Dining Etiquette Part 2
For Part 1, click here
I'd like to continue my series on dining etiquette in hopes of getting everyone back on the same page. It seems we have lost the common language of the table and it's no longer clear what message is being transmitted between the dining public and the service staff. My mission is to help us all have a better time by posting some of the old shortcuts that allow us to communicate non-verbally at the table. Your parents used to tell you to mind your P's and Q's, didn't they? Well, here's the new version, where I tell you which tool to use for peas and quinoa (pardon my alliterary humour)…
Did you see "Pretty Woman" years ago at the theatre? Remember Julia Roberts learning that you use the cutlery from the outside in? That's the easy way to remember the basic rule. Here are some of the specific details, to help make you more comfortable:
- A decorative "plate" at your setting when you sit (often silver or gold finish, and lighter than a china plate) is called a charger. You don't eat off this one, it's just decoration and used to "charge" or hold the other dishes to come.
- Once you are seated, the expectation is that you will take your napkin from your plate or from inside a glass and put it in your lap. In fine dining places, the host may do this when they seat you at the table.
- Salad forks and soup spoons which are usually the first course are the easiest ones to grab being the furthest away from your plate.
- A bread knife is often placed on top of that little side plate (yours is the one to the left of your main plate, not the right.)
- If you are using a knife for a first course, it will be a "regular" knife, often a bit smaller than the one on the inside near the plate. If you have a steak or roasted meat for main course, you may have a steak knife with a sharper edge. The proper way to set the knife at the place setting is with the blade in towards the plate. (A bit of formal dining trivia for you: this goes back to the Medieval days of visiting lords dining with their own knives. Placing the blade in signified you meant no harm to your host. Another note: Although forks were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, they didn't become common in Western culture until the 11th century in Italy, where they proved useful for pasta.)
- Water glasses are either tumblers (with no stem) or have a shorter stem than the wine glass, and they ought to be the glass on the right, with wine glasses going in a diagonal line to the left (towards the middle of your setting).
- If you have more than one glass, the smaller one is for white wine, bigger for red. A skinny one is for sparkling wine, and a really small one is for a dessert or fortified wine.
- Dessert cutlery is usually above the plate. A spoon and fork was the classic setting for dessert, with both to be used for the food (not spoon for coffee or tea as is sometimes the case now - if there are 2 spoons, one is for coffee). You would "cut" the dessert with your fork (in your left hand if you're right handed) and push it onto the spoon to eat it with your right hand. (Another bit of historical dining trivia: A dessert spoon was a larger spoon, and is used in recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries. This measurement is what is now called a "tablespoon".)
Okay, so now you know what to do with everything in front of you. Once they start to serve, what do you do? Classic service should be able to operate without you saying anything. Here's the Julia Roberts lesson: The servers will come from your right to serve a plate and take it away from the left. (This is not used much anymore, what with tables against a wall and people leaning in for conversations. The instinct is to serve from your right, though so it's good to be aware of that at least.)
How do they know when to clear your plate? Good question!
- If you put your knife and fork on your plate together, parallel to each other, then that is the classic signal for "I'm finished with this course" - even if you have food left on the plate.
- If you leave your fork and knife at opposite sides, then that says "I'm just taking a break, I am still eating this course". In fine dining circumstances the rule is not to clear the table until everyone is done, but in catering usually they will clear finished plates once most of the people are done eating.
Do you feel better now? Got a bit of an idea of what is expected of you at the table? In closing, here a few other little tips so you can avoid some of the common "faux pas" or pitfalls of the inexperienced diner...
- Try not to move out of your "spot" or clutter it up. If you have your chair away from the table, for example, the server will have a hard time serving you food and drink. If you have packages, see if they can be put somewhere away from the seating area.
- If you have any dietary concerns or questions about the menu, ask right away! And know that without any advance notice, the kitchen may not be able to make adjustments for you. On the other hand, if you tell your host or the restaurant when you confirm your attendance (reservation, RSVP) then they will almost always let you know what they can do for you.
- When you're done the last course, DON'T put your napkin on your plate. If you're done eating and you want to take it from your lap, put it to the right of your plate.
- When the servers clear the dishes, it's actually easier if you don't hand them your plate. They will have a system to stack plates so they can carry as many as possible and clear quickly and neatly. You risk upsetting their balancing act if you hand them something. (The exception may be if you're against a wall and they have to reach over the table to get to you. In this case, don't stack plates, just hand them one at a time.)
- If you're a smoker and you like to get up between courses for a smoke break, be conscious of the timing of the meal (it’s better to ask how much time you have than come back to cold food that should be hot). Only in the best fine dining establishments will they wait for your return, and even then they won't be happy about it if they don't know you're getting up.
- If you are an extreme foodie and need to take pictures and tweet about your food, be quick about it. The staff and host want you to enjoy your meal when they serve it, not ten minutes later when you're done posting it on Instagram and it's gone cold :)
Now you're all set! You can enjoy a stress-free experience dining out and know you're sending the right messages. Just one last suggestion for you:
- If you enjoyed your meal, thank your host. It's good to be specific - mention anything you especially liked. If you're paying for your meal, tip your server, mention great food and/or service to a manager. We don't often take the time to say anything when we have a good experience, and it really does mean a lot.
- If there was something lacking in your experience, then speak up, ideally as soon as possible. Give the host or staff a chance to fix it, hopefully for you that time and at the very least for the next time or the next person. If we don't say anything then they might not even know we weren't happy!
As I write this, Martin is boiling fifteen kilos of plums on our stove…it's the time of year when we get creative with the seemingly endless bounty from the orchard and garden. I thought it only fair that I share our inspiration with you, along with a bit of trivia you might like to pass on at your next cocktail party :) You see, we have a plum tree in our yard that deserves attention, not just because it is loaded with fruit, but because it is a unique fruit that creates the most wonderful jam. Our tree bears greengage plums, or as the French like to call them, “Reine Claudes”.
The greengage plum is an old variety that was developed in France, and apparently was brought to England in the 1700’s by a Rev. John Gage, who found them at the Chartreuse Monastery. (Perhaps this helped in their English name; these plums are truly halfway between green and yellow in colour, the definition of chartreuse.) They found their way to “the colonies” in America shortly after, and were in the gardens of American Presidents Washington and Jefferson, but then their popularity declined soon after. Of course, at Rabbit Hollow, that just makes them even more endearing. The other interesting thing about them is that they grow true from seed, making them a bit like an heirloom plant.
Greengages are known for being one of the best dessert plums, and so they make delicious jams and compotes as well as crisps, crumbles and the like. I have dried them and used them in Christmas pudding, too. But a few years ago Martin got the idea of making a condiment that he could use with his BBQ meats. He created a wonderful chutney full of flavour from not only the plums but also the many kinds of peppers we have in the garden, and the usual onions, a bit of garlic, ginger, and few other bits of inspiration that struck him. Hours of simmering on the stove and voila! “Pork Jam” was born.
It’s the season of the harvest. When Mother Nature gives you so much to play with, you have to get creative to use it all. I like the idea of having a sort of safety deposit box in the pantry, full of all kinds of flavours that can be pulled out in the dead of winter to bring back the sunshine and warmth of summer. We have now developed "Lamb Jam", "Turkey Jam" and even "Chicken & Egg Jam" to our condiment collection, not to mention the usual "Toast & Cheese Jam".
Here’s hoping you are having fun with all the bounty, too. If you aren’t the type to make your own, watch for those sparkling jars at the farmers’ markets and bring one home to enjoy. I remember once even finding a jar of “Toe Jam” at a small market in Salmon Arm. It tasted a lot like raspberry, but much better, likely due to some secret inspiration.
We have just been through the hottest part of the year, known from ancient times as "the dog days of summer" in honour of Sirius, the Dog Star. It is the brightest star in the sky, so bright that people thought it added to the heat of the season. In July and August is when the rise of Sirius coincides with the sun. Maybe that is part of why it's so hot here in the summer! August is definitely a time when people and the creatures alike are affected by the pervasive heat. There are more holidays and less work, and it's harder to stay caught up with the growth in the garden and the laundry and all those things on the to-do list. It seems the best thing to do is just head to the beach or your favourite patio.
The Greeks and Romans used to think that this time of year actually caused disease and hysteria; they believed that dogs panting more in the heat of summer signified the effect of Sirius on their souls. It seems today that ice-cold beverages, frozen treats and water sports are the best cure for any such ailment to man or beast :)
I hope you had a chance to enjoy the sultry Dog Days. Now we're headed into harvest, so you'd better get your apron on and your work gloves ready. There are jams, pickles, pies and sauces to make from fresh peaches, plums and tomatoes. Then there are carrots, beets and squash to pick and eat (don't try trading them with your neighbours, they have their own problems of abundance!) And just when you think it's time to sit back and relax, you have to think about packing it all up for winter!
Where does the time go? Can you believe that eight months - three quarters! - of 2014 is already done and gone?? I don't know about you, but the only way I'm sure is to think about how tired I am from all the stuff I've done. We have worked harder not just for the bank account but also for the larder. I am pleased to say I managed to dry cherries, make apricot jam, gooseberry syrup, peach pancake sauce and plum chutney. The veggie garden looks like more of a jungle than the rows I hoped for in early summer, but we had pasta tonight with fresh-picked zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. That was worth a toast before we dug in!
In thinking about the Dog Star and its significance to the season I figure the best philosophy is to think like my dog, Ella. She lives in the moment, always making the most of the here and now. That's what every season in life is all about, isn't it - creating moments? The start of summer was signaled by the taste of apricots from the orchard, and then it was cherries and peaches to represent the decadence of the season. The ice cream at Paynter's Fruit Market, perched on a freshly made waffle cone, was another tasty memory. Now that it's cooling off, the pears have taken their cue and are fast ripening. I will admit I have held off tasting one; I feel like I would be giving in to fall if I eat a pear in the orchard before September. There's no need to rush, right?
In the last week I've seen three articles on "what not to do" when dining out, and that made me think... have we really become so self-centered that we don't realize when we are being unreasonable? Since in today's world so many kinds of behaviour are considered acceptable, it shouldn't be that hard to stay between the lines, I thought. So why are we such demanding diners? What makes our expectations unrealistic? Here are a few of my ideas on 5 of my pet peeves; I'd love to hear your theories too. You can comment on my Facebook page if you like.
1. Why can't you take our party of 9 (or 12 or 15) ?! We can sit at a few tables...
This one isn't obvious for people who don't know the industry, but this is a disaster waiting to happen for most restaurants. They want to be able to make you all happy, and at the same time, but if you're split among tables then that is virtually impossible. Think of what it would be like if you had separate groups in your dining room for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, all waiting for you to cook and make drinks for them as they gave orders. Bar and kitchen orders can easily get prepared minutes apart and then before you know it each table is on its own timetable. That's not going to make for a fun birthday party, is it? When you have a large group (anything over 6 is considered large at a restaurant), call them before you set out down the road to start your evening if you didn't think of it before. Many places even have private rooms they can offer with just a bit of planning.
2. Why can't we sit on the patio?! We made a reservation.
This one is simple if you take a step back and think about it - you can't reserve the weather. How would you like it if the restaurant host told you that your reservation required you sit outside since that is what you booked, even if it was pouring rain or blowing wind? Unfortunately restaurants cannot afford to book one outside table and one inside table for each reservation, so the best you usually get is "first dibs" on patio tables if they are available. That being said, they won't likely give you the table for 10 if you are only 2 and that is the one open patio spot. If you're really stuck on being on the patio then plan to arrive at a less busy time (7 pm is not that time).
3. Why can't I be like Meg Ryan and order a customized dish?!
There are restaurants that will work to provide variations or substitutions on menu items, but they are either higher end places or they charge for all the changes. Go to a top notch restaurant and they might not even have a menu; they prepare what is in season or what fits their theme. If this is not your cup of tea, then your choice is easy: Don't visit this place. If you wanted Chinese food would you go to MacDonalds? Then don't expect your neighbourhood pub to be able to reconstruct their burger to your taste, or offer 10 different dishes so you can have anything you might like in one place. That would cost them much more to keep all that inventory and it would take more cooks to prepare all that stuff. Then you'd pay higher prices and maybe pay for parking because they would have to be in a higher traffic location. Every restaurant can't be everything for everyone. Enjoy the difference!
4. Why doesn't the menu say what's in the dishes?! How do I know what I can eat with my allergy?
Okay, another easy solution but it does require a leap of faith... engage the server to find out what works with any sensitivities or allergies. Call ahead if you are extremely concerned. And if I may, I'll interject my customer service self in here for a sec... Please, please let the restaurant team know how this worked out. If the server was helpful and knowledgeable (I hope) then thank them, and mention it in a comment card or to a manager if you see one. If they aren't helpful or can't get answers for you, mention that too so that the place can improve. They won't know what's missing if the customers don't tell them.
Another important point here is to gauge the place to any dietary restriction you might have. If you can't stand spicy food, then a place that advertises the number of hot dishes they offer might not be your best choice. If you're vegetarian, a BBQ joint isn't the best fit usually. Just sayin' :)
5. Why can't we do whatever we like?! We're paying to be here.
Let's just clarify first, you're paying for the experience of a meal, in space that has a certain ambience. So, the behaviour is in accordance with that space - certain things are acceptable in a sports bar that are not as welcome in a 5 star dining room. Just because you bring your kids (or friends) doesn't mean they get to wander around, scream or yell, write on the furniture with the crayons they were given, etc. Please be conscious of other diners and remember that you are in a public place where others want to enjoy a good time too. Perhaps the restaurant has a place they can store your stroller if it's a large one, so it doesn't block the aisle? If you have to take a phone call in a loud room, how about excusing yourself instead of adding to the noise? I know you're caught up in having a fun evening, but so is everyone else.
I know we all have our pet peeves. And we're all human, imperfect and likely to goof up on a regular basis. Let's make a deal - we all try to work on having a good time (if the parking spot is far away from the door, we'll try to remember not to bark at the hostess - it's not her fault). We all try to remember our manners (please and thank you work wonders, and putting your knife and fork together when you're done eating is a handy signal). Maybe it will spread beyond the dining room, and people will be polite and considerate on the road and in the office too! (we can always hope, right?)
Read more Happy Gourmand articles
- Stop and smell the flowers Aug 2
- Does there have to be an app for that? Jul 26
- Rock around the clock Jul 19
- Is there such a thing as adult food? Jul 12
- Too much of a good thing? Jul 5
- Midsummer madness Jun 21
- Good food, good friends Jun 14
- Chickens don't have fingers, do they? Jun 7
- The Wisdom of Pooh May 31
- Highs and lows May 24
- Ready, set - go! May 17
- Farm to table May 10
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