Dining Etiquette

This blog post is a guest blog post by Patti McLaughlin.

You might think that an employer would never discount you because of your table manners, but you would be very wrong! When an employer is deciding whether to hire you, part of the evaluation includes an analysis of your client or people facing skills. That is why, when you are on a callback with a big law firm, they will almost always take you for a meal. You will have to represent your employer, and that will sometimes mean eating with other people. They won’t hire you, no matter how great you are, if you are an embarrassment at the table. As with all phases of an interview, you want to be yourself…but your best self.

Many years ago, I attended an awards dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. My husband, a hotelier at the time, won an award with a team from his hotel. I ordered the Chilean sea bass, and it was served with something that looked like a large butter knife with a little notch in it. I turned to the man next to me musing about why they would give me a butter knife to eat my sea bass. “That is a fish knife” he said with an air of a superiority. I replied: “thank God I didn’t say anything and make myself look stupid.”

The next day I was in the park with my very young children and the other park moms I met with when the weather was nice  I told them the story, and one of my friends, Rita, a former sous chef, said, “A fish knife with sea bass? That is pure pretense.” She went on to explain when you would need a fish knife and why you would not need one with sea bass.  I demanded that my husband march himself down to that man’s office to let him know that it was pure pretense! I am quite sure he ignored that order.

In case you are interested in the fish knife, it is a small table knife designed to facilitate the eating of fish with a curved sharp edge to slide between the skin and flesh of the fish. The broad blade assists in lifting the fish to the fork, while keeping the flesh in one piece. The blade terminates in a relatively sharp point to lift small bones away from the flesh. The wide surface may also be used to scrape up, or spread any sauce served with the fish. Most of the fish purchased for dining events today will be boned and filleted. So these days, unless you are being served a full fish complete with skin and bones, the fish knife is relatively useless.

The point of my story is not to justify why I did not know about the fish knife but to show that there are many different rules of the table. As you move into your professional career, it is imperative that you know the essentials! A mistake at the table during an interview could be disastrous.

Here are some essentials to know by heart when it comes to an interview meal or any meal really. I will focus on restaurant meals for this post but there are other rules for dinner parties and formal dinners that you might want to explore!

The Napkin

Put your napkin on your lap as soon as you sit down. You want to unfold the napkin, not shake it out, and place it on your lap. The napkin should remain on the lap until you leave the table. If you need to leave the table during the meal, place the napkin on the seat of your chair. There are different schools of thought on where to put the napkin when you leave the table. Some experts feel you should never put your napkin on your chair while others feel as strongly that you should not put your napkin on the table unless you are not returning to the table. I was taught to put it on my chair, so that is what I recommend. If you decide to leave it on the table, just place it neatly to the left of your plate. When your meal is finished, and you are leaving the table, place the napkin neatly to the left of your plate. Do not refold it. If you drop you napkin during the meal, don’t pick it up to use it again. Ask the server for a new napkin. Use your napkin to blot and dab your lips during the meal. Do not use it as a bib or a handkerchief…ever!

The Place Setting

The placement of plates, glasses, and utensils might cause anxiety in diners unfamiliar with the function of each piece. Your water glass is on your right and your bread plate is on the left: food to the left and liquid to the right. Your utensils will generally be used from the outside in. Just work from outside toward the plate and you will be fine. The dessert fork might be placed above the plate, but it is more likely that the server will bring you a dessert fork or coffee spoon if you order dessert after your meal.



When you pass food around the table, it should be done counter clockwise or to the right. Always ask someone to pass to you. Don’t reach across the table or across another diner to get something. If someone asks for the salt or pepper, pass them together. They are a pair…always. If you are passing a creamer, place it on the table and turn the handle toward the person to whom you are passing it. Never intercept the pass! For example, if you want the salt and you are passing it, don’t use the salt before you pass it. Ask for the salt when the original salt requester finishes. I should say salt and pepper because, as stated earlier, they are always passed together.

Never put your utensils back on the table if they have been used. You should place them on the sides of your plate once they have been used. When you are done, you put your knife and fork at the four-o’clock position on your plate with the handles facing the 4 o’clock position. This will signal to the wait staff that you are finished and the plate may be cleared. Always remember to place the knife with the sharp side facing you.

When you use your knife during the meal, it is important that you use both the fork and the knife correctly. Your knife is in your right hand and your fork is in your left hand holding the food. Your index finger should extend down the back of the utensils. You should not hold them like pencils or clench them in your fists. Cut only enough food for the next mouthful. Use the fork to pin the meat and, with the knife, cut enough for a single bite. Then you place the knife on the side of you plate with the sharp edge pointing toward you. Transfer the fork to your right hand, spear the piece of food you just cut, and move it to your mouth. Repeat this process one bite at a time. Keep your elbows close to your body while eating, and NEVER speak with your mouth full or put your elbows on the table.

When and What to Eat

Don’t start eating until everyone at the table has been served. If your food is hot and the host asks you to start, the conventional wisdom is you may start eating. But you should wait until at least one other person has food. You don’t want to be the only person eating. In this case, despite conventional wisdom, I think you are better to wait until everyone is served. Eating cold chicken won’t hurt you, but having others at the table watch hungrily as you eat might.

Do Not Order Alcohol At Lunch! No matter how insistent the host is that you have a beer or glass of wine at lunch, decline.  If you are attending a reception or dinner, in connection with your interview, you might consider having one glass of wine or beer. Don’t go over one because alcohol can affect you differently under stress.

You are not going to this meal to chow down. You can hit the drive thru on the way home if you are still hungry! Certain foods carry specific risks to your table manners: sauces, pastas, and anything you eat with your hands. You should choose something that is easy to eat. Meat or fish without sauce or salad with minimal dressing are good options. The meal is supposed to put you under stress so you are best served by keeping it simple. If something unexpected occurs, handle it with grace and humor. Don’t get upset. If you have never seen Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts, you should check out the scene where she tries to eat escargot.

If you have any questions, please come to the CDO and talk with a counselor. When I have questions, I refer to Emily Post or Miss Manners (Judith Martin).  They know everything about table manners and proper etiquette!

Bon Appetite!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.