‘How to behave at the dinner table’, by Tony Naylor

Are you an elbows-on-the-table kind of person? Do you hold your fork in your left or right hand? Dining manners can be a minefield. But fear not, Tony Naylor knows the modern way to dine (and yes, phones are allowed)

It’s a long time since knowing which knife to use or the correct way to pass the gravy (is there even a right direction?) was an issue at dinner. Etiquette is codified snobbery and, thankfully, it’s been largely consigned to history along with Hyacinth Bucket’s cake forks. Good manners, however, are a very different proposition.


Behaving as a decent human being rather than, as Debrett’s would decline to put it, ‘a gigantic arse’, makes people feel comfortable. It greases the wheels of social interaction and is therefore crucial when dining in restaurants. There is a right and a wrong way to, it just has nothing to do with whether you say “napkin” or “serviette”. No, in 2016, the issues have evolved dramatically. As an olive reader, I’m sure your behaviour is impeccable, but, just in case, read on…

Mind your peas & queues

If you go to that hip, new no-bookings place with endless queues, and you park your mate in the line while five of you wait in the pub, do you know what everyone behind you is thinking, as you barge the queue
at the last minute? They’re all thinking: “I really hope they get food poisoning.”

Phone moan

It’s rare to hear someone giving it the full Dom Joly these days, but if 99% of us step outside to take calls, restaurants are still prey to the background buzzes and pings of people incapable of putting their phones on silent. The only thing more ignorant is sitting at the table constantly texting or checking emails and ignoring your tablemates.

Such behaviour is either a strutting display of status (look how busy I am!) or boredom (you prefer to tweet every crumb of your meal than talk to people IRL). It’s simple: wait for your dinner date to nip to the loo, then knock yourself out on Twitter. #tweetwhatyoueat

Share the pain

If you don’t want to split a bill evenly (scientifically proven as the only stress-free way of settling it), decline the invite. No-one wants some skinflint passive-aggressively pointing out they only had a main or nitpicking over who shared which sides. Insist on individual bills for a table of eight and the restaurant staff will hate you, trust me.

Of course, there are rules to this compact; look at what everyone else is ordering and assume a rough 10%-20% leeway on spend. You can’t splash on chateaubriand and £80 reds if everyone else is eating pizza.

Beware the gastrobore

The olive family has an incredibly detailed relationship with food. But remember, not everyone wants to spend 57% of the meal discussing the provenance of the asparagus. I know – I’ve been told to shut up about it more than once.

Mind your (body) language

In order for it to function enjoyably, the relationship between guest and waiter is a performance. It requires civility, smiles and accommodation from both sides, no matter how knackered or annoyed either party is. Moreover, you must respect basic boundaries. There’s no excuse for curtness, shooing a waiter away because you’re mid-anecdote, boorish jokes at their expense or flirting with the staff.

Such behaviour makes everyone feel awkward. Also, clicking your fingers at a waiter or ostentatiously air-writing a cheque to request the bill is unacceptable. They’re professionals, not biddable skivvies. Catch someone’s eye, then make your request politely.

Sharing economy

Everyone knows the small-plates rules. You order three or four each, one of which is nominally “yours” (but which everyone can taste). The others are negotiated picks given over to the free-for-all of the table.

Frankly, allowing others to taste your food should be mandatory at all meals. Who wants to eat with people so prissy or hygiene-phobic that they recoil in horror if you want to try a forkful of their mash?

Booking good

Taking friends who you know are struggling financially to a Michelin star wallet-buster is bad form. Dragging your dad who hates spicy food to a super-authentic Thai, is a power play that will ruin the evening. Booking sensitively is an art that, given our strident opinions about grub, foodies sometimes struggle with.

Picture this

We’re told cameras in restaurants are contentious, but, I suspect, mainly by egomaniacal chefs traumatised by godawful shots of their creations on Instagram. Discreetly photographing a dish (no flash; no tripod; no big pro cameras with clattering shutter-clicks) isn’t intrusive for other diners. I’m not moving my chair so you can get a better angle on the sea bass, but, otherwise, snap away.


Big celebrating parties who want everyone in the dining room to help belt-out Happy Birthday? They should be banned. As should any cross-table harassment. No, I don’t want a piece of cake. Or a shot. I just want to escape this 128 decibel racket.

Grumbling complaint

The British usually sit and stew, simmer and leave aggrieved, without complaining. Consequently, when we do blow, years of dissatisfaction boil over in tirades so huffy and hysterical they are often incomprehensible. Stay calm, be clear in your complaint and make sure it’s valid.

“This toast is burned,” is a verifiable objective fact. “This doesn’t taste nice,” is an opinion. Ask for the manager as an escalation of last resort and never threaten to rubbish a restaurant on TripAdvisor – it’s laughably pompous and too aggressive. Your dinner companions will be mortified.

Written by Tony Naylor

Main image credit: Getty

You might also like

‘Why I hate eating outdoors’, by Tony Naylor

‘Why eating alone is brilliant’ by Tony Naylor

‘Join my campaign for real restaurant English!’ by Tony Naylor

‘Why vegetarians should be praised’ by Tony Naylor

‘My expert guide to chocolate’, by Tony Naylor

‘Why I’m tired of foodie fads’ by Tony Naylor

‘Why we love craft beer’ by Tony Naylor

Tony Naylor: how to raise a foodie child

Tony Naylor’s nine ways to avoid a hangover


‘Why I’ll never go on a diet’ by Tony Naylor