Manner Matters: How to Order When Out to Dinner

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[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly,

I have always believed that when I go to a nice or relatively nice restaurant (let's say any place with entrees over $25), it is appropriate to order at least an appetizer and an entree. For very nice restaurants, I also consider dessert (even if it's to share with my husband) a must. My thought is that the nicer restaurants aren't trying to whisk me in and out, and set up portion sizes and reservation times based on people staying and enjoying their meal. It also seems cheap to me to go to a nice restaurant and not order a decent amount of food (if you don't feel like spending money, don't go to a nice restaurant).

When I go out with my husband, family, or close friends this isn't a problem because we all automatically order appetizers and entrees, and then figure out dessert based on how full we are. The problem comes when I go out with friends or acquaintances that I don't know as well. I want to enjoy myself and order a full meal, but I also don't want to be the only person at my table ordering an appetizer. I feel that it is rude to the others at the table to have to watch me eat my appetizer while they just sit there, but I also feel that it's wrong to not order at least two courses. Is there a right answer here? Am I crazy for thinking ordering multiple courses at a decent restaurant is a must? If I'm not crazy, can you recommend a polite way to encourage others to order both appetizers and entrees?

Thanks for your consideration.

Kind regards,
Out to Dinner

Dear Out to Dinner,

It has been decades ago now that I went to dinner with my grandmother and she ordered two appetizers instead of an appetizer and an entree, and the server simply nodded and confirmed that she wanted them coursed out, with one of the appetizers being served while my friend and I had our main courses. She responded with "See that? That's professional service—he didn't even bat an eye." It opened up a whole new world to me, one in which I wasn't forced to order way more food than I could possibly eat.

While in some cultures (and in another time in our own), there are strict rules about how much to order in what kind of eateries (and it is wise to follow such rules if you want to have a pleasant dining experience), we live under no such requirements in the U.S. Diners must respect the type of restaurant it is—don't go to a tasting-menu only restaurant if you don't want to enjoy multiple courses, and don't expect coursed-out service at a taco stand—but within the offerings and style of the restaurant, I can get a tear in my eye thinking about how free we are to order the amount of food we like.

To put it simply: While I applaud your reverence for the act of fine dining, there is no need to goad your dining companions into ordering more food based on manners. That's the question that's more interesting in your letter: does everyone at the table need to order the same number of courses?

Obviously, it's a more ideal dining situation when people are all eating at the same time. It's not rude to order an appetizer even if others don't, but it will lead to that awkward time when you're eating and others are still waiting for their food. The solution? Let go of your idea that it's rude not to order an appetizer, and when you're out with people who may not be on the same page in terms of ordering multiple courses, simply ask if they're going to order appetizers and act accordingly. It sounds like you really prefer the longer, more leisurely experience of multiple courses. You may choose where and with whom you eat accordingly. People who like to just order salads? Maybe you meet them at casual cafés.

Of course, you can always try and nudge your companions towards your preference with your own enthusiasm for the meal or specific menu items. You can even adopt the once-verboten-but-now-accepted practice of sharing appetizers. It's not elegant, but it is commonplace for a reason: it allows people to partake of multiple courses without being overloaded with food. What you can't politely do —and I have no reason to think you want to do so from your lovely letter— is force/bully/guilt people into ordering or eating more food than they like.

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