Perhaps this has happened to you: You go out to dinner with your spouse. Across the room, there is someone from work, or church. The person smiles, waves and then -- Oh, no! Are you kidding me? -- plunks herself down at the table with you and proceeds to monopolize the conversation.
Or maybe this is the scene from a recent dinner: Your spouse pulls out her cellphone while waiting for the meal to be served. The kids see this as a cue that they can do the same. Suddenly, the whole family is head-down, everyone immersed in his or her own cyberworld.
What are the rules for 2011 restaurant dining? In some ways, old standards have changed (sometimes elbows are allowed on the table), but new rules have emerged to respond to shifts in society.
Are you an unwitting restaurant boor? We talked with etiquette experts to find out how to be more eatery-urbane and less bistro-barbarian. Bon appétit!
As a general rule, your phone should not be touched at a restaurant. "People know if you're sneaking a peek at your phone," says Patricia Rossi, author of Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations. "The signal you're sending is that there's something more important than them." If you are expecting an emergency phone call, apologize and notify your dining mates beforehand, Rossi says. When the call comes, excuse yourself and take the call in the reception area. One gray area: using a smartphone to schedule post-dinner activities. Our etiquette experts agree that checking movie times for the group is OK, as long as everyone is finished eating.
There are no specific rules that outline how you should order, but the experts say to err on the side of politeness. Says Rossi: "You always want to have the utmost respect for anyone serving you.... Use all your verbal manners as well as body language -- no snapping, no waving."
Tina Pestalozzi, writer of Dining Skills A to Z: A Practical Guide to Today's Table Manners and Dining Etiquette, says "I would like" or "May I have?" are great ways to order your meal but advises against "Bring me" or "I need." Peggy Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of Emily Post and co-author of the 18th Edition of Emily Post's Etiquette, says to always remember "please."
While it is always best to be gracious, the experts agreed that a "thank you" to your wait staff for every water refill is overkill. "You can't just keep chanting, 'Thank you,'" Rossi says. "It makes the waiter uncomfortable and breaks dialogue with your dining mates."
Running into friends
No matter the size of your city, it's inevitable that when out to eat, you're certain to bump into a neighbor, colleague or that man whose name you can never remember. Rossi says it's important to keep restaurant interactions short and sweet, noting that you should never interrupt while people are actually eating their food: "You just want to say hello very quickly, then say 'I'll see you after dinner,' or 'Let's catch up tomorrow.'" Pestalozzi agrees, saying that often a smile and nod of acknowledgement can be enough. "Table hopping is not viewed favorably," she says, adding that spending time at another table can be confusing for the wait staff and can also clog servers' traffic flow. And what should you do if Mr. and Mrs. What's-their-name plop themselves down at your table midmeal to catch up on neighborhood gossip? Pestalozzi says a polite "It was nice to see you, we'll have to catch up another time" should do the trick.
Conversing with the wait staff
It's always best to be friendly to the wait staff, but remember that they are at work. No matter how welcoming a waiter is, he or she should not be expected to recant a life story, tell you his or her plans for the holidays or dish on co-workers. As well, physical barriers should not be broken. "Never touch someone that is serving you unless it's family or a best friend," Rossi says. "It's just a screen you shouldn't break." As a general rule, be courteous, but remember that your conversations might be interfering with their service to other tables. "They are serving a lot of people, and their job is to be personable and make chitchat," Rossi says. "But people go into diatribes and dissertations, and all the waiter is thinking about is other tables."
Splitting the bill
Long gone are the days of "This one's on me" -- in these rough economic times, splitting the bill is the norm. There are two ways to go about splitting: You can assume that everyone at the table will have roughly the same amount to eat and drink and split the bill evenly, or you can itemize, letting each person pay for what he or she eats. Post says both ways are acceptable, but it's mandatory to inform the waiter of the intended split before a single item is ordered. The ask-first approach will ensure that the restaurant allows splitting (yes, some still don't) and will allow the waiter to take notes accordingly.
The rule of 15 to 20 percent of the bill -- before tax -- is still the standard, but the experts say it is perfectly acceptable to adjust the norm according to the quality of service. "It's never OK to withhold tip to economize, but it's acceptable to reduce or even eliminate the tip if there has been an issue or poor service," Pestalozzi says. But Post adds a warning: Make sure the errors in service were your waiter's fault. While inattentiveness, incorrect orders or sass may be attributed to your server, a backed-up kitchen may take the fall for slow service.
Also, for those ambiguous tip jars (or the fill-in-the-blank line on a receipt) at walk-up eateries where a cashier simply takes your order: Tipping is not mandatory. "People often feel guilted into leaving something," Post says. "If you want to, it's totally fine. It's a way of saying thank you if someone is extra friendly."
Save all primping, teeth checking and lipstick applying for the bathroom. Pestalozzi says the same rules apply to toothpicks -- if you must grab one on the way out the door, wait until you're in the privacy of your car to pick at your teeth.
The start of the meal -- sometime between being seated and receiving your food -- is the ideal time to place your napkin in your lap. "Wait until at least three people have arrived to do so, with the host taking the lead," Pestalozzi says. There are several rules of thought when it comes to where to put your napkin when you excuse yourself from the table, though. Pestalozzi and Rossi advise that you should place your unfolded napkin in the seat of your chair when you go to the restroom -- the waiter should refold it and place it on the back of the chair while you're gone. When finished, the napkin should be placed loosely to the left of your plate. Post agrees with the post-meal placement, but says the napkin should go to the left of the plate when you leave for a restroom break, as well, to prevent a soiled napkin from staining or dirtying a chair.
As a general rule, diners should wait until everyone at the table has been served to begin eating, but Post notes that there are exceptions. If someone at your table orders a hot meal and the service for other diners is lagging, the host (or the rest of the party) should insist that he or she begin without them, and that diner should most definitely accept.