A Gentleman’s Guide to Dinner Manners

Think Chivalry is dead? Then so are your chances of impressing your boss or your girl at dinner. These ten simple tips take you from the car to the exit sign, without losing your date, your job, or your cool.

Congrats on your awesome new job. Even though you just started, you are about to get your first raise. Now your boss wants to take you out for dinner. No, you’re not sleeping your way to the top, this is strictly business, with your boss and an important client. However, you need to look and act the part, and there are a few things you should know before you even sit down.

For that matter, you’re also planning to go out with your girlfriend’s parents this week. They’re taking you to some fancy place with metal forks and cloth napkins. You borrowed your roommate’s jacket, but you’re a little nervous you might do the wrong thing.

Have no fear. All these questions and more will be answered in our exclusive, one-of-a-kind insider’s guide:

A Gentleman’s Guide to Dinner Manners

By Jesse Stern

You are about to enter an exclusive inner circle. But before we get down to business, this guide applies to pretty much any situation where you’re eating food in public. Dates, business lunches, dinners, meeting the parents, and so on. These ten simple tips take you from the car to the exit sign, without losing your date, your job, or your cool.

Most dates appreciate chivalry. Most older women also enjoy it. But sometimes people get offended, particularly in corporate culture. When should you use it, when not? Here is a general rule that will help you wade through the treacherous waters of chivalry. It’s called The Handsome Rule.

If you’re with a date, or with any female who might refer to you as “handsome,” do it. If you’re with anyone, whom you might refer to as “handsome,” don’t do it.

1. The Car Door

The first step is the car door. When you’re on a date, it’s charming and gentlemanly to open the car door for her. It has an old-school, James Bond vibe to it (Sean Connery, not Daniel Craig).

What about other times?

Her: An excellent first example of the Handsome rule. Open the car door for her if she’s your date, your girlfriend’s mother, or any female who might refer to you as “handsome”. If she’s your boss or your coworker, it’s probably best to let her fend for herself, unless of course you want to flirt.

Tip: don’t flirt with your boss or coworker.

Him: Don’t ever open the car door for a guy unless you’re a limo driver, a valet wearing white gloves, or a rescue worker and his car is on fire.

2. The Sidewalk

If she is wearing fancy clothes, or is at least old enough to have given birth to you, offer an arm. In the old days, when accompanying a woman, the man walked on the outside (street side), to prevent mud from splashing on her clothes. In modern times, the man walks on the outside to offer protection against would-be assailants lurking between parked cars. In even more modern times, and in dense urban areas, men sometimes walk on the inside, to protect against would-be attackers lurking in doorways. In general, when walking with a woman, you should walk on the outside — unless you are legitimately concerned about muggers lurking in doorways.

The sidewalk is a pretty harmless bit of chivalry. Even the most jaded, Doc-Marten-and-flannel-shirt-wearing feminist usually finds this act of courtesy quaint and charming. Most women notice and appreciate it, and you don’t have to make a big deal of it. Just get in the habit.

Switching: You might sometimes have to switch sides to stay on the outside, such as when crossing streets. This is normal, as long as you don’t make a big deal of it. Try to do it super cool, without her noticing. Also think of the situation you’re in, and ease up if it draws attention.

3. The Door

Holding a door open for someone can make you appear suave, or it can make you look like a douchebag. In professional settings, it’s considered polite to open the door for anyone, male or female, and let them through first. On a date, it’s pure sex appeal.

Her: On a date, open the door for her. This will be easiest if you’re on the hinges side of the door. Otherwise, your arm gets in the way. If you can switch ninja-style, before getting to the door, do it.

Him: It is so Alpha Male that he will be intimidated and unmanned by this simple act of kindness. The best way to handle this is to go through, then hold the door open, allowing him to follow. He will then nod submissively, and may mumble “thanks.” It’s also okay to hold the door for a guy if he’s your friend, and you happen to be on the hinges side of the door.

Same trick with crowds. You are obviously not going to stand there for hours, but at least hold on long enough for the next person or two to get through without the door slamming in their face. Wait until someone “handsome” approaches, then let go.

4. The Coat

Her: On a date, especially if it’s formal or dressy, take her coat. Stand behind her and help her take it off, then hang it up for her. This is a super smooth thing to do on a date. Use the Handsome Rule in other situations. In business, don’t take anyone’s coat, unless they are at your house.

Remember, if you’re in a situation causing you to dress up more than normal, your everyday manners need dressed up as well. Taking a woman’s coat may seem awkward and unnatural but that’s only because you’re not in formal settings everyday. If your clothes are formal, your manners should be too.

Him: Don’t ever take a guy’s coat. Awkward.

5. The Chair

Don’t sit down yet, Romeo. Stand behind her chair and pull it out. When she sits down, help her push the chair in closer to the table. Then you can sit down. On a date, cool. Business, not cool.

An older female who might call you “handsome” will be surprised that you are so cultured. She will smile (in the same way that she might smile when looking at pictures of George Clooney), and make a comment about what a gentleman you are. Give her a flirtatious wink and get her phone number later. (If she’s your girlfriend’s mom, best skip this step.)

Photo by Amanda

6. The Napkin

I have no idea why, but you should always put your napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down. Especially if it’s a cloth napkin. Especially if you’re trying to impress your boss or girlfriend’s parents. Leave it in your lap until you’re done eating.

If your napkin falls on the floor, don’t pick it up — ask for another one. Same if you drop a fork, spoon, knife, bit of food, toy dinosaur, menu, or chocolate mint. No three-second rule here.

Handsome or not, what lands on the floor … stays on the floor!

7. The Food

People have written entire books on polite eating etiquette. When you’re ready to have dinner with the President, go buy one. Until then, here are a few tips to get you through the meal.

Which fork: If you have more than one fork, this usually means you have more than one “course” or plate of food. Just remember to start on the outside and work in. Use the outside fork and leave it on your plate when you’re done.

Save your knife. Small forks are for salad, big forks are for dinner. Tiny forks north of the plate are for seafood. Big spoons are for soup, and for some reason you’re supposed to spoon the soup away from you. Tiny spoons are for coffee.

While eating, just remember the stuff Grandma used to tell you:

  • Elbows off the table
  • Sit up straight
  • Cut your food into small bites
  • Chew with your mouth closed
  • Swallow before talking
  • Take your time eating

Also:

  • Don’t slurp or stir things, especially spaghetti. You should always twist your spaghetti onto your fork by placing the end of the fork on a spoon. Never twist right on the plate.
  • Be aware of your companions’ cultural and personal eating habits. If they are vegetarian, or if they don’t eat pork, forgo the cutlet.
  • Don’t scrunch up your face and ask “what’s that?”, especially in ethnic restaurants.

There is also more subtle stuff. Like when you put your knife and fork down, put them on the plate, not touching the table. Or when you butter bread, put some butter on your plate, then use the butter from your plate to butter the bread. Let’s not worry about that stuff for now. Just try not to drop anything in your lap.

Nothing says “Bond, James Bond” like a secret code. At really nice restaurants, there’s a cool little code to tell the waiter when you’re done eating. Put the knife and fork together on your plate at either 4 or 8 o-clock. If you’re still eating, separate the knife and fork on your plate at 4 and 8 o-clock. No one will notice this, unless you’re at a fancy restaurant, but if they do, they will recognize you as a man of distinction.

8. The Booze

Business: Order alcohol only if the person you’re trying to impress is drinking. At lunch, limit yourself to one drink, no matter how much anyone else drinks. At dinner, have two.

Date: Whoever is driving should have only one.

Social: Unless you’re with buddies, treat it like business — drink only if the people you’re with are drinking. If you are a recovering alcoholic, or with your AA sponsor, don’t drink.

Tip: These guidelines are for the US only. If you are visiting a different country, everyone in the room can drink you under the table — even small children — so just do your best to keep up.

9. The Bill

When it’s time to go, ask for the check (if you’re planning to pay). If someone else is paying, don’t ask for, touch, look at, or think about the check. Don’t even peek.

In a business setting, generally whoever invites pays for the meal. If you’re having dinner with the boss, the boss will probably pay. Buddies or coworkers should probably expect to split the check.

If you’re having dinner with the girlfriend’s parents, here’s what you do: when the check comes, get your wallet out and fumble for a credit card. The parents will then say, “oh no, we’ll get this.” Argue feebly. When they insist, put away your wallet. Offer to leave a tip. In the US, the tip is normally $1.50 for every $10 on the bill. Other countries vary on whether and how much to tip. If you’re not sure, ask — preferably someone besides your waiter.

On a date, it’s tricky. Most modern women want the freedom of going dutch on a date, with no further obligation. Some, however, expect to be treated like a queen. As a general rule, the fancier her clothes, the more likely she expects you to pay for dinner. If she orders the most expensive thing on the menu, she probably expects you to pay. In any case, bring enough that you can pay for the whole thing. Does this mean you will get anywhere with her later? That depends on you, superstar.

We’ve all seen it. You’re out having dinner with your buddies, and somebody gets up right before dessert. He says, “I gotta run.” There are lots of laughs, high fives, and see you laters. After he’s gone, you realize the high fives were a smokescreen. He left without paying. Not cool. Equally lame is when someone puts in a couple of wrinkled Washingtons and a handful of pennies, while someone else pays double.

Be cool when chipping in for the meal, and cover what you ate. Get in the habit of carrying cash around, especially if you know you’re going out. There’s nothing worse than when you have to ask to split a card–you’re an adult man now, come prepared to pay for what you ordered.

10. The Exit Strategy

On a date, get her coat, help her with the sleeves, hold the door (hinges on your side), walk on the outside on the sidewalk, go back to the car, open it for her, wait for her to get in, close it, go around to your side, hop in, smile like an after-shave model, and you’re ready to rock.

Tip of the Week: Can You Hear Me Now?

Most of us get annoyed by people who talk on the phone in close public places. But for some reason, this doesn’t seem to apply to us when we get a call or text. Talking or texting at restaurants, movies, weddings, funerals, etc., is extremely rude — yes, even when you do it. It’s rude to the people around you, and it’s rude to the people you’re with. When you interrupt a conversation to take a call, you’re basically saying “my phone is more important than this face-to-face conversation I’m having with you”.

Turn off your ringer, even at a restaurant but especially at movies, weddings and funerals. If you absolutely must take a call, excuse yourself and leave the room. Whenever on the phone in public, use your “inside voice,” and avoid talking like an Irish Dockworker. (I have nothing against Irish Dockworkers. Some of my best friends are Irish Dockworkers. I’m just saying.) On a date or business meal, let the people you’re with know in advance that you are expecting a call. Keep it short, and get back to the face-to-face.

Before birth, Jesse's mother decided that Jesse Stern was a great name for a writer or musician. He now lives as a touring and studio musician in Los Angeles California. He also has an 80's tribute band, The Young Guns. He plans to wait until 40 to write his first novel.

  • Jason

    You know what’s funny, I’ve been doing the outside of the sidewalk thing all my life but I didn’t know that was a common or chivalrous thing.

  • Adam

    Waiters are always taking my plate early now I know why. Stupid silverware positioning!

  • KRP

    Like Evie said boys, chivalry isn’t dead so don’t kill it!

  • Clive

    I always thought 20% was the standard tipping rate in the US.

    (And I say this as a lifelong US citizen)

  • Ben J

    I think the actual tip percentage varies depending on where you live. I know where I live now (San Diego) it’s 20% like Clive said but where I used to live (rural North Carolina) it was 15%, 10% if the service was mediocre.

  • Lorin

    What a great article. The silverware at 4 oclock is gold if you’re in a really nice restaurant and want to get your damn empty dinner plate out of your face to make way for the after-dinner cocktail. I always thought 18% was a standard tip; if I get crappy service or a server with an attitude they might get somewhere in the 10-15% range depending on various factors. If someone does a really great job, I make it 20%, and if you’re tipping on a $180 dinner bill, 20% is plenty…

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  • Greg

    This is a tip from a bus boy, if you are finished with your meal and would like us to take your plate (at a $7-30 entree restaurant), either put both your knife and fork upside down on your plate, with the edges of the cutlery not hanging off the plate; or put your napkin on the plate.

    Do not, do not, do not put your knife and fork upside down resting on the table and leaning on the plate. This makes it much more difficult to pick up quickly and easily. Along that note, put the plates near the edge of the table, unless you want us leaning across your face to take the plate.

    Also, depending on the restaurant, if a waiter is tipped less than 10%, they lose money. Busboys and food runners are both given part of the tips, and their share is guaranteed. Learn about the restaurant’s gratuity policy, as large tables usually pay the 18% “Large party” gratuity, then add a 15% tip, making an effective 35% tip. We don’t turn this down, but usually we don’t call you on it, as we don’t want to you look cheap as you take back the tip.

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  • Tasken

    Great article, yet however, you should pull out her chair and then walk to your own and sit down (while on a date).

    It is considered unpolite helping her pushing her chair closer to the table.

  • Noel

    Fantastic Article, The door thing is always tricky. One question though. Is it still polite to stand if a woman leaves the table or is that overkill?

  • JC

    The door is tricky, particularly the fact that most restaurants have a double door. If our aim is to open both doors, how do we accomplish this without shoving past our date in the undersized entryway?

    Other tip: if you’re sharing an appetizer, salad, or dessert, match her bite-for-bite. Goes along with “eating slowly” but it’s easy to lose track, since you’re concentrating on the 1000 other things you’re supposed to be doing/not doing while also engaging in conversation. Sadly I had to get this tip from a girl I was seeing.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    @ Noel I think the standing completely depends on who you’re with and where you’re at. If you’re at a really nice restaurant with some older people I think you’ll definitely impress a few of them by doing it. But if you’re with people all your same age, even at a fancy place, it might seem out of place.

    @ JC The bite for bite rule is a GREAT tip. Especially for me, because I tend to inhale my food, I have to consciously not eat way more than my date. It’s also something to watch if you’re doing most of the listening since the other person won’t have as much time to eat.

  • http://www.radiantcutdiamondrings.net Santoku Fun

    This was a funny and informative article. The silverware positioning was something I was never aware of before.

  • http://www.ninjahq.com how to be a ninja

    I agree :) thanks for the great article. Lots of cool info :D

    I might have to make this one of my regularly read websites :)

    Thanks!!

  • http://www.kitchenknifes.net Kitchen Knife Sets

    What confuses me most is when to use the three types of spoons and forks. I usually get scolded in formal dinners due to that.

  • http://www.igotstiffed.com Waiter

    This is really going all out. Is this something you do for someone you just met? I like to think a woman can earn all this. Many women like to just get a free meal and drinks out of a man and laugh at all the effort. Sad but true.

    So many times, I see girls on dates with new guys, and with the guy excuses himself, they hop on the phone and brag about how they’re using the guy.
    .-= Waiter´s last blog ..Make Like A Drum And Beat It =-.

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  • Craig

    A really cool tip I learned from some friends that is really impressive if you’re with a party of 4 or so and don’t mind paying for everyone. about 2/3rds of the way through the meal, leave to go to the bathroom. go find the waiter, thank him for the excellent service so far, and hand him your card. tell him when its time for the bill to come, set it down in front of you with your card already in it. When the bill comes, this is really impressive, especially to any lady you might have with you.

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  • James

    I read this article couple of weeks ago.
    Last night I went on a double date, with my girlfriend’s cousin (which supposedly
    invited) and her boyfriend. I knew the bill was going to be expensive. So, beforehand,
    I withdrew enough cash for what I thought our share (my girlfriend and I) was
    going to be. When the bill came, the guy’s face was and epic “what the f…”.
    Then I, elegantly, put the cash on the table, and told him with a smile “here”.
    He “argued” for two seconds and said: but I invited. I said: “I know, but not
    for that amount”. He accepted. I put myself on this guy’s shoes because it was
    her girlfriend who “invited” us, but I knew it was him the one who’d pay.

     

    Anyhow, I’m a total cool gentleman in front of
    my girlfriend’s eyes, and I didn’t need to pull out my card and split the
    amount and all that stuff. Thank you guys!

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  • Ryan

    I was taught (In Virginia) to leave a 15% tip, varying depending on the waiters quality.

  • Fitrjw

    Great Article. I Work as a server and I agree that the tip average depends on where you are. However the industry standard is 20%. Which is $2.00 for every $10 spent.

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