Dining Etiquette 101: 12 Quick Reminders for Dining Out

My mother taught me manners – say “Please” and “Thank you.” Call my elders “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Hold the door for people. Wash your hands. But she wasn’t much for fancy dining so she didn’t really teach me a lot about etiquette for fine dining situations.  As I started going to work dinners or out to nice dinner dates, I was the person who fretted over which fork to use when or where to put my napkin when I get up from my seat. Some rules, like where to put your phone, are obvious. Others are situational and still others have changed over time. Let’s dive into 12 quick etiquette reminders for dining out.

#1 Put your phone down!

This rule isn’t just reserved for fine dining situations. Whenever you’re out with family or friends, you’re doing this to connect and enjoy each other’s company. You can’t do that if one or more of you are staring at your phone, texting, posting to social media, etc. Put your phone down! There’s probably a 98.95% chance that Publisher’s Clearing House will not be calling you in that 90 minutes to tell you that you won $5,000 a month for life.  If you get hives when your phone isn’t in your hand, dining out may not be for you. Or learn to put your phone on silent and face down on the table.  Better yet, put it in your purse or leave it in the car. Be present with the people who are at the table with you. Door Dash dinner if you’re just going to all stare at your phones while dining together.

Emergencies do happen. So should one occur, step away from the table, go to the lobby or outside to take the call so that you don’t interrupt the conversations at your table and at other tables.

#2 Ordering wine?  Do it right.

If you aren’t a wine expert or have a personal preference, the sommelier – wine steward – in a fine restaurant will help you choose the wine for your meal. Then the sommelier will bring the bottle to you and show you the label to ensure it’s what you ordered.  The next step is uncorking the bottle and pouring a small amount in a glass for you to sample.  I always wondered why people smell the wine and then sip it. And now, I know why.  When you smell the wine, you’re checking for a vinegary smell or other smell that will tell you the wine is bad.  You can send it back. But it’s bad form to send it back just because you changed your mind after the first sip.

Also, if you’re not going to be having wine, when the waiter nears you, simply place two fingers on the rim of the wine glass to signal that you don’t want any wine.    

As for drinking your wine, hold your glass by the stem and sip. The shape of the wine glass helps you appreciate the wine’s bouquet. You can even discreetly swish the wine to help some of the wine’s flavor bloom. But don’t overdo these actions.  You don’t want to look like a buffoon.

#3 Keep your elbows off the table, or not….

Growing up in a family of 10, my mom was always saying “Elbows off the table.”  It certainly makes a lot of sense when 10 people need to share the dinner table at the same time. It helps ensure you don’t put your elbow in your brother’s spaghetti and meatballs. Did you know this rule came about as far back as biblical times? Besides promoting bad posture, putting your elbows on the table has historically been seen as aggressive or confrontational.  Over time, this rule has changed to allow elbows on the table between courses or after plates are taken away. However, even then don’t be a Neanderthal and sprawl into your dinner partner’s space. Use the initial placement of your silverware on either side of your plate as the boundary for your elbows.  Or when in doubt, just listen to your mother!

#4 Don’t cut all your food at once

For anyone over 6 years old, as tempting as it may be to slice up your steak all at once you can get down to the business of eating it in one pass, don’t be a cad. Etiquette experts say the proper way to cut your meat is to cut in one direction with the grain of the meat and more importantly, cut it one bite at a time.  This will slow you down a bit and helps you and your dinner companions engage in relaxed conversation.  And this rule leads us to the next one, how to hold your fork.

#5 Fork up, fork down – which is right?

Since we’ve just told you that you’re supposed to cut one bite of meat at a time, what’s the rule for holding your fork?  This is more of a preference than a rule. The American way is to hold the knife with your dominant hand to cut the meat, transfer the fork to that same hand to take a bite.  If you choose to put your knife down between cutting, place it at the top of the plate. So, you can see how this style could lead to cutting your meat all at once. It kind of gets tedious to keep transferring your fork from right to left and back again. The Continental style is to use the “fork down” method where you don’t transfer hands and the fork remains with the tines facing down as you take a bite. While it takes some getting used to, it’s a bit more elegant once you do get used to this style. Give it a try. 

#6 What do I do with my silverware? 

Did you know that silverware speaks to the waiter?  Not like a Muppet or anything. Don’t practice your ventriloquist routine with your silverware. When I say the silverware speaks to the waiter, I’m referring to the placement of your silverware throughout the course of the meal. I always knew that putting your silverware on your plate signals the waiter that you’re finished with your meal. But I didn’t realize there are specific positions for this.

In addition to signaling that you’re finished eating, you can also signal that you’re ready for the next course or you’re taking a short break. You can even signal that you didn’t like your food. Check out the show notes for Karen’s dining etiquette episode to see silverware placements and what they mean.

#7 & #8 What the heck do I do with my napkin?  

Who knew napkin etiquette was so fraught with meaning?! Put it on your lap.  Well yeah, but when? In a restaurant, put it on your lap when you sit down. But if you’re at a private dinner party, don’t put it on your lap until the host is seated and has put their napkin on their lap. At the end of dinner, again wait for the host to put their napkin on the table. Then you follow suit. But which side of the plate?  So much stress!  Return it to the side of the plate where it was in the original place setting. This is usually the left. Don’t put it on your dirty plate! 

But wait, what happens if you need to get up from the table before you’ve finished eating? Maybe you need to use the restroom or you really need to take that phone call from Publisher’s Clearing House. What do you do with your napkin? Place the napkin on your chair. This, combined with the correct silverware placement, signals to the waiter that you are coming back and they’ll know to not take your plate. 

And did you know it’s rude to wipe your mouth with your napkin? That doesn’t mean you just leave that alfredo sauce on your lips.  It just means, you should dab rather than wipe.  Who knew?  Well, you do now!

#9 Don’t “help” the waiter by stacking the plates

Don’t stack plates for the waiter.  While it seems like you’re helping, it really isn’t. They will have a system that works for them to clear the table.  Leave your dishes in situ and let the wait staff pick them up on their own.

#10 & #11 Pass the potatoes please. 

When someone asks you to pass the potatoes or pass the bread, don’t pass hand to hand. Place the dish on the table next to the person and let them pick it up to serve themselves. This helps reduce accidental spills both of the food itself and of water or other drinks that might be jostled during the handoff.

Did you know that if your dinner companion asks you to pass the salt you should pass both the salt and the pepper together.  Think of them as having separation anxiety. They go everywhere together.   And don’t hold them from the top. Hold them on the sides or bottom so that you aren’t touching where the seasoning comes out.

#12 Yikes, a bone! What do I do?

There’s no smooth way to do this, but the etiquette-approved way is to take the item from your mouth with the same utensil you put it in with. It seems like spitting a bone or piece of gristle into a napkin is more polite. But according to experts, “the way it went in is the way it comes out.” If the food is finger food, you remove it with your fingers. Who knew? And don’t place it in your napkin. Discreetly, place it on your plate, if possible, under another piece of food. 

Listen to Karen Stones’ podcast for her take on these and a few more fine dining etiquette tips. Some of them may surprise you. 

  • Mary Cook

    Mary Cook, also known as “MC” and “Mother Mary,” is heralded as one of the world’s few content whisperers. She is the creative force and Marcom Director at ThirtyFiveSixtyFour. Armed with a degree in English from UCLA, Mary is not just your average wordsmith—she’s a grammar nerd with a penchant for storytelling that captivates and resonates.

    Born into a big, close-knit family with seven siblings, Mary is committed to keeping family connections and gatherings alive with boisterous fun and games. Mary brings a lot of energy to everything she does. She’s as dedicated to her role as Marcom Director as she is to her role as favorite auntie to her 22 crazy, loving nieces and nephews.

    A life-long athlete, Mary’s passion for sports has transformed into a love for the adrenaline rush. When she’s not weaving words for our podcasts, you’ll find her carving waves on a jet ski or navigating desert trails in her RZR. Mary’s adventurous spirit is as diverse as her ability to craft compelling narratives for our audience.

    In a world that often craves attention, Mary thrives behind the scenes. Her meticulous attention to detail and commitment to excellence are the driving forces that elevate our Marcom strategy. As the wordsmith-in-chief, Mary ensures that every piece of communication reflects the essence of ThirtyFiveSixtyFour.

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About the Author

Mary Cook, also known as “MC” and “Mother Mary,” is heralded as one of the world’s few content whisperers. She is the creative force and Marcom Director at ThirtyFiveSixtyFour. Armed with a degree in English from UCLA, Mary is not just your average wordsmith—she’s a grammar nerd with a penchant for storytelling that captivates and resonates.

Born into a big, close-knit family with seven siblings, Mary is committed to keeping family connections and gatherings alive with boisterous fun and games. Mary brings a lot of energy to everything she does. She’s as dedicated to her role as Marcom Director as she is to her role as favorite auntie to her 22 crazy, loving nieces and nephews.

A life-long athlete, Mary’s passion for sports has transformed into a love for the adrenaline rush. When she’s not weaving words for our podcasts, you’ll find her carving waves on a jet ski or navigating desert trails in her RZR. Mary’s adventurous spirit is as diverse as her ability to craft compelling narratives for our audience.

In a world that often craves attention, Mary thrives behind the scenes. Her meticulous attention to detail and commitment to excellence are the driving forces that elevate our Marcom strategy. As the wordsmith-in-chief, Mary ensures that every piece of communication reflects the essence of ThirtyFiveSixtyFour.