Singaporebrides | Fine Dining

June 2011

Formal Dinner Etiquette

Ever been invited to a formal wedding dinner and was gobsmacked by the strange display of cutlery and glassware before you? Want a formal sit-down dinner for your wedding but unsure of what to do and where to start? You’ll find it isn’t really that scary after all.

Before there were even concepts like place settings and floral table arrangements, there was the saltcellar—the small little container that held the salt for the meal. It was such an important condiment that its placement on the table determined seating arrangements. The seat “above the salt” was reserved as a place of honour. And at that time, guests mostly ate with their hands and threw bones and scraps to the floor.

Forks were only introduced in the 17th century and its invention helped contribute to the development of table settings because the need to arrange the items needed for a meal materialised. This encouraged silversmiths and metalworkers to create a variety of elaborate plates, platters and bowls for use on the table, which is especially coveted by royalty and the rich.

The idea of having “service” started in the 19th century. French service was an impractical and complicated process of serving each dish as a separate course. The English, the more practical ones at that time, served all similar food belonging to the same course at the same time. Ironically, it was the Russian style of service that became popular, with its emphasis on presentation of both the food and the table setting. Guests arrived at the table and sat according to place cards that were left on the table to indicate their seating arrangement. Each guest would find before them all the dishes, plates, glasses and utensils needed to have the meal. Because of the large variety of flatware, glasses and plates, there was a need to establish “rules” for the use of each item. This was when the first etiquette books started to appear.

The Victorian Table

The Victorian period was a colourful one. Mirrors, figurines and flowers adorned the Victorian table. Matching napkins were carefully folded into decorative designs, and silver candelabra provided ambient lighting, while flowers, beautifully arranged in ornate bowls and vases, decorated the table.

As the Victorians believed that every type of food required a special “instrument”, the dinner table was filled with an excess of silver cutlery and glasses, all carefully laid in their correct positions. The first course utensils were placed on the outside of the setting, so that diners worked their way inward with each course. Different types of wines was served with each course, each in different glasses, and these glasses were arranged neatly; a sherry glass for the soup course, a white wineglass for the fish, a red wineglass for the meat course, a tumbler of water to rinse the palate, and a champagne glass for the dessert.

What to do at a formal dinner

Of course, with the variety of cuisines and lifestyles today, it would be impractical to always have these elaborate table settings and rigid rules. However, some occasions do call for a slightly more formal approach to dining, and some of those rules that were created centuries ago still exist today. Here’s what you need to know.

It is actually a very simple and logical rule with utensils – always start from the outside of your place setting, and work your way towards the service plate: soup spoon first, then fish knife and fork, then service knife and fork.

a. Napkin
b. Side plate and butter knife for dinner rolls
c. Salad fork
d. Fish fork
e. Dinner fork
f. Service plate.
g. Dinner Knife
h. Salad knife
i. Soup spoon
j. Red wine glass
k. White wine glass
l. Water glass
m. Dessert fork and spoon

It is polite to wait until everyone is served before starting your meal. But in the case of a huge event, it is acceptable to start eating hot food when it is served. For cold foods or buffets, wait for the host to announce dinner and wait until the head of the table starts.

Your serving of dinner rolls or bread is on your left – don’t start stealing your neighbour’s. Break them into manageable pieces before buttering each right before you want to eat it. If finger meals served on a large platter arrive at the table, use the serving utensils provided and place the items on your plate before using your own cutlery or hands to place it into your mouth. There will be times when you find the need to remove inedible items from your mouth. For pits, drop them surreptitiously—not in the middle of a conversation—into your palm before putting them onto your plate. For small chicken or fish bones, use your fork or fingers to return it to the plate. For bigger bones or other types of food, just spit sneakily into your napkin.

See, it isn’t that overwhelming, is it? Moreover, formal weddings are the perfect occasions for dressing up and doing something you don’t do on a daily basis. If you’re going to be having a gorgeous white and Victorian-themed wedding, why not go all the way?

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Formal Dinner Etiquette