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The Fork and the Knife, Together in the End

SP has been hitting the jackpot of dinner parties lately. Is it the same in your world? Is it because of the economy? Are people dining in more? Have you noticed? Or is it that the circle I find myself in has suddenly become gourmet? Whatever the reason, you will hear no complaints from this corner on the occasion of a great meal that does not begin in a can or a box. Last Friday’s invitation was proffered with a very clear “casual dinner at home” directive. Our little party (there were only five of us) gathered for drinks, incredible food, wonderful company and as always, stimulating conversation. As you might imagine being the one at table who happens to hold forth on matters of etiquette, SP’s presence sparks many a conversation as to proper this and proper that.  SP does not initiate these discussions mind you, they spring up organically. I swear.

There are so many rules – and misinformation – when it comes to the art of dinner that it is no wonder we feel flummoxed. The etiquette books are not helpful, bombarding us with so many rules we come away perplexed and end up not retaining much. Forget the internets. There is an opinion or rule coming from every nook and cranny. And they are w-r-o-n-g. To that end, let us limit this ditty to the rules we use on a daily basis. The finer points can be discussed later.  How about it?

So there we are, back at the table with the meal winding down and the conversation ginning up. Would anyone care for another glass of wine? Dessert?  A comment is made regarding the difference in American versus Continental table rules. A frivolous distinction, you may say, but it got me thinking of the larger picture and the state of our civility. This is important. Listen up. It matters not if you are attending a formal dinner at the White House, a wedding reception in an exclusive club, a lunch or dinner in a restaurant, a fancy dinner party or just spending an evening with good friends gathering for a casual night in. Whether you are trying to impress a girl, a boy, the parents, your boss or business associates, whomever, people will notice these seemingly trifling things and they will judge you. SP won’t, but people will. You see, these snoots aren’t as forgiving as SP. I want you to succeed. So stop moaning and listen up.

Forthwith, the rules. 

When to begin. This seems to be one that many people are confused about. The one that says no one eats until all are served. This is simply not true. Once two have been served, you may begin. A friend of mine puts it thus, “When two have seats, all may eat.” I don’t know what the hell that means, but it does put people at ease.  In restaurants, this can feel awkward as you wait for the food to come out together. But nevertheless, you would be correct in eating. And your well-mannered companions should insist that you begin. Who wants to eat hot food cold?

During the meal the fork should be placed in the middle of the plate with the handle to the right and just over the edge of the plate when not in use. The knife will rest at the top third of the plate with the handle and the knife point touching the edge. Never put a utensil on the table cloth once it has been used. 

Never leave a spoon in the soup dish. When you have finished or are taking a break from the soup, place the spoon on a soup plate, or in the absence of such, on your main plate. To repeat, never put a used spoon on the table and do not leave it sitting in the bowl.  Another fine point, when eating soup always push the spoon away from you, as in “the ship goes out to sea” not toward you.

Napkin in your chair. Your napkin stays in the seat of your chair if you leave the table during the meal. In fancy restaurants, the waiter will come by in your absence and refold the napkin and place it beside your plate.  This annoys me a bit, but that’s the way it goes. Never leave a dirty napkin on the table in sight of other dinner guests. When the meal is finished, place the napkin to the left of your plate – or in the center if the plate has been cleared.  Do not refold it.

Removing a bad bite. If you find something wrong with the bite in your mouth – gristle, bone, what have you – remove it the same way it went in: with your fork. It isn’t easy. It isn’t graceful. Just do it. And do it smoothly, quietly, unobtrusively, with no fuss. Wait until the conversation turns away from you and pull this maneuver as nonchalantly as possible. Return the food to your plate, disguised beneath the radishes so no one can see it.  Do not spit it into your napkin unless there is some extreme reason and if it’s that extreme, excuse yourself.

After the meal. When you have finished eating place the fork and the knife in the 4:20 position (shown above) or across the middle of the plate, parallel to the edge of the table with the handles to the right and ending on the edge, not hanging over.  Either way is correct. The fork will be nearest you with the tines turned up. The sharp side of the knife points toward you as well. Why, you ask, is this important? Because this simple universal act signals to the staff, waiter or otherwise, that you have finished your meal. Then why is this important when dining at home? Because practice makes perfect and this should become a second nature habit. On the Continent across the pond the tines are turned down at meal’s end. SP once affected this method — along with a couple of other European rules — when I returned from a trip abroad while in high school. My aunt — a stickler for perfect table manners — stopped in mid-conversation to ask what I was doing. I replied that this was the way people did it in Europe. She responded with a terse, “Well, we are not in Europe.” I have never strayed since.

There you have it. This may seem persnickety and well, it is I must admit. But learn it. Practice it. Be it. You will be a better man in the end. Isn’t that what you wanted all along?


  1. Antipodean April 1, 2009 Reply

    If I’m an Ex-Pat Aussie (and I am…) do I need to ‘unlearn’ my European manners and learn American ones so as to not offend – or may I continue to celebrate my heritage in small ways such as ‘tines down’?

  2. Author
    SP April 1, 2009 Reply

    Dear Antipodean,

    Ah, to be an expatriate again. Such an exciting adventure. I recommend everyone to pick up and take off at some point in your life. Live, breath, taste another culture. It will make your life richer in more ways than you can count.

    Tines up or tines down, it’s all the same in the end. By all means celebrate and honor your heritage. When I mentioned my Aunt’s recoil, I was merely celebrating my own Southern heritage by re-telling a tall tale. Stay true to what you know. Welcome to the United States and thank you for reading.

  3. Elisabeth April 1, 2009 Reply

    Oh, SP. I’m afraid there is a mis-step in ‘when to begin.’ Etiquette calls for guests at a seated dinner to not begin eating until the host has lifted his or her fork. Granted, as you mentioned, if there should be a delay in when the host will be seated, he or she should insist you begin.

    Nonetheless, excellent post. I always enjoy reading.

  4. Author
    SP April 1, 2009 Reply

    Dear Elisabeth,
    Yes, yes, yes. You are correct and thank you for bringing attention to this omission. There is also the rule when the hostess has unfolded her napkin the meal has begun. The post was refering mainly to more casual gatherings, but this is important to note.
    Cordially, SP

  5. Meridith Moore April 2, 2009 Reply

    Excellent lesson, particularly how to remove an unwanted bite. Thank you

  6. Peter Katt April 4, 2009 Reply

    Thank you for this excellent and concise listing of dining rules! I was unaware of the rule about placing used tableware on the plate, never on the table. I wonder, however, how the rule would be applied when getting seconds at a buffet dinner, when one is supposed to get a clean plate and a server removes your used one while you’re away? I fear they may take the tableware with the plate, making me ask for clean tableware — which, I suppose, in a way answers the question, if the server is careless enough not to foresee the situation, but it would be annoying to have to do so. (True, I could avoid the issue by not getting seconds, but often the host will encourage people to do so.)

    Dear Peter,
    The rules on this post pertain primarily to seated dinners in restaurants and private houses, but definitley spill over into buffets. Buffets by nature are more casual and hence the rules would be a bit relaxed. But one thing to remember for sure, if you return to a buffet for a clean plate, retrieve clean utensils as well (especially in a restaurant). If in a private house, simple balance the utensils on the plate while you are grazing down the buffet line.

  7. Habitually Chic April 4, 2009 Reply

    My parent’s taught me table manners at a very early age and I always put my knife and fork in the proper position to signal that I am finished with my meal. However, I’m not sure that restaurants train their employees because they will still ask if I am finished. Very annoying!

  8. Chip April 9, 2009 Reply

    I am a Knickerbocker/Brahman born in Manhattan where my family has lived since the 1600’s (which is why I am a Knickerbocker btw for those of you not into meaningless Eastern tribal distinctions…..)

    I am compelled to comment, as we were trained by my most strict and formal Grandmother that the tines must ALWAYS go down, likewise, the spoons with bowls down.

    Further, if served a soup/stew peasant style in a large soup plate with no charger or other plate below, we were taught that the spoon would stay in the bowl, but turned down, at the 4 o’clock position.

    These lessons were also drilled into me at a gentleman’s training course I was subjected to as a teenager in France. they also seem to be followed by polite company in New England, where I now spend much of my time.

    I would thus wonder if your Aunt was perhaps not a bit too xenophobic on this one issue.

    I am curious SP as to your take on hand positions at table. We were trained in the northern European standard that one’s hands ought to be in view — resting on the table, with table’s edge 2-3 inches up the arm from one’s wrist. Over many years I have learned that in much of America one rests one’s hands on one’s lap. There is always that faint wonder though of what those hands might be doing out of sight……

  9. nycbill April 10, 2009 Reply

    if it’s buffet dinner, anything goes. who does a formal buffet?
    i noticed in paris they like to have coffee then dessert, or is it the other way around? i just like to enjoy the evening and hopefully not offend anyone…

  10. hans April 17, 2009 Reply

    I’m a European student making ends meet by waitering at large, catered parties (>100 guests).

    The main reasons your fork and knife should be on the right side of your plate after you’ve finished:

    1. This is therefore a very clear signal that you are finished.

    2. Normally, the waiter takes your empty plate from your right hand side (just as they have served it to you from the right). They can then hold the fork and knife steady with their thumbs, reducing the risk that one (or both) fall off the plate, into your lap.

    Guests who do not do this are extremely annoying, because you don’t know whether they have finished or not (not everybody’s plate is empty when they’re finished, this is not enough!) and because they act all surprised (and angry) when a fork or a knife falls off the plate. I suggest you try picking up a plate full of leftover sauce, with cutlery floating about in the middle of the plate, with your right hand while simultaneously balancing a stack of 10 other, heavy plates full of half-eaten food, 10 knives and 10 forks in your left hand, positioned directly behind the guest. Even the best-trained waiter cannot always prevent this from happening! For your own good, give the waiter some space to take your plate. It’s already impolite enough to lean on the table with your elbows, and never more so when the waiter is cleaning up. He should be able to do his job quickly and efficiently, so as not to disturb you more than necessary.

    Other notes:

    1. Unless it’s a buffet, the waiter should wait until everybody at the table has finished. He should then clean up the entire table (ask a colleague for help if necessary) in one go. Nothing is more awkward than leaving one plate behind, it looks as if you’re ignoring that guest.

    2. At a buffet, the waiter should take your plate immediately, with knife and fork, once you are finished (and have signaled this correctly). No need to wait until everybody’s finished. You should be able to take a new plate, knife and fork at the buffet.

  11. Ralph M Bohm July 2, 2009 Reply

    This is great stuff! I thank SP for the enlightenment and the comments for clarifications.

    Let’s take it a step further:
    1) Is it proper to eat with fork in left hand and with times down at all times?
    2) When we need to cut something during the meal (steak, etc.), should we place the knife back at the upper thirds of the plate with blade and handle touching before we take the bit of food?
    3) Should we pull a bit-size piece of bread from our served bread and set down the larger piece before taking the bite of bread?
    4) Do we need to use our mashed potatoes to stick the peas to the convex side of our forks so as not to eat with the fork right-side up at any time?

    (unsigned) RM

    Dear RM,
    Your enthusiasm for table manners is, well, a little excessive. The point of SP is to cover the basics and not try to make anyone feel bombarded by strict antiquated rules. But the answers to your questions — and to consider the Continental style in our figuring — are Yes, Yes, Yes and No (in America the tines of the fork face up.)

  12. jan August 6, 2009 Reply

    Dear SP,
    I like to eat dessert with a small fork and spoon — which has caused much discussion at meals here in Dallas! I usually hold the small fork in my left hand and a small spoon in the right — and even set my table with these two utensils above the main place setting. This rebellious habit has caused one lady to lean over to my table during lunch at a restaurant here (the tables were so close together!) and ask: “What y’all doing with your fork and spoon???” There have even been comments over the fact that I eat with my fork held lightly in my left hand — and my knife in my right! How do I handle these comments with a bit of grace or a dash of wit? Many thanks!

    Dear Jan,
    I am a little flummoxed by your query on two points. First, your fork and spoon routine on the hapless desert and secondly, that strangers feel compelled to comment. I wonder what desert calls for a fork and a spoon? It is an odd routine, you must admit. But, I am always a fan of eccentricity and Jan. As for the nosy parker at the table next to you, you could respond with an insouciant “This is so delicious, I don’t dare risk missing a drop.”
    Enjoy your desert.

  13. betsy Youndt January 24, 2010 Reply

    Wondering where and a ship goes out to sea, I take my spoon away from me?

  14. Patrick August 5, 2013 Reply

    do you happen to know why many eating utensils are heavy at the handle end and not the eating end? Many times, I seem to dump the utensil on the floor as dishes are removed from the table because the handle end is the heaviest. Are their any designs that reverse this with the heaviest portion toward the eating end? Thanks, pat

    • Author
      SP August 7, 2013 Reply

      Can anyone help Patrick out?

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