When 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