Seafood Etiquette

eating etiquette (how to eat...)

Hard shellfish, or crustaceans, are invertebrates, fish that have no backbones, whose bodies are protected by hard shells. These include crab, lobster, and shrimp.


Of the approximately 4,000 species of crab, the type commonly served at the table is one that inhabits the cold waters of the Pacific Coast. They have shells up to 9 inches wide and weigh 2 to 4 pounds. Crab is frequently served in the shell, a method that presents a challenge to the elegant diner.

Table manners for eating crab.

  1. First, remove the legs and claws from the body with the fingers and break them open with a nutcracker, which is provided with the dish.
  2. Remove the flesh with a seafood fork or nutpick (also provided),
  3. Separate the body into bite-size pieces.
  4. Twist and break off the tail with fingers, and eat the meat with a fork.
  5. Discard shells in the dish provided and rinse the fingers in the finger bowl.

More table manners information for eating crab can be found in our crab section.


Lobster have a long body and five pairs of claws for crawling among rocks. The two front claws have powerful pincers used to crush food. Lobsters are served boiled, steamed, or grilled. Lobster cooked in the shell is eaten with fingers, a small fork, a knife, and a nutcracker. A discard bowl is provided for the shells, along with a finger bowl to rinse fingertips and pat the mouth as a refresher (optional). For ease of eating, the body flesh may be loosened from the shell and then replaced in the shell before being served at the table. For flavor and eye appeal, the meat is surrounded with condiments, such as drawn butter, lemon wedges, and parsley. If the meat has not been loosened, proceed much as for crab.

Table manners to eating lobster.

  1. Hold the lobster over the plate with one hand. To prevent the juice from squirting from the shell, twist the large claws off slowly and open them with a nutcracker.
  2. Extract the meat and eat with the small lobster fork that has been provided.
  3. Twist the smaller claws off with the fingers, and suck the meat from the cavity.
  4. Detach the tail from the body in a twisting motion with the fingers.
  5. Break off the flippers at the small end of the tail with the fingers.
  6. Pull the meat from the tail with the small fork.
  7. Split the tail and use the fork to lift the meat onto the plate.
  8. Separate the large tail pieces into bite-size pieces with a knife and dip them into sauce with a fork.
  9. Crack the back shell and eat the meat with a fork.
  10. Eat the tomalley (the green liver of the lobster) and the roe directly from the body with a fork.
  11. Rinse the fingers in the finger bowl and place discarded shells in a large bowl.

More table manners information about eating lobster can be found in our eating etiquette lobster section.


Shrimp are small crustaceans that live in cold water, either fresh or salty. Of the nine shrimp categories, 160 species are known. A favorite at the table is the deep­water shrimp, approximately 3 to 4 inches long and cooked to a reddish-pink color. Depending on the method of service, shrimp are eaten with the fingers or a small seafood fork.

Table manners for eating shrimp with the tail attached. The shrimp is held by the tail and eaten with fingers. The discarded tails are placed on the plate.

Table manners for shrimp served on a toothpick. The shrimp is dunked into sauce and eaten from a toothpick. Jumbo shrimp are eaten one bite at a time. However, the uneaten portion is never redipped into sauce shared by others.

Shrimp cocktail

Table manners for eating shrimp cocktail. Shrimp served with sauce in a bowl or a compote is called a cocktail, a concoction eaten with a seafood fork. When the jumbo shrimp are too large to eat in one bite from a bowl, they are cut with a knife. However, sometimes it is awkward to manipulate a knife inside a bowl; in this instance large shrimp are speared with a fork and eaten one bite at a time. Because the cocktail sauce is not shared by others, the uneaten portion is redipped into the sauce.

Fried Shrimp

Table manners for eating fried shrimp. Fried shrimp served on a plate are eaten with a knife and fork. When served with tails attached, fried shrimp are held by the tail and eaten.

More table manners information about eating shrimp can be found in our eating etiquette shrimp section.

Thin-shelled mollusks known as bivalves notably clams, oysters, and mussels, nestle among rocks and burrow into sand. Mollusks are eaten raw or cooked with fingers and a small fork. A discard bowl and a finger bowl are provided.


Clams are served both raw and cooked. Clams are found throughout the world, but notably in the Atlantic Ocean between Labrador and Mexico. If a clam shell is difficult to open, or is still tightly closed after being cooked, leave it alone. The clam is not good.

Razor clams

Table manners for eating razor clams. Raw clams are presented on the half shell on a bed of cracked ice. The shell is steadied in one hand. A small seafood fork is held in the other hand to extract the meat.

Steamed clams

Table manners for eating steamed clams. Small steamed clams with no necks are taken from the shell with a fork. The clam is dipped into clam broth or melted butter served in a separate bowl. The discarded shells are placed in a separate bowl provided for this purpose. When all the clams are eaten, the broth is spooned from the dipping bowl or drunk from the bowl.

Fried clams

Table manners for eating fried clams. Fried clams are served out of the shell and sometimes dipped in batter before they are cooked. They can be eaten as finger food but are greasy to hold and are best eaten in a roll or with a fork. They may be rubbery to cut.

More table manners information about eating clams can be found in our eating etiquette clams section.


Oysters are served both cooked and raw. The oyster has a thick, rough, irregular shell. Depending on the way oysters are served, they are eaten with a fork, a spoon, or fingers.

Cooked oysters

Table manners for eating cooked oysters. When oysters are removed from the shell and cooked, as in a sauce or soup. They are eaten with a fork or a spoon.

Raw oysters

Table manners for eating raw oysters. Oysters served raw on the half shell on a bed of cracked ice are usually seasoned with lemon, pepper, or a little hot sauce. The oyster is detached from the shell before service with a knife. Hold the shell in one hand and remove the oyster with a small oyster fork in the other hand. Lay the shells on the side of the plate. Alternatively, bring the shell to the mouth and quietly suck the loosened flesh from the shell.

More table manners information about eating oysters can be found in our eating etiquette oyster section.


Mussels are usually cooked. Mussels live in coastal waters and attach them­selves in clusters to sand and rocks through a secretion of strong, silky threads known as a beard. Although mussels are served in a number of ways, a popular method is to steam the shells in a white wine broth it fa mariniere. The mussels are eaten with fingers, a fork, and a spoon. A discard bowl is provided for shells and a finger bowl is used to rinse fingertips.

Table manners for eating mussels.

  1. Hold the shell in the hand, extract the meat with a seafood fork, dip it in the broth, and eat it with one bite.
  2. Or bring the shell to the mouth and quietly suck the flesh from the shell, along with the juice.
  3. Discard the shells in the bowl provided.
  4. Eat the broth with a spoon or spear pieces of bread with a fork and dip them in the broth.

More table manners information about eating mussels can be found in our eating etiquette mussels section.

Sometimes general table manners rules do not address the challenges presented by certain hard-to-eat or unique foods. This section provides table manners instruction for:

  • caviar
  • clams
  • crab
  • fish
  • lobster
  • mussels
  • oysters
  • sashimi, sushi
  • shellfish
  • shrimp
  • Visit our table manners main page for more general dining etiquette rules.