Do's and don'ts for dinner parties

Old school advice everyone should know for organising the perfect evening

The way a meal is organised is very important: guests should be able to say that the dinner was good and properly served, and everyone feel that special attention had been paid to them. The hosts have the responsibility for all the practical organisation. They should lead the conversation, and the liveliness and good manners that will be maintained at the table. This is an important but delicate task; as the eighteenth-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin said, inviting people to share your table amounts to taking responsibility for their happiness during the whole time that they are under your roof.

A perfect dinner party depends on a well-devised menu, an elegant table, appropriate lighting (perhaps candelabras with candles), a sensible seating plan and efficient service.

Guests must be given a warm welcome. The hosts should be ready to greet guests as soon as they arrive and go to meet them to take them into the living or drawing room. A few friendly words will suffice to introduce the guests to each other.

Setting the Table

Whatever the occasion, it is important to make the table look welcoming and attractive. Mealtimes symbolise family life, and bring the family closer together. It is a good idea to put a woollen or cotton under-felt on the dining table, as it prevents the wood being marked by hot dishes and protects tableware, and it also reduces the clatter of cutlery. The tablecloth goes on top. To avoid a bare table and reduce the amount of laundry, try using individual place-mats, which create a warm, decorative effect more economically.

Place Settings: each person must have enough space to feel part of things without inconvenience. Allow at least 60–70 cm (24–28 inches) per person. Plates should be laid symmetrically around the table.

Cutlery: cutlery is always laid with the fork’s tines and the hollow part of the spoon pointing upwards, unless the cutlery is engraved with a monogram or a coat of arms. The fork goes to the left of the plate, the spoon to the right alongside the knife, with its end resting on a knife-rest. Cutlery for later courses, left ready on a side table, is laid onto a clean plate. For dessert, the plates should contain the cutlery for puddings and the cutlery for fruit. For cheese, small plates with a knife and fork should be provided.

Glasses: a set of glasses should consist of a water glass, a red wine glass and a white wine glass. The glasses are laid in front of the plate; their order varies according to personal taste. As a general rule, three glasses are laid on the table: the water glass in the centre, then, slightly to the right, the glass for red wine and the glass for white wine. This is logical, since the white wine is usually served first, then the white wine glass is taken away when the red wine is served. The champagne flute is laid to the left of the water glass if the champagne is served at the end of the meal, or to the right of the white wine glass if it is served at the beginning of the meal.

Salt Cellars: depending on the size of the table, a salt cellar is laid at each end, or two in the middle, with a small spoon, unless each guest has their own salt cellar.

Napkins: depending on whether soup is served, napkins are placed on the plate or at the side. Complicated folds should not be used. Keeping it simple and pretty is much better. Bread Rolls are placed in a fold of the napkin. Sliced bread should be placed in a metal or wicker basket. It may also be placed on a small plate placed on the left of the guest.

Menus: in front of each guest should be placed a small card, which can be decorated and should show the guest’s name and the menu, if desired.

Drinks: water should be served in carafes that match the glasses, unless commercial mineral water has been chosen. The table wine is poured into smaller carafes. AOC wines remain in their bottles, except for old wines, which may be decanted.

Table Decorations: if the tablecloth is simple, a table runner can decorate the centre. Give full rein to your imagination for your table decorations, as long as they remain unobtrusive and in good taste.

Flower Arrangements: the use of very large or highly scented flowers should be avoided, as well as tall arrangements that can obstruct the view across the table. A simple straight or curved bouquet of flowers and light foliage, placed directly on the tablecloth, makes an elegant decoration that is simple to create, without being expensive. A floral centrepiece with arrangements at each end of the table requires more flowers and must remain very low. The flowers should be placed in florist’s foam (oasis), as this makes arranging them easier and keeps them fresh. A nice basket of fruit may replace the flowers.

Table Etiquette

The guests should be seated at the dining table as soon as everyone has arrived. If the dinner is for twelve or more, a small box with the name of the guest may be put at each place. The back of the menu may also be used. The hosts of the house are seated in the middle of the table, facing each other. To the right of each of them are seated the lady and gentleman who command the most respect because of their social position or age. The seating of the other guests demands great tact; ladies and gentlemen should alternate as far as possible. Do not seat together guests who do not know each other, so that conversation does not flag. No-one should sit down before the lady of the house; everyone rises from the table when she does, so she must be careful not to let the meal drag on, while ensuring that she does not give the signal to leave the table before everyone has finished.

Order of Serving Food

The dishes are brought in succession, following the order of the menu decided in advance: soup or hot or cold hors-d’œuvres, depending on the season and circumstances; starters; main dish (fish or meat with accompaniments); vegetables; salad; cheese; dessert; fruit (if the dessert does not include it). The dish of food, placed on a napkin, is offered from the left for guests to help themselves, first to the ladies in order of rank, although a quicker modern practice is now to serve distinguished persons first, then the other guests in turn, without taking their status into account. When the dish has been offered to all the guests, it is taken back to the kitchen and kept hot, while it waits to be offered again. The bread, water and wine are served by the hosts. Drinks are served from the right of the guest if someone is employed to do it. Between courses, the cutlery should be changed. The host takes from the right of the guest the used plate, on which the fork and knife are placed, and serves the clean plate from the left, with the clean cutlery. Before the dessert, crumbs should be removed from the tablecloth using a special dustpan and small brush, an automatic crumb-sweeper, or a napkin. After oysters or fruit, finger bowls containing warm water and a slice of lemon may be offered, with each bowl placed on a plate. Coffee may be served either at the table, or away from the table in a comfortable group. Cups, small spoons and sugar lumps should be placed ready on a tray and coffee should be served very hot. There should also be liqueurs with their special glasses waiting on a tray for those who want them.