When eating at a restaurant, you shouldn’t pick at your teeth and talk loudly on your cellphone, right? As ludicrous as it sounds, this kind of behaviour is happening in restaurants around the city, says etiquette expert Carey McBeth. “This new generation is not sitting down as a family to eat a meal together, and not taught how to dine properly.”
When the Straight asks for an update on modern dining etiquette, McBeth offers her thoughts and recommendations for improvement. On the phone, McBeth talks about certain behaviours that are no-nos at the table. For example, if you need to extract something from your teeth, excuse yourself and do it in the restroom. Same goes for touching up makeup.
Then there’s the issue of tech at the table. Cellphones should be set on Mute while dining, McBeth says, and not put on the table. The only exception is if you’re expecting an urgent call; in that case, let those in your party know about the situation. When the phone does ring, don’t take the call at the table. Instagram food shots are permissible, as long as you’re not interfering with other diners. But refrain from texting or updating your Facebook profile at the table.
What should you do with your napkin when you get up to go to the washroom? McBeth instructs that it should be placed on your seat or draped over your chair. “It should not go back on the table until you finish the meal and you are leaving,” she says.
When it comes to eating, McBeth says it’s acceptable to use your fingers for tricky items like chicken wings, but it’s probably best to avoid using fingers on first dates and during business meetings. Work your way from the outside in when choosing your cutlery. When you’re done, position your cutlery together on a diagonal pointing to the top left (fork closest to you). Bread should be buttered one piece at a time, and whenever you’re sharing a dish, use a side plate.
McBeth says to wait until everyone’s food has arrived before starting, except if those waiting urge you to eat. Plates should not be cleared from the table until everyone is finished eating. Similarly, no food or drink should be ordered until everyone has arrived, unless someone is running late and has okayed going ahead. When they do arrive, make sure to stand up to greet them. In general, though, everyone should be on time, out of consideration for your party and the restaurant.
If you’re treating, she says it’s good practice to arrive early and let your server know. If you’re being treated, order the midpriced items on the menu (not the lobster). And if you’re going Dutch, ask the server to split the bill when you order to avoid doing socially awkward math. In terms of tipping, McBeth recommends 18 to 20 percent of the pretax total and urges you to check with your servers about extenuating circumstances before docking their tip.
Overall, however, McBeth says, “Etiquette is not about rules. It’s just about being gracious and making everyone around you comfortable.”
In the elegant surroundings of the Pan Pacific Vancouver’s Five Sails Restaurant, owner Gerry Sayers says that dining behaviour boils down to mutual respect, as well as awareness of the ambiance of a particular restaurant. The latter means dressing in a way that would be fitting for the setting, whether it be more casual clothing for a night out at an unassuming joint or formal wear for a fine-dining establishment like her restaurant.
Mutual respect means that people shouldn’t bring disruptive children to a restaurant where other diners are looking for a tranquil eating experience. “We welcome the children if they’re acting according to the ambiance and milieu,” Sayers says. From the diner’s perspective, both McBeth and Sayers say it’s permissible to discreetly mention it to your server if someone’s children are getting out of hand and affecting your experience.
Whether you linger at your table after your meal is finished also requires you to be aware of what’s going on in the restaurant. “If the restaurant is hopping, it behooves you to check with your server before staying longer,” Sayers says.
Other tricky aspects, like food allergies and intolerances, also depend on good communication with restaurant staff. Sayers urges you to respect the weeks of time that chefs take perfecting a menu item by not asking the kitchen to modify it so much that it turns into your own creation. Instead, let the restaurant know in advance (if possible) about any food restrictions, and allow staff to work with you to come up with suitable dishes. It’s also perfectly polite to let the restaurant know if something is clearly amiss with your food so that it can be fixed.
Oh, and if you do insist on having your phone on the table, try to keep it clear of wait staff trying to place your food down in front of you, says Sayers. As well, check your coat to keep your seating area from looking cluttered. Suggestions like these, Sayers says, are not rigid rules, but they’re meant to improve the dining experience. Good etiquette, after all, is about making everyone feel comfortable.