Liberal Arts Career Services
Liberal Arts Career Services

Dining Etiquette

Sometimes common courtesy is not enough; there are times when you need specific knowledge to succeed. Well-mannered eating is one of those situations. Whether your future job is in banking or public service, you will at some point be called upon to represent your employer or business. Employers consider this seriously when interviewing candidates, and asking you to lunch or dinner may be a good way to test your business etiquette.

This information will help you present yourself in the best light. Become comfortable with these skills so that you can impress anyone over a lunch, dinner or coffee. And keep in mind: Yes, some things may go wrong. You may spill your water, but that’s ok. It is more important to show your potential employer that you can maintain your composure than how you can handle your fork. Keep your cool, be comfortable, and enjoy the meal!

Getting to Know Your Dining Space

BMW: Bread Meal Water

When sitting down to a crowded dinner table you may wonder, Which is my bread plate or which is my water? Keep the following tip in mind and you won’t go wrong: BMW (Bread-Meal-Water). Your bread plate is on the left, your dinner plate is in the middle and your water/wine glass is on the right. Your napkin may be on your plate or to the left of your fork(s).


Whether you’re at a table with a formal or informal place setting, the basic rule for flatware is to start with the utensils on the outside and work your way inward with each subsequent course. For example, if salad is served first, your salad utensil will be your outermost fork.

Place Settings

The most common place setting is the informal setting. You will most likely encounter this setting when dining in a semi- or fine-dining restaurant. Formal place settings are typically found in high-end dining settings or at formal events, such as weddings.

General etiquette

  • Greetings.  When a new guest approaches the table, be sure to stand to greet them.
  • Nametags.  If you are given a nametag, place it on the right side of your chest.
  • No clue?  If you have no idea what to do, watch others and follow suit. In fact, it is a good idea to follow the interviewer or host’s lead.
  • Research.  If you know the restaurant’s name beforehand, conduct some basic research. Study the menu and choose foods/drink you might order.
  • Promptness.  Be on time. Your goal should be to arrive early so that you can relax before dinner.
  • Payment.  The person inviting you should pay for the meal. Do not offer to pay, especially if you are at an interview. Order a moderately priced meal unless you are paying for it.
  • Phones, etc.  Keep all items—hands, keys, phone—off the table. Do NOT talk on the phone. Turn it off and hide it. In a real emergency, excuse yourself from the table and have a quick conversation outside.
  • Vegetarian? Special diet?  Most restaurants offer vegetarian fare; however, if you realize that no veggie option is available, discretely request the waiter to bring you a vegetable plate without meat.
  • Ordering.  If you are given a choice, do not order messy food (lobster, spaghetti or ribs, for example).
  • Be Kind.  Be kind not only to your fellow diners, but also to the waitstaff.
  • Breaking the rules.  Just because someone you are with (even the person interviewing you) breaks these rules, you should stick to them. 

During the Meal

  • Napkin.  As soon as everyone is seated, place your napkin across your lap. If you need to leave the table during a meal, place the napkin on your chair. When you are done with your meal, place your napkin gently (not in a crumpled heap) to the left of your plate.
  • When to start? If six people or less are at the table, wait until all are served before starting to eat.
  • Flatware.  Once you use a utensil, do not place it on the table. Rest your knife at the top of your plate with the blade facing you. Dessert flatware (when presented before the meal) is located at the top of the plate. Specialized utensils (steak knives, fish forks, soup spoons) are often delivered with the applicable course.
  • Passing.  Pass food at the table to your right, unless someone requests it (then you pass it to her/him directly). Pass the salt and pepper together so no one is searching for one or the other later in the meal.
  • Bread.  Tear off a bite-sized piece from the roll/slice, butter it, and place it in your mouth.
  • Eating.  Take small bites. Don’t talk while you chew. Small bites will mean less awkward silence.
  • Seasoning.  Always taste your food before adding condiments (salt, ketchup, hot sauce).
  • Waitstaff cues.  While eating or when finished, let the waitstaff know where you are in the meal without saying a word. Crossing your cutlery says that you are resting, but still eating. Aligning your cutlery says that you are done and the waitstaff can remove your plate.
  • Conversation.  Listen more than you speak. Ask open-ended questions that allow conversation to move in a variety of directions. Do NOT (1) talk about religion or politics; (2) be negative; or (3) interrupt.
  • Spilling.  If you spill on the table or yourself, discreetly use your napkin or ask the waiter for seltzer water. If you spill on others, do not try to clean them. Offer to cover any laundering or cleaning costs.
  • Relax.  Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the dinner and conversation. Be well-mannered but natural. Let your personality, experience and attitude shine. Keep in mind that the questions you are being asked are only part of the interview; they are also evaluating your ability to socialize and to be confident in a professional environment.


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    University of Texas at Austin
    FAC 18
    2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200
    Austin, Texas 78712-1508