host or hostess unfolds theirs; this is indication that the meal is about to begin. The napkin should remain on your lap for the meal, and only raised when you need to (lightly) blot your mouth. If you need to excuse yourself from the table, place the napkin on your chair only. The host will indicate that the meal is over when they place the napkin on the table, at which point it is safe to follow their lead by placing the neatly folded napkin on the right side of the dinner plate.


Do as the server questions about anything on the menu you don’t understand, or if you require special preparation instructions because of allergies. Women’s orders are usually taken before men’s, and the guest always orders first. Be mindful of your ordering selection, nothing too extravagant, and nothing too plain!

Table Setting

This is likely the toughest arena of the formal dining setting, and most people have difficulty with remembering the appropriate table and place settings. The glass, cup, saucer, knives, spoons, and seafood fork are always set to the right. The bread and butter plate, butter knife, salad plate, napkin, and forks, are always set on the left. An easy way to remember this is that liquids are to the right, solids are to the left.

Silverware Setting

The easiest strategy to remember silverware order of use, is to start from the outside in, with the knife, fork, spoon, and so forth. This works the same way on both sides, so that your salad fork will be on your far left, followed by your dinner work.

When using a knife and fork to cut your food, both the American and European (or Continental) styles are appropriate. The American style cuts the food by holding the knife in the right hand, fork in left, then exchanging the fork from left to right hand to eat. The European style lets the user keep the fork in the left hand, and simply eat the cut pieces with the same hand. Choose whatever style is most comfortable and natural for you, and always remember to cut bite-sized pieces!

Completing the Meal

When you are finished with your plate or meal, do no push the plate away from you! The most polite way to indicate you are done is to place the knife and fork diagonally across the plate. Do make sure they are securely in place, and do not slide, and never put a piece of used silverware back on the table.

Other Things to Remember:

  • Always turn off your cell phone or beeper beforehand
  • If your napkin falls on the floor, ask the server for a new one; the same goes for silverware
  • Stay away from spaghetti and other ‘messy’ dishes that may compromise your ability to eat simply
  • Eat slowly and carefully, being mindful of sauces and potential mess
  • Keep your elbows close to your sides when cutting food
  • Never talk with your mouth full
  • Always ask for items to be passed to you if they are not directly in front of you; no reaching!
  • If you are drinking from a stemmed glass, pick up the stem
  • When eating bread or a roll, break it into bite-size pieces

With these basic guidelines, you will be best suited for your next formal dining engagement and experience. Do learn the general ‘vibe’ and tone of the situation from the host, and be confident that the rules of dining will soon become a natural part of your success in the future!

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