Enjoying the camaraderie of one’s friends and family around a dinner table is often considered one of life’s greatest pleasures. Here in St. Andrews we enjoy doing this regularly both at home and at favorite restaurants. And as though I were hearing an echo
from a past gathering, the question invariably arises, “Where shall we sit”. At a private house, this is a question that the host and hostess should figure out ahead of time. After all, they’ve invited the guests and know best how they will interact. This would also be the case if there is a dinner party at a restaurant with a host and hostess. If a group is gathering at a restaurant without a host, and will be paying their own bills, the many of the same seating principles apply but are sorted out just before everyone is about to be seated.
Here are several basic guidelines which will hopefully make the party a great success. Seat people in alternating sexes around the table (man-woman) when possible. The host and hostess or co-host are seated opposite one another with the exception of rectangular tables with multiples of four people. In this case, assuming an equal number of men and women, the hostess would move one seat to the right. If there is an unequal number of the each sex, seating two of the same sex together is unavoidable and no big deal. Do not seat husbands and wives together unless one of them is painfully shy. They see each other all the time and having conversations with other guests is part of having a fun party. Unmarried couples who have just started dating are normally seated next to each other. If there is a guest of honor, a male guest would be seated to the right of the hostess; a female would be seated to the right of the host. At a formal business or state dinner there is a whole order of precedence which comes into play which I will exclude from this discussion.
Be thoughtful about your seating arrangement. Don’t put people next to one another who dislike one another, have little or nothing in common, and are overly shy or overly talkative. Seat people next to those whom they would most enjoy. This will help to ensure a stimulating conversation.
If there is more than one table, be sure there is ‘host’ for each table. Husbands and wives may be seated at different tables, and at formal dinners often times are. I remember one evening several years ago, a group of about 40 people came in for dinner after a long conference at the Algonquin. They had preordered their meals and had given me a seating chart. When they arrived they were ready to have a lively party to say the least. After the first course, the host decided that it was time to change places, with half the people moving from one dining room to the other and vice versa. Sounds like a fun idea, right? Well it is a great concept but not for a seated dinner. The wait staff was really thrown for a loop. But as we always said, “the show must go on.” After the main course, this happened again, much to the horror of the waiters. The guests had a rollicking good time. But my advice to you as guests is to be sure to think about the impact your actions have here. This total disregard for the waiters showed real disrespect. Save these fun and games for a buffet banquet.
If you are hosting a business or social lunch or dinner at a restaurant the following guidelines will be helpful. First of all, be sure to arrive fifteen minutes ahead of the scheduled time. Some people always arrive early. Go directly to the table, sit down and wait for your guest(s). Do not order a drink and do not touch your napkin. Your guest should arrive to a pristine table. As your guests arrive, stand to greet them. Give them the best seat, that being one facing into the room, not facing the kitchen’s swinging door or viewing the restrooms. Know ahead of time exactly where each guest will sit and as they arrive simply let them know. For tables of more than six, I recommend place cards, especially for a social function.
When sitting down, approach your chair from the right. The man on the left would pull out the chair for the lady on his right. Once seated, guests should take their cues from their host or hostess. For example, put your napkin in your lap only after your host has done so. Try to pace your eating so that you finish your meal when the host does. Once he’s finished, the meal is over.
In a business meeting, the host will decide when the business discussions will begin, which is usually after about ten minutes of small talk. Be sure to turn off your cell phone. Not doing so is annoying to other guests and shows bad manners and a desire to draw attention to one’s self. Be sure to quietly excuse yourself from the table and go to the rest room if you have a coughing or sneezing fit, need to apply make-up or have something lodged in your teeth. Place your napkin on your chair seat, exit the chair from the right and slide the chair under the table. I know a number of people questioned placing the napkin on the chair from a previous column. There are two reasons for this. One, other guests don’t want to look at your dirty napkin on the table. Two, putting your napkin on the table indicates to a properly trained waiter that you are finished eating. You may come back to no plate.
Implementing these guidelines at your next luncheon or dinner party, whether as host or guest, will help to make things run smoothly and will reflect well on you as a person with good manners – something that will only enhance your reputation.