Irish Daily Mail
14 August 2018

Last week, the American magazine Food & Wine caused something of a stir on social media when it tweeted a guide to how to behave when eating in “fine dining” restaurants. It was roundly condemned as nonsense; that’s a polite translation of the various words that were used to describe what, by any measure, seems to be a very strange notion of etiquette.

For example, we are told never to lift the menu off the table and always to drink from exactly the same part of the rim of your glass, right through the meal. What?!

Perhaps Food & Wine is reflecting a uniquely American code of behaviour (remember, most Americans eat with a fork and rarely employ a knife, for example) but the injunction to “keep the rim of your plate as clean as possible”, strikes me as absurd. Who the hell is paying? And will the plongeur (as the washing-up guy is called in this kind of place) think you’re a muck savage if you don’t comply? And if so, who cares?

As for the strict instruction to “keep your bread on the plate unless you’re delivering it to your mouth”, how are you going to pull it apart, which is the way civilised people have eaten bread in restaurants for yonks?

I am utterly bemused by the rule that you should “fold your napkin with the crease toward you before you put it on your lap.” I don’t even know what that means, but I’m glad they at least call it a napkin and not a serviette. I have a feeling – probably completely irrational – that people who say serviette instead of napkin hold their little finger up when drinking tea, á la Hyacinth Bucket. And, of course, they are perfectly entitled to do so; it just puts my teeth on edge.

As for not clinking glasses because you “might damage the stemware”, what do they think we are? Conor McGregor on a boozy night out? But the best is kept to last.

Don’t say “bon appetit” – well who does anyway? – say “please enjoy, instead”.

Please enjoy? If it makes a scintilla of sense, which I rather doubt, it’s a wholly unreasonable request. I mean, how do you even begin to comply?

I hate the word “etiquette” almost as much as loathe “serviette,” so I’m going to offer a few suggestions as to how we should behave in any restaurant, “fine dining” or not. Most of them are perfectly obvious but sometimes it’s helpful to rehearse such things to keep them fresh.

First of all, if you’ve booked, make sure you turn up. And on time. If you’re going to be more than ten minutes late, phone. If you can’t make it, cancel the booking.

Basic good manners, that's what this is, but it’s quite shocking how many no-shows restaurants get.

I have no time for restaurants with dress codes. Again, who is paying here? But good manners dictate that you don’t roll up in your running gear in a lather of sweat. Dress cleanly and neatly. And remember that nobody will want to dine close to an expanse of bare flesh.

Restaurants that insist men wear jackets and ties almost invariably do frightful food, by the way. It’s their way of pretending that they are “sophisticated”.

Put your napkin on your lap, anyway you like, but make sure it’s there, below the table. Never ever tuck it into your shirt or blouse; unless your mum or dad does it for you and you’re in a high chair.

Treat the staff with respect. This may seem starkly obvious but you might be surprised at how many diners don’t even manage to say please or thank you to the people waiting on table. Try to make it clear to them that you appreciate what they are doing. As you leave, thank them again. It’s just good manners, again. But don’t try to become best friends with them either. That’s a bit creepy.

Be aware of the people around you and don’t be loud. Nobody wants to eat in funereal silence but we all silently hate, with utter venom, the loud table full of drunk, entitled people. Oh yes, and don’t get drunk, either; that is the height of disrespect to your guests and to staff. If it’s a very convivial meal and you do have too much to drink, keep a very strict eye on how you behave.

The ritual of tasting the wine before it’s poured is becoming a bit outdated now that so many are screwcapped. The idea is that you are being asked to check if the wine has cork taint or is oxidised. You are not being asked if you like it. If there seems to be something actually wrong, e.g. there’s an unpleasant smell, say to the waiting person that you think it’s not quite right. Ask them what they think. In most good restaurants this will be taken seriously. Unless you’re an expert and know exactly what’s wrong, don’t demand a fresh bottle.

If there’s something wrong with the food, mention it as soon as it comes to your attention. Don’t wait until the end of the meal. It’s only reasonable to give the restaurant an opportunity to put it right. And if you say that your steak was tough, but most of it has been eaten, don’t expect it to be knocked off the bill.

If you want to attract the attention of the waiting staff, raise your hand; never, ever snap your fingers or call “garcon!” unless you are actually a pariah and a sociopath. In which case, you are trying to be thrown out.

It’s probably not necessary to say that flirting with waiting staff amounts to bad behaviour; when combined with alcohol it will become even more offensive.

If you behave well in restaurants it’s almost certain that your children will do too; the best way to copper-fasten this is to bring your children, from the time they are very young, to all kinds of restaurants. Get them used to the idea of eating out and how it’s different, in some respects, to eating at home.

Speaking of bringing up children, let’s move on to cutlery. I’m assuming that you teach your offspring how to hold a knife and fork (both are controlled by the relevant forefingers, and neither is held like a pen or utilised in a stabbing motion). When confronted by a lot of cutlery, don’t be embarrassed: you just start from the outside and, with each course, you work your way inwards.

So much is perfectly obvious but I’m surprised at how often I notice unintentional bad manners when I’m eating out. There are the people who chew loudly with their mouths open, people who stretch their legs out so waiting staff have to skirt around them, people who arrive reeking of scent or aftershave to the extent that people at neighbouring tables can’t smell or taste. Such behaviour is uncouth.

Manners are fashion and they change, but consideration remains constant. If you behave – in a restaurant or anywhere else for that matter – in a way that avoids making other people feel uncomfortable or aggrieved, your manners will not be found wanting.

And if you want to say “serviette”, go right ahead. There’s no right and wrong in such matters. And I’ll do my damndest not to wince visibly if I overhear you.

Er... bon appetit!