Knife and Fork School – part two

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Thursday 14th October 2010
In this article
  • Napkin etiquette and body language.
  • Bread, butter and seasonings.
  • Passing it on.

You made it through Knife and Fork School — Part One. You mastered the basics: utensils, where to find them, when to use which one, as well as the differences between American and European styles. Who knew a fancy dinner could be more complicated than picking the wild card team in the NFL Playoffs?

Are you ready to take your manly manners to the next level? Forge on, SharpMen. With this info, you can dine in any restaurant… on any continent… in front of any date… boss… or set of parents… without fear.

Napkin Etiquette

Placing your napkin. Do you drink from a sippy cup? We didn’t think so. And this is the main reason why you should never tuck your napkin into your shirt, lobster-bib-style. Unless you’re wearing Huggies or sitting down to a pile of crustaceans, avoid this manner-mishap. Your napkin belongs in your lap and nowhere else. In fact, it should be placed there, unfolded once from it’s usual square and left in double thickness on your lap, as soon as you sit down. You’ll find that your server will do this for you once you take your seat at a formal restaurant. The only exception to this occurs when you’re a dinner guest, when you should wait for your host to unfold his or her napkin before you tackle yours.

Q: What if I need to leave the table?

A: No sweat. Simply excuse yourself, loosely fold your napkin and set it next to your plate. Then place it over your lap when you return

Using your napkin. The napkin is intended as a shield from flying food bits, and as a surface on which to dab your mouth and fingers…lightly. It is not intended for cleaning up a major mess on your face or otherwise. If a spill does occur (those gravy boats are slippery buggers…), flag down a member of the wait staff to assist in your cleanup effort.

If your napkin falls to the floor during your meal, ask for a new one. (Unfortunately, the 5-second rule only kicks in at home… and, if the pizza lands cheese-up.) Same goes for a huge mess on your face. If you find yourself sporting more sauce than need be anywhere on your person, excuse yourself and clean up in the men’s room.

When you do use your napkin during your meal, subtly lift it off your lap, dab at the corners of your mouth, lightly wipe off your fingers and return it to your lap.

When you finish your meal and are ready to leave, neatly set your napkin to the side of your plate as you stand up. Don’t leave it on the chair.

SharpMan Tip: If you find yourself with unwanted food in your mouth, don’t spit it into your napkin; instead, use whichever utensil put it into your mouth to remove it from your mouth (use your hand as a shield). Then set the food on the edge of your plate. Cover it with other food, if possible. You could add a low-toned, "Excuse me,"

Body Language

Elbows off the table. That and "remove your Red Sox cap at the table" are obvious. Unless, you’re visiting Europe — where you keep both forearms on the table at all times (allows you to gesticulate like the locals AND you won’t be accused of being too friendly with the woman sitting next to you). Back in North America, always put the hand that you are not using for your fork in your lap after you finish cutting a bit. In between courses, keep your hands in your lap or resting lightly on the edge of the table.

And while we’re at it, no yawning, no stretching, no taking off your shoes or fidgeting at the table. And try to sit up — it’s better for your digestion, not to mention makes you look taller and generally more polite.


No singing or humming while chewing. Try to chew quietly. This is easier done if you take small, manageable bites. Don’t slurp or smack (although slurping is a sign of appreciation in Japan — look around, are you in Japan?). No sniffling or drawing in mucous from or through your nose. Instead, get a napkin. If you must blow your nose, excuse yourself to the men’s room.

Bread, Butter and Seasonings

It’s tempting to grab a warm, crusty roll, smear it with butter and inhale it without hesitation. But since you’re a SharpMan… and not a caveman, there’s a more appropriate manner to consume a truckload of carbs.

If you have been offered the breadbasket, take one roll —the first roll you touch. If you’d like a roll and the basket is sitting on the table before you, reach for it and offer bread to others, taking your roll last. Place your bread on your bread plate (that’s to the left), then after offering the butter to your other dining companions, take a small amount of butter from the butter container with your butter knife or (if a butter knife is not set, then ) use the dinner knife. Once used, set it the knife on the edge of your bread plate. With your hands (the big exception to never touching your food with your hands is crusty bread), break off one small piece at a time and butter it lightly — just that one little piece, , and replace your butter knife on the edge of the bread plate. Then eat it — just that one little piece. Repeat until it’s gone. These little breaks will also give you enough time to keep up your end of the dinner conversation without showering your date in breadcrumbs.

SharpMan Tip: Always leave the butter on the table as you remove the portion you’ll be using; it’s considered bad form to hold a dish in your hands while helping yourself to the butter. If the butter is served in a foil packet, use your butter knife, not your fingers to unwrap it.

If you’d like bread and neither the basket nor butter is right in front of you, ask the person nearest to the bread or butter to pass either to you.

It’s proper to taste your food before adding seasoning. Not only might you insult the chef, but you also run the risk of ruining an otherwise exquisite meal by seasoning too quickly. Once you’ve decided your meal requires more tang, it’s important to pick up both the salt and pepper — no passing the salt without the pepper — and set them within reaching distance of both you and your date. If you’re dining with a group, place the salt and pepper near the person to your right, so they can easily scoop it up and set it to their right until it makes its way around the table. When the salt and pepper is not within easy reach, ask for them to be passed and allow both to be set on the table before reaching for them. In other words, no hand-offs.

Glass Decorum

In a formal place setting, you will usually find two to three glasses, depending on what beverages are being served. Which is which? The answer is actually quite logical. First, a water glass will be placed above the right side of your plate (usually directly above your knife). Next, the wine glass is placed slightly to the right of the water glass. When using glasses for both red and white wine, they will both be placed next to each other to the right of the water glass, red then white. If a champagne flute is included, it will be found behind the other two wine glasses, forming a triangle of glassware. If you’re a beer man and would prefer no wine, do not turn the glass or glasses upside down. Instead, wait for the server to ask if you would like wine and then politely decline — usually by placing your hand right over the wine glass’s bowl and simply shaking your head. Your wine glasses will be removed for you.

A cup and saucer are usually not part of a formal place setting but will be brought to the table before dessert is served. In Europe, coffee is never served during dinner, or even during dessert. Often it follows the dessert in a coffee service that may include petit fours or chocolates and even brandy.

When holding stemware that contains cold beverages, hold it by the stem, not the bowl. Examples of this would be your white wine glass and champagne flute — and the water glass if it is stemmed. Seem a little picky? It’s not; it really keeps the drink cooler. The red wine glass is held by the bowl.

Pass It On

You know how to handle a salt and pepper request, but what about passing other table items? Strangely, in rules related to passing food, efficiency is not necessarily the name of the game.

As the trend of small-plate dining sweeps America – ordering several appetizers or tapas and sharing them with your date or a group – food-passing etiquette suddenly becomes more relevant. First and foremost, be polite when asking for a dish to be passed your way. "Could you please pass the potatoes," sounds better than, "Hey, toss those potatoes over here." You might get something else tossed your way – like a dirty look from your boss’s wife. Also, avoid reaching across your dining companions to retrieve a dish; instead, ask the person next to you to pass it down. If you want to be the center of attention at the meal, make it happen with your smart conversation, not your loud voice, yelling across the table for the corn.

When passing food, serve yourself when a dish is offered to you and then take and hold the dish for your neighbor to serve himself. If you are a guest or in any other situation with self-service, wait for the hostess to serve herself, then pass it to her female guests, then female household members, then to male guests followed by male household members.

If your host doesn’t appear to follow this formal format, simply accept the serving dish and set it on the table to the left of your dining companion’s plate. After he or she is served, he or she should then repeat the process of passing to the right until everyone has been served. Convenient? Not really. Time consuming? Pretty much. Proper? Absolutely.

When dining in other countries, especially in Europe, dining standards may vary — either more formal or much more relaxed. As a general rule, consider observing your local hosts before deviating from the American standard. If possible, make the same dinner choices as your host or hostess when abroad so that you can follow their lead with anything exotic. And remember, in Europe, you almost never touch your food with your hands. Having followed SharpMan’s knife-and-fork school guidelines, if you find strange looks coming your way, you can confidently explain that American dining customs must be different…

This article last updated on Monday 4th July 2011
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