Dinner parties are nervous-making events for many people--so many questions, so many rules! Here's a short Q&A to help make your next dinner party fun for both you and your guests.
Should dinner guests be assigned seats?
When I'm the hostess, I always assign seats, for one very important reason: it's human nature for us to gravitate to our comfort level, which means sitting next to people we already know, such as our spouse or good friends. A dinner party is an opportunity to mix things up a bit and make the evening more interesting.
What is the biggest faux pas people make when planning a dinner party?
The biggest faux pas, believe it or not, is often the seating. When two quiet guests are seated next to one another, the result is often little or no interaction. When two boisterous guests are put together, the result can be too much noise. The holidays can be an entirely different story, of course, because you have family, which means everyone knows one another. In this case, if Uncle John has not spoken to Aunt Alli in twenty years, be sure to seat them far apart.
What is the order of the flatware in setting the table for an informal meal?
When setting a table, always work from "out to in," based on when the eating utensil is used during the meal. This means the salad fork is placed outermost on the left side of the plate, then the dinner fork. The outermost utensil on the right is the soup spoon, then the teaspoon, then the dinner knife. The dessert spoon and/or knife may be brought out with dessert, or placed horizontally at the top of the plate.
Where should wineglasses and water glasses go?
In the case of glasses, the same "out to in" rule applies, but all glasses are placed to the right of the plate: first, the white-wine glass, then the red wine, and then water. The water glass goes last, as water is served with every course and therefore never cleared. It should be placed just above the dinner knife.
What occasions demand an informal table setting? Which ones demand a more formal setting?
If you're having a black-tie dinner, elegant china, crystal, silverware, table linens, and table decorations are in order. You may also want to dress up the table for special occasions, such as anniversaries and holidays. For most other occasions, everyday china works with fun, colorful linens.
How are food, bread and butter, and salt and pepper shakers passed at informal dinners?
If there is a host, everything is passed to the right by the host, except the bread basket should first be offered to the person on the host's direct left so that guest doesn't have to wait until the basket makes it around the table. Salt and pepper shakers are also passed to the right and are always passed together, even when someone asks just for the salt. (But remember, it's never a good idea to season food until after it's been tasted, or you might over-season the dish.)
What's the best way to collect dishes and serve the next course?
Each course is served after the previous one has been cleared. Food is always served on the left and cleared on the right of the diner. The exception to this rule is the water glass, which is never removed, and the wineglass if a guest wishes to drink through dessert.
What's a good way to encourage guests to go home without being rude? Time and time again, I am asked this question. Some guests will never leave as long as the wine is flowing. You have a couple of choices here: (1) from the start, give your guests the signal to leave right after dinner, especially if the party is on a weeknight, by simply saying that you promise to have everyone home by the 10 p.m. news; or (2) stop pouring wine when dessert is served. This may seem rude, but you are not just helping people know when to leave, you're helping them not to drink and drive, so you're actually doing them a favor.
Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (Lisagrotts.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.