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Dinner Party Etiquette

informal dinner party: the menu, before dinner drinks, late guests, serving dinner, second helpings, clearing the table, after-dinner coffee, after dinner drinks.

formal dinner party: greeting and seating, formal service, clearing the table, formal dinner courses (six).

essentials

  • A menu that is well planned.
  • A table with ironed linen, polished silver, and sparkling glassware.
  • Well prepared food.
  • A welcoming host.

plan ahead

Serve something you've served before.

Have a simple to prepare fallback if something goes wrong with a dish or course.

informal dinner party

the menu
  • Plan a well-balanced meal.
  • Don't serve heavy or spicy dishes back to back.
  • Balance rich dishes with a simple ones.
  • Combine flavors intelligently.
  • Don't serve an assortment of spicy food, or your guests' palates will never recover.
  • Don't serve successive sweet dishes, such as duck basted with currant jelly, a fruit salad, and a raspberry trifle for dessert.

Consider the season.

Light foods, such as main-course salads and cold soups, are good choices in the summer.

Heavy foods, such as stews and roasts, in winter.

Make use of the season in another way by creating a menu using fresh seasonal foods.

  • in autumn, butternut and acorn squash;
  • in winter, Brussels sprouts;
  • in spring, soft­shell crabs and asparagus;
  • in summer fresh vegetables.

Consider the limitations of your kitchen.

  • One oven. If you have only one oven and plan to cook a roast, don't also plan dishes that must be cooked in the oven at the same time but under different temperatures and different cooking times. Instead, prepare a salad, saute squash, steam vegetables, or mash potatoes on the stove.
  • Limited space. Prepare dishes ahead of time and carefully plan your cooking times.
  • Large pots. You can find over­size stainless-steel pots at restaurant-supply stores, or you can rent them.
before dinner drinks

When pre-dinner drinks or cocktails are served, dinner should be planned for at least an hour later than the time noted on the invitation; 20 minutes later if drinks are not served, which allows late arrivals a moment of relaxation.

Two or three varieties of cocktails should be offered, with the bartender or host indicating what they are.

  1. wine
  2. liquor
  3. soda, juices, and sparkling water

Guests should be given enough time to have a couple cocktails.

You may serve light snacks or hors d'oeuvres with drinks. They should have compatible flavors with the food to be served at dinner.

late guests

Delay dinner fifteen (15) minutes for a late guest. When the guest arrives, he or she is served the course that is being served at the time.

serving dinner

When dinner is ready to be served:

  1. Have the table prepared. The candles should be lit and water glasses filled.
  2. If possible have the first course on the plates before guests arrive at the table (but not if it is a hot dish).
  3. For a small group announce: "Dinner is ready; shall we go in?".
  4. For large groups, ask a few friends to help guide the guests to the dining room.
  5. If people linger with their drinks, suggest that they bring them to the dinner table.
  6. Lead the way to dinner.
order of service

The female guest of honor seated on the host's right is always served each dish first. If there is serving help, servers move around the table counterclockwise from her, serving the host last.

  • When food is served directly from the kitchen, service is also counter­clockwise from the female to the host's right, with the host served last.
  • Plates are served from the guests' left side and removed, if possible, from the right.

Each dish is supplied with whatever silver is needed for serving it.

  • A serving spoon and a large fork are put on most dishes, or the spoon alone is used if the dish is not hard to serve.
  • With the spoon underneath, the fork is held with the prongs turned down to hold and balance the portion when both utensils are used.

At a more casual dinner party,

  • let guests serve themselves or
  • at least pass the potato and vegetable dishes around the table instead.
  • If the salad has not been served on individual salad plates, then it can be served from a large salad bowl passed from guest to guest, with each guest in turn holding it for the person on his right.

Since any of these procedures can take time, the host or hostess should insist that guests start eating after three or four people have been served.

Except at formal dinners, bread and other condiments are usually passed around the table by the guests themselves.

Dishes are passed counterclockwise to the left and should be passed in the same direction.

A guest helps himself to the bread basket with his fingers and lays the roll or bread on his butter plate.

If there is a choice of two or three sauces or other condiments, placing them together in a divided dish, or on a small, easily managed tray, ensures that they are passed together and all guests are aware of the choices.

Dessert may be served already placed on individual dessert plates, or the hostess may serve it at the table.

When the table is cleared, dishes are removed two at a time, never stacked. Salt-and-pepper containers and condiment dishes are cleared also.

To accelerate the clearing process, it is quite correct to bring back dessert plates, or whatever is needed for the next course, when you return from the kitchen. Or have a friend serve the dessert while you finish clearing.

second helpings

If you have a sideboard or serving table, use it as a halfway station between the dinner table and the kitchen. On it you can have plates for the next course and extra flatware.

Serving dishes, after being passed, can be left on the serving table on a warming tray or taken to the kitchen and kept warm on the stove.

When you see that guests are ready for another portion, get up, get the serving bowl and pass it around.

clearing the table

Salad plates as well as the plates used for the entree are removed before dessert is served.

Any salt-and-pepper shakers, unused flat silver, and dishes of nuts are taken off (on a serving tray, if you like).

It is safest to remove dishes two at a time. Never stack or scrape the dishes at the table.

As mentioned above, each time something is taken to the kitchen, you may bring back dessert plates, salad and salad plates, or whatever is needed.

If you wish, you may put a dessert plate at each place you have cleared as you return to take the next plate, or you may serve the dessert at the table.

To guests who offer to help you clear, just say, "No, thank you, really it is easier to do it myself"-or you may find that everyone is suddenly on his or her feet and in the kitchen. It's better to designate a serving and cleaning buddy in advance to help-a son or daughter, a close friend-but your other guests should be just that, guests, and remain at the table.

after-dinner coffee

  • After-dinner coffee may be served either at the dining table or in another room to which the diners have moved.
  • The hostess pours the coffee right at the dining-room table or from a tray that has been carried to the living room or den.
after dinner drinks

If coffee is served at the table, bottles of after-dinner drinks may also be placed on the table.

If coffee is served in the living room, a tray containing bottles and glasses is placed on the coffee table.

formal dinner party

guests: greeting and seating
  • Guests are greeted at the door by a housekeeper or temporary help, who take their coats.
  • The hostess stands in the living room, near the door.
  • As guests enter, the hostess greets and welcomes them.
  • The host, who is circulating and talking to other guests, excuses himself and comes to greet each arrival.
  • Pre-dinner drinks are then served.
  • After the cocktail hour, all guests are invited to proceed to the dining room.
  • The hostess is always the last to go into the dining room when place cards are used. If there are no place cards, the hostess indicates where guests are to sit.
  • Women sit down as soon as they find their places.
  • Men hold the chairs for the women on their right.
  • The men do not sit down until the hostess is seated.
  • The male guest of honor, seats the woman on his right, and the man on the hostess's left seats her.

There are two key considerations in deciding where guests are to be seated.

  1. First, seat honored guests at the host's and hostess's right.
  2. Second, seat your guests according to whatever arrangement you think they will enjoy the most.

There are many choices for determining who sits where.

  • Many hosts like to alternate men and women, and separate husbands and wives.
  • It's up to you, as host, to decide on the most advantageous way to arrange your guests so that the mix will contribute to a pleasant experience.
formal service

At a very formal dinner served by a staff, one server generally stands behind the hostess's chair, except when pouring wine.

At a smaller dinner one server will handle everything himself; or, if he has a server to help him, he passes the principal dishes and the server follows with the accompanying dishes.

In any case, plates are changed and courses presented in precisely the same manner.

No serving dishes or platters are ever put on the table except ornamental compotes of fruit or candy.

  • The meat is carved in the kitchen or pantry; and
  • Vegetables, bread, and condiments are passed and returned to a side table or the kitchen.

From the time the table is set until it is cleared for dessert, a service plate should remain at every place.

  1. For the first course, the plate on which oysters or clams are served is put on top of the service plate (also called a charger), as is a plate holding fruit or cold seafood in a stemmed glass if they are served.
  2. At the end of the course the used plate is removed, leaving the service plate.
  3. The soup plate is also put on top of this same plate.
  4. But when the soup plate is removed, the plate underneath is removed with it, and
  5. The hot plate for the main course is immediately exchanged for the two taken away.

The only plates that are properly brought into the dining room one-in­each-hand are for soup and dessert.

  • The soup plates are put down on the service plates, which have not been removed, and
  • The dessert plates are put down on the tablecloth.
  • The plates of every other course have to be exchanged, and therefore each individual service requires two hands at a time.
clearing the table
  • Plates are removed from the diners' right.
  • Glasses are refilled as necessary.
  • Additional knives are placed at the right, while forks are put on as needed at the left.
  • Crumbs are brushed off each place with a tightly folded napkin onto a small tray or a silent butler held under the table edge.
formal dinner courses

Six courses are the maximum for even the most elaborate formal dinner. They are:

  1. Soup, Fresh Fruit Cup, Sliced Melon, or Shellfish (such as clams, oysters, or shrimp).
  2. Fish Course unless shellfish is served first.
  3. The Entrée or main course (usually roast meat or fowl and vegetables).
  4. Salad. The salad is served between the entree and the dessert.
  5. Dessert. There are two methods of serving dessert.
    1. One is to put the dessert fork and spoon on the dessert plate.
      1. If the dessert is served in a glass bowl, the bowl is placed on the plate before it is served.
      2. If finger bowls are used, they are brought on another plate after dessert has been served.
    2. Another formal way to serve dessert is to bring the finger bowl, as well as the fork and spoon, on a small doily on the dessert plate.
      1. The diner puts the finger bowl, with the doily, to the left above his plate and places the fork and spoon each to its proper side.
      2. After dessert, the diner dips his fingers, one hand at a time, into the water and then dries his fingers on his napkin.
  6. When fresh fruit is to be served it is passed after the dessert, and decorative sweets, such as mints, are passed last.

Coffee can be served with after-dinner drinks.


- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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