Mind your manners: restaurant etiquette

EtiquettetablemannersWhen etiquette manuals address manners in restaurants they are usually discussing first-class restaurants since that is where people are at their most self-conscious and insecure. Cheap, casual restaurants, on the other hand, have been understood as living museums of what not to do, presumably being filled with patrons who are perfectly content to slurp their coffee, eat off their knives, tuck napkins under their chins, and chew on toothpicks.

For many people, middle-class women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in particular, the notion of eating among strangers required some getting used to. Although etiquette at its most basic means being considerate of the feelings of others, it is clear that much advice was meant to make female readers themselves at ease in restaurants.

Anxiety started at the point of entry. Walking through a restaurant toward a table was agony for some women. As a woman writer in American Kitchen Magazine remarked in 1899, “Even today it is a severe trial for many women, and some men, to enter a hotel dining room and particularly hard if it must be done without a companion. Some that march in with boldest front and utmost nonchalance are but actors, trembling within while brave to outward seeming.”


As a result of discomfort about walking to a table, for years etiquette books and columns seemed preoccupied with this subject. All agreed that when the headwaiter beckoned, the woman of the duo should go ahead of her male companion. I would think that would have made women even more uncomfortable but perhaps the ruling of etiquette mavens relieved the stress of uncertainty. Horrors, the man is going first in the above illustration.

As women went to restaurants more often, things began to change. Young women grew restless at the confinement of propriety which required that they could not go out with a man without a chaperon, could not drink wine, and should only pick at their food. How shocking that they began to have fun, devour their dinners with enthusiasm, and lean their elbows on the table!

As late as 1915, though, women were still being advised to let the man do the ordering and not to even look at the menu unless he suggested it. As for the bill, heaven forbid she should view it: “A woman makes a point, always in restaurants, of not seeing the check when it is brought by the waiter, and while the man is getting out the money to pay it she should keep her gaze from it.”


If the 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky is at all representative, ambitious immigrants also wanted advice on restaurant-ing. In it David admits that on his first visit to a high-class restaurant with a business associate, “The occasion seemed to call for a sort of table manners which were beyond the resources . . . of a poor novice like myself.” He confesses ignorance to his kindly companion who agrees to tutor him on how to order, use a napkin, eat soup, fish, and meat and “what to do with the finger bowl.”

Conservative advice continued to be issued in the 1920s, such as Emily Post’s 1923 dictum: “Absolutely no lady (unless middle-aged – and even then she would be defying convention) can go to dinner or supper in a restaurant alone with a gentlemen.” But the Depression and World War II eras were about to have the effect of relaxing American customs.

Still, even today many people have questions about how to act in a formal restaurant setting. As for how to handle bread, break it into pieces and butter each piece individually before eating it. And what if you drop a fork? Ask the server for another. Personally, I truly wish more people would follow this 1904 counsel: “Private affairs should not, ordinarily, be discussed in the public dining room, but if they are, a low tone should be used.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2013


Filed under restaurant etiquette

8 responses to “Mind your manners: restaurant etiquette

  1. Thanks for explaining that we can ask the server for another fork if we happen to drop ours. My husband wants to go out to eat tonight to celebrate his birthday, but I don’t go out to eat much and I’m not sure how to act in nice restaurants. I’m glad I read your article because I can be pretty clumsy, and now I know what to do in case a drop a utensil.

  2. Okay, so now I have finally put two and two together, and I now realize that you are the same Jan Whitaker that I am friends with on FB and who sometimes comments on Reggie! Oh la! Happy Day. This post is right up my alley, having been the subject of two Reggie Rules posts a number of years ago. I love it! I look forward to rediscovering this blog and spending many happy hours reading past posts, to catch up. Best — Reggie

  3. Amber Weidenhamer

    This reminded me of an incident in my college days….

    Myself and another student had agreed to take a group of Japanese exchange students for a tour of the area and then out for lunch. Because of the size of the group, my companion had made arrangements for all of us to eat at a local chain buffet nicknamed ‘The Golden Trough’ (I knew the places reputation and would NOT have taken them there).

    What occured at the restaurant I now term ‘dinner and a freak show’.

    The Japanese students were fascinated/horriffied by the manners they got to see that day…the family who used the trays as giant plates (really, they didn’t use any actual plates or bowls), a man drinking directly from an iced tea pitcher, a toddler covered in chocolate rolling around on the floor, someone mashing all the food on a plate together, etc.

    To my shame, a lot of pictures were taken.

  4. AMEN to that last bit, especially private cell phone conversations!

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