f you’ve ever gone to a dinner only to find out it was actually a Dinner, this one’s for you. Maybe there were more forks than you expected, or you found yourself a half-step behind everyone else as they stood and toasted and bowed. Regardless of why, you were unprepared.

Perhaps you vowed to yourself in that moment – never again.

So here we are, trying to polish up our manners ahead of our next big event – maybe it’s an upcoming work party, maybe it’s a Valentine’s Day reservation at the nicest restaurant in town. Whether you’ve got a few weeks to brush up on your table manners or you need to cram in the next 5 minutes before your Uber arrives, this guide is a rundown of all the essential etiquette you need to know.

Here’s what’s coming up – feel free to skip ahead if you know what you’re looking for:

  • RSVPs and reservations
  • What to wear to a fancy dinner
  • Meeting & greeting your fellow dinner guests
  • Surviving the silver situation
  • Other fancy restaurant FAQs

We’re trying to keep this short and sweet, so let’s go!

Squidward telling SpongeBob to empty his mind of everything that doesn't have to do with fine dining
Image courtesy of Gifer.

🍽 Save Your Seat

When to RSVP or Make a Reservation for an Upscale Meal

If you’re in charge of making arrangements for your fancy evening out, the sooner you call to make reservations, the better. This is especially true if you’re making reservations for a popular time of day, day of the week, or around certain holidays. Reservations with special requests also take some additional planning time.

Valentine’s Day dinner reservations, for example, are notoriously tight. As a general rule, you want to make your reservation about a month in advance.

Waited a little too long? You’ve still got options. Consider dining earlier or later in the evening than the typical dinner rush – some sources suggest that 5:30pm is the ideal time for dinner reservations for that reason. It’ll squeeze you in juuuuuuuust before the rush.

What if I’m just attending?

If you aren’t the one making the reservation, be sure to get back to your host ASAP. It’s also important to let them know if your plans change or you’re running late – they will need an accurate headcount for the restaurant.

a group of guests gathered around a table with wine and cocktails at a restaurant business dinner
Understanding what to wear can help you feel comfortable at a “nice” dinner even if fine dining isn’t your usual scene.

🍽 What to Wear to a Fancy Dinner

Decoding the Dress Code for Your Dinner Plans

Different restaurants have different dress codes – some might be relatively lax, and others very specific (all men must wear a black jacket). If a restaurant has a specific dress code, you can typically find that information on their website. Alternatively you can Google or Yelp the restaurant to get a feel for the vibe.

When in doubt, give the restaurant a call. The staff will be happy to help you understand what level of formality is expected from guests.

But once you have an answer in hand – then what? What does “business casual” mean compared to “dressy casual”? Are there any absolute rules when it comes to fine dining fashion?

Here are some basic guidelines to common fine dining dress codes:

> Cocktail Attire

👔 For Men: Dark suit and tie, tailored pants with a coat or blazer

👗 For Women: LBD or cocktail dress with jewelry - colors and prints can be bright and fun

> Business Casual

👔 For Men: Chinos and a collared shirt, dress shoes

👗 For Women: Pantsuit and jewelry, skirt and blouse, heels or nice flats

🚫 No jeans, no sneakers

> Dressy Casual, Elegant Casual, Casual Chic, etc.

👔 For Men: Your favorite pants or jeans with a collared shirt, jacket optional

👗 For Women: Jeans with a fun blouse and heels, dress with a blazer, cocktail dress with dressy sneakers, etc.

Chart showing different dress code guidelines for men and women: white tie, black tie, formal, semi formal, cocktail, after 5, business, smart casual, and more
Image courtesy of Lanzerac.

🚫 But always, always, always avoid clothing that is ripped, excessively revealing, or fits poorly for a dinner at an upscale restaurant.

a man and woman sip white wine together during a valentine's day date at a fancy restaurant
Keeping the conversation light and positive helps ensure nobody has to suffer through an awkward meal.

🍽 What Does Polite Conversation Mean, Anyway?

How to Get to Know Your Fellow Dinner Guests

Now that we’ve made our plans and gotten all spiffed up, it’s time for the fun stuff – etiquette rules for attending the fancy dinner itself. You’ll often hear “polite dinner conversation” referenced, but what does it actually mean?

This will vary a little bit depending on who you’re dining with. Obviously you can speak more freely with your spouse of 10+ years than say, a potential business client, or someone you’re treating to a first date.

As a general rule, polite dinner conversation is light and positive.

But here are a few topics you’d be better off avoiding if you want your manners to come across as polished:

  • Sex, politics, and religion. No shockers here.
  • Overly personal questions. No need to do a deep dive into someone’s childhood trauma or toxic ex at the dinner table. Basically, avoid making anyone else’s meal uncomfortable.
  • Bodily functions. This includes excusing yourself to use the restroom. Simply excuse yourself – no need to provide details.
  • Business. Unless it’s specifically a business dinner, ensure the conversation is something that everyone at the table can participate in.
  • Complaints. It doesn’t matter if the service is subpar, the prices are sky-high, or the wine selection is sour. It’s most polite to save any complaints for the drive home.

While we’re talking about talking, let’s also take a minute to discuss who we’re talking to.

If you’re at a dinner with multiple people, make sure you spend equal time talking to the person seated to your left and to your right. It’s considered rude to only talk to one person.

If you’re enjoying a romantic dinner for two, be sure to give your dining partner your attention. Now, you don’t have to stare them down while they’re trying to swallow their steak. But try to practice active listening, keep the conversation rolling, and avoid checking your phone while you’re seated together.

Formal place settings might seem complicated, but once you understand the basic set up, you’ll have it down in no time.

🍽 Which Fork to Use First

A Quick, Visual Guide to Table Settings

When we talk about fine dining etiquette, understanding the place setting is one of the biggest topics that comes up. An ordinary meal at home requires one fork, if that. And now you find yourself confronted with three??

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to identify which silverware to use when. As a general rule, start on the outside and work your way in. Meaning the fork for the first course (salad or appetizer) will typically be farthest from your plate, and the meal for your entree will be closest.

In case you’re more of a visual person, the handy diagrams below lay out a few basic place setting layouts you might encounter in the wild.

Formal vs. Informal Place Settings

formal dinner table setting diagram
Image courtesy of 101 Planners.
Informal Table Setting diagram with two forks
Image courtesy of 101 Planners.

What to Do with Your Napkin

When you sit down at the table, it’s proper etiquette to take the napkin from the table and place it on your lap with the crease on the outside toward your knees. This way, you can tip crumbs from your lap if you need to.

When using the napkin to dab your face, be sure to use the inner side of the top part – this way when you place the napkin back in your lap, any stains are hidden.

Wine Glasses 101

At an upscale restaurant, waitstaff will likely fill your glasses for you, alleviating the question of which wine glass is which. However  if you find yourself stuck, just remember:

  • Glasses for sparkling wines and champagnes are tall and thin
  • Glasses for red wine tend to be shorter and wider to let the wine breathe
  • Glasses for white wine are petite, but still shaped like a wine glass
wine glass visual guide
Image courtesy of The Great Gastro.

🍽 Other Fine Dining Etiquette FAQs

Navigating the Other Situations That Pop Up With Grace

Those are the broad strokes of fine dining etiquette, but now it’s time for the speed round – you might want to bookmark this!

How do I eat this food politely?

Some food is easy to eat politely, and others, not so much. What do you do when confronted with finger foods, or a basket of bread? Or something notoriously slippery, like peas?

  • Unless you’re cutting up food for someone who is unable to do so themself (like a kid), cut your food one bite at a time
  • Break small pieces off of larger foods, like bread or crust, rather than tearing into it with your teeth
  • Usher unwieldy food items like peas and rice onto your fork with your knife to keep them from scattering all over the table
  • Move one or two apps to your plate before chowing down on them - that includes dips

Which wine goes with what?

Not sure what wine pairs best with your plate? When in doubt, you can always ask your server for their recommendation. If you’d like an idea of what to look for yourself, keep these basic pairings in mind:

  • Sauvignon Blanc → Clams and white meat with citrus flavors
  • Chardonnay → Fatty fish, pasta with rich sauces
  • Merlot → Chocolate, stew, aged cheeses
  • Pinot Noir → Earthy flavors like mushroom and chicken
  • Pinot Grigio → Dishes that are light like raw seafood, citrus, and fruit
  • Cabernet Sauvignon → Grilled meats, strong pepper flavors
  • Shiraz/Syrah → Foods with lots of spice, curry, game meats like lamb and venison
  • Sparkling → Salty foods

Who gets the bill?

According to the rules of etiquette, whoever is hosting should pay the bill. That means if you asked them out on the date, you should be prepared to pay.

A good way to avoid awkwardness surrounding the bill is to leave a credit card at the restaurant’s host desk when you arrive, or give it to the server right away to keep on file.

How do I excuse myself?

A simple, “Please excuse me,” should do the trick. This works if you have to use the restroom, you need to step out for some fresh air, your phone won’t stop buzzing, a wardrobe malfunction, or any other number of predicaments.

Is chivalry dead?

Some traditional etiquette rules are now considered old-fashioned and even rude. But in general, those old staples of good manners like opening the door for someone or rising when they arrive at the table to shake their hand shows thoughtfulness and respect, regardless of gender.

What if I’d like to propose a toast?

If everyone in your party has had their glasses filled, proposing a toast is on the table. Toasts are generally offered up at the very beginning of the meal by the host, or during dessert by others.

If you find yourself in a group, make your toast by simply standing and raising a glass – no utensil clinking required. In a more intimate setting, the toast giver can simply raise their glass and remain seated.

I feel like I’m nailing this - how do I take it to the next level?

Ready to take your fine dining game up a notch? Nice. Here are a few additional etiquette tips that will help you put the final polish on your politeness for a nice evening out:

  • Sip from the same spot on your glass to avoid getting lipstick or lip marks all around the rim
  • Don’t clink your glasses, even during a toast – just raise them
  • Discards (like bones, rinds, etc) go on the upper left part of the plate
  • Don’t cut your food all at once – cut it one bite at a time
  • Put the phone away – your dining companion(s) should have your full attention
  • Leave one bite – this communicates that the food was delicious, but it didn’t leave you so ravenous that you licked the plate clean
server pouring wine for guests at an upscale restaurant
Following these simple etiquette rules will help you impress at any formal dinner, from a date to a business meeting.

Phew. And that’s the nitty gritty of how you get through a “nice” dinner.

There was a time when Dinner meant you and your three best friends huddled over boxes of pizza and wine watching reruns of The Office. For all those occasions when you find yourself in a slightly more formal situation, we hope this guide is somewhere you can turn for advice.

Whether it’s for a Valentine’s Day date or your next big work dinner – get out there and wow them with your manners. Cheers! 🥂

Jan 30, 2023