Formal Dinner Etiquette 12 Rules: How To Dinner Party Right

A formal dinner party is a social gathering with a relatively strict protocol. Respect the basic formal dinner etiquette rules to avoid embarrassment.

What formal dinner party etiquette is

Formal dinner party etiquette is the set of rules to properly plan or attend a formal dinner. Such rules include how to plan, set the table, eat, and what to do after dinner.

If you are hosting, follow formal dinner etiquette to properly plan and conduct your dinner party.

If you are a guest, know the basic rules of formal dinner etiquette to respect your host, and the other guests, and avoid any embarrassment.

1) Etiquette for planning a formal dinner party

Formal dinner parties are usually three-course meals for at least eight people. The dinner happens at a formally set and planned table. Ideally, in a dining room if one is available.

Formal dinner invitations

The invitations should provide guests with practical details and prepare them for what to expect. The invitations set the place, time, and level of formality of the dinner party. The host should communicate the dress code too.

The host should state if the dinner is for a special occasion. Such as a birthday or an anniversary. This allows guests can prepare accordingly.

Formal dinner invitations should be in writing. Preferably by mail and not by email. Send them several weeks in advance, at least 3 or 4. Invitations by phone call or text message a few days in advance are acceptable only for informal dinners.

Dress code

Formal dinner etiquette requires special dress codes.

Formal dress codes, such as black tie, are limited to special occasions. The host must communicate a formal dress code in writing, several weeks in advance.

For less formal occasions, the host may or may not indicate the dress code. Guests must in any case make an effort. It is good etiquette to dress differently from the normal daily clothes. If a guest is coming straight from work, it is good etiquette to at least change some accessories, such as shoes or jewelry.

The way dress codes are interpreted may vary, depending on factors such as the location, or the guests’ age. Thus, as a guest, you should take the context into consideration in deciding how to dress. In general, it is enough to show that you made an effort.

2) Gifts at a formal dinner

In formal dinner etiquette, guests must bring a gift to the hosts.

If the hosts are a couple, it is acceptable to bring a gift only for the hostess.

If the dinner party is at a restaurant, bringing a gift is necessary only when the hosts are paying for all the guests.

Gift etiquette

In general, the value of the gift should equal the amount and the effort that the host is spending on each guest.

Unless the dinner party is a potluck, bringing a dish as a gift is against etiquette. If you bring food or beverage as a gift, do not expect the host to serve it during the dinner.

Serving a gift during a formal dinner

As a host, it would be considerate to serve food and beverage gifts during the dinner party. However, in formal dinner etiquette, this is not expected. The decision on whether to serve food or beverage gifts is yours.

As a guest, if your gift is shared, wait for the hostess to tell everyone where the gift came from. Do not announce it yourself. It is very rude to mention the cost of the gift.

3) Starting time and welcome drinks etiquette

The host should set a time that is convenient for the majority of the guests. Avoid very early or very late hours, unless all the guests have similar needs. Guests may be joining after a workday, or have to go back home early.

When to arrive

Guests should arrive a few minutes after the stated time, to allow the host to complete the preparations. It is against formal dinner etiquette to arrive earlier than the stated time.

Being late is rude. Do not be more than 15 or 30 minutes late. If you are late, call the hosts in advance to give them notice. You should apologize and tell them to feel free to start without you.

Welcome drinks

The host should welcome guests as they arrive and serve them welcome drinks.

If the host is alone, it is best to plan a simple menu to have the time to welcome guests and make introductions and conversations. If the hosts are a couple, one host can welcome the guests while the other prepares the food. Alternatively, the host can hire some help. 

Ideally, drinks should be served in a room different from the dining room. Drinks can last between 20 minutes and one hour, to allow every guest to arrive. If drinks last longer, the host should provide guests with some snacks and comfortable seating.

If some guests are running really late, it is acceptable to start dinner without them.

Seating etiquette for guests

4) Formal dinner seating etiquette

Formal dinner seating etiquette is in addition to the general seating etiquette, which hosts and guests are expected to follow.

Seating etiquette for hosts

The host and the hostess traditionally sit on opposite sides of the table. Either at each end of the table or in the middle of the two large sides.

The host that needs to go in and out of the dining room should sit close to the door, to avoid disruption of the dinner.

Guests’ seating and their distribution

The most important or most senior female guest sits at the right of the host. The most important or most senior male guest sits at the right of the hostess.

Men and women usually alternate if possible. Couples should not be seated next to one another. Same-sex couples should be treated the same way. It is best to separate guests that see each other normally, such as coworkers, to facilitate social conversation among all the guests.

The number of guests can be even or odd. In several countries, it is considered bad luck to have 13 guests at the table. Do not invite someone only to round the number of guests. It may be considered offensive.

Ensuring comfort

Avoid seating guests in uncomfortable seats, such as too close to a radiator or a fan. 

Seating must ensure the guests’ comfort and facilitate social interaction. Distribute seats to give everyone an equal amount of space. Allow enough room for legs and elbows. Avoid leaving a guest stranded on one end of the table with only one neighbor.

Chairs should be comfortable and of the same height. Do not invite more guests than you can seat comfortably at your dining table. If your table is larger than needed, concentrate the seats on one end or in the middle.

Getting to the table

Once welcome drinks are over, the hosts will lead the guests to the dining room. Gentlemen should let the ladies go first. The hosts will tell the guests where to sit. On formal occasions, place cards will be displayed. Place cards should show the first name or the full name of the guest. Cards can be handwritten or printed. 

5) How to set the table

Respect the general etiquette for setting the table.

Polish silverware and glasses one last time before dinner.

Place setting

Set places at an even distance. Each seat should be at least 60 cm (24 inches) wide to allow enough room and comfort. Do not pile up too many plates at each setting.

Cutlery

Place knives and spoons to the right of each setting, and forks to the left. Forks and knives should be in equal numbers, even if some courses will require only the fork. Guests must use a fresh pair of utensils with each course, starting from the outside in.

Formal dinner etiquette. Place forks on the left side of each setting, knives and spoons on the right.

Dessert spoons and forks can be placed either above the place setting, or in line with the other forks and spoons and closest to the place setting, as they will be the last cutlery to be used.

Glasses

Place glasses above the knives, on the right side of each place. Set one tumbler for water, then place to its right the two wine glasses, one larger glass for red and one for white.

Glasses for an aperitif or dessert wine can be placed before the dinner starts or brought to the table at a later time.

Napkins, tablecloths, and placemats

Hosts and guests are expected to respect the general napkin etiquette.

Fold or roll napkins and place them on each place setting or to its right. Napkins should be cotton or linen, and perfectly clean. Do not use disposable napkins for a formal dinner.

The tablecloth and napkins should match. White is always a good choice for formal dinners. Colors or themes could work too but avoid excess. Chargers or placemats can be used in addition or in alternative to a tablecloth. 

Decorations

Decorations should not annoy guests. They should not be excessive.

Guests should be able to look at each other across the table and see over the decorations. Flowers are common, but be aware that some guests may suffer from an allergy. Avoid flowers with an intense smell. 

6) Formal dinner ambiance etiquette

Lighting

Ensure that the dining room is well lit. Guests should be able to see each other and their own food.

Avoid darkness, excessive light, or direct bright light. Multiple sources of soft, indirect light should provide the right balance.

Candles can create a warming and romantic atmosphere. However, make sure that you are using enough of them.   

Music

Music is generally appreciated during the welcome drinks and after dinner.

During a formal dinner, loud music is against etiquette. Set soft background music, or no music at all. Avoid music genres that may not be appreciated by all guests. 

Smells

Try to limit the smells in the dining room and in all the rooms where you will be hosting.

Flowers could provide a fragrant scent. However, too many flowers could be annoying to some guests. Use air fresheners only if they are almost imperceptible.

Try to limit the smell of cooking coming in from the kitchen. If the menu includes smelly ingredients, cook them well in advance.

If you polish silverware or glasses with detergent, do it many hours before guests arrive.

7) Formal dinner menu etiquette

How many courses

A formal dinner menu must be well-balanced.

Two courses are considered too few. More than five may be too many. Depending on the cuisine, the formal dinner etiquette in Westerner countries suggests between three and five courses. They include starters, dessert, and cheese.

Food

Hosts should avoid culinary experiments at formal dinner parties.

Serve courses within your skillset. Avoid dishes that are too elaborate, that require last-minute attention, or that have a high risk of failure. Such as soufflé or flambé. 

Avoid food that some guests might not enjoy, such as very hot and spicy food. Serve separate dishes instead of composite dishes. This way, guests can choose what to eat and avoid the food they may dislike

Dietary restrictions

A considerate host must ask in advance if guests have dietary restrictions. It is thoughtful to include vegetarian, vegan, and carbohydrate-free options as such diets are increasingly popular.

Guests should inform the host in advance of any dietary restrictions they have. If the menu includes food that you cannot eat, politely refuse it without asking for an alternative, which the host might not have handy. 

8) How to serve at formal dinner parties

Serving dishes

Serve food in large dishes, from which guests can help themselves or be served. Do not serve food already plated, as in a restaurant. Exceptions are the first course and the dessert, which could be plated individually in advance and then served.

Meat should be presented already carved. Do not carve meat at the table at formal dinners.

Bread could be provided in a communal basket, from which guests can help themselves. Slice bread in advance.

Every food should be available in abundance, but avoid excesses. It is sufficient to have enough for a second serving.

Serving order

Serve food to seated guests from their left side. Hold the dish steady and low, below the chin line of the guest.

The most senior woman should be served first. Then serve the other guests going around the table in one direction. The male host is the last one to be served.

Serve the main food first, such as fish or meat with their sauce or gravy. Then pass around the side dishes such as vegetables. Potatoes usually come last.

Do not stuff plates. Allow white space on the dish. Ensure that every guest gets a sufficient serving of each course.

Condiments and beverages

Condiments such as salt, pepper, oil, and mustard should be placed on the table.

Water should be available on the table too. Wine could be either poured by the host or made available on the table. In the latter case, the host should invite guests to help themselves. Men should serve women first, then their neighbors, and finally themselves. Do not overfill glasses. Do not touch the glasses with the bottle.

If the table is large, place condiments, water, and wine at convenient intervals. This way they are available to every guest.

At formal dinners, there should be both red and white wine, water, and soft drinks. Wine should be available in abundance, but it should not be forced on guests. Always ask before filling someone’s glass.

On formal occasions, the drinks served before dinner should be finished or left behind before seating at the table. In less formal dinners, guests can bring their drinks with them to the table and finish them there.

After-dinner drinks can be served at the dining table or in a separate reception room. 

9) Start and pacing etiquette

Start

Do not start to eat until every guest has the food on the plate. If the course is hot food, guests that already have received their food may be invited to start anyway, without waiting for the others. It is polite to wait anyway. 

Pacing

The host should make sure that the meal progresses at a steady pace. In general, each course should take between 20 and 30 minutes. This ensures a steady pace but enough time to allow conversation.

If there is a delay in the kitchen, the host should inform the guests.

Do not clear the table until all the guests have finished their food. If some guests fall behind, do not hurry them. Instead, allow them to finish their food. Try to get the conversation away from them, so they do not have to talk and can finish their food faster. 

Eating and conversation

Guests should pace their eating. Everyone should try to eat at the same speed as the other guests. It is against etiquette to eat way faster or way slower than the others.

Use conversation tactically to pace yourself. If you are falling behind, try to avoid talking until you have finished your food. If you are eating faster, try to engage in conversation to slow yourself down.

Guests should try their best to engage in conversation. It is good etiquette to start with your neighbors. Start with your neighbor on one side, then turn to the other neighbor so no one feels left out. Women traditionally talk to the neighbor on their left side first, then turn to the one on the right side.

10) Clearing the table at formal dinner parties

Clear plates two at a time, holding one per hand. Clear plates from the left side of each guest. In United States etiquette, plates are cleared from the right side. Do not scrape food from one plate to another. Do not stack plates.

Guests can offer to help to clear the table. The host can accept. However, the host must avoid having too many guests standing up to help. The host can name one or two helpers, so the dining table stays manned and there is no disruption.

Hosts should not spend excessive time clearing and cleaning the dishes in the kitchen. As a host, take the time to bring the plates to the kitchen, then go back to your guests. Do not stay away a long time from the dining table. It is disrespectful to your guests. 

Before serving dessert, everything should be cleared from the table, including condiments and bread. Leave water. Wine could be left on the table, or cleared if dessert wine is served.

11) After-dinner etiquette

Moving to another room

After dinner, guests can stay at the dining table. Otherwise, the host can lead them to another reception room.

A reception room is preferable if one is available. It will allow guests to get comfortable, stretch their legs, go to the restroom, smoke, and talk with other guests they did not have the chance to talk with during dinner.

Coffee and drinks

Coffee can be served after dinner at the dining table or in a reception room.

Serve coffee in espresso cups or small coffee cups. Avoid mugs. Cold milk and sugar should be provided.

After-dinner drinks should be served with the coffee or right after it.

If guests brought sweets or spirits as a gift, those can be shared after dinner and passed around.

Parting

Guests should not leave immediately after dinner, but also not stay too long. Etiquette suggests leaving early on a weekday night. You can stay a bit longer on a weekend night.

The host usually sends signals that the party is coming to an end. Stop serving drinks, start clearing, and gradually disengage from the conversation.

If you are the host and some guests are not getting the message, state politely but clearly that the party is ending. Take the blame and mention an excuse. You can mention an early start for the incoming day, or an excuse such as bringing the dog out or needing to rest.

Before leaving, guests must say goodbye and thank all the hosts. Do not sneak out. 

12) Afterward: etiquette for after a dinner party

Thanking the host

Guests must thank their hosts for the invitation to the party.

The day after, send a card or a short letter to thank them for the evening. On less formal occasions, an email can work too. If the guest and the host are intimate or close friends, a phone call is best.

If the hosts invested significant time and effort in the dinner party, considerate guests should send a gift such as flowers. 

Reciprocating

It is a fundamental etiquette rule to reciprocate any invitation. Guests should invite their hosts back to another comparable social gathering. Not reciprocating is considered bad manners.

If you were invited to a formal dinner party, you should invite your hosts back to a comparable dinner party in the foreseeable future. If you are unable to host a dinner party, you should find an alternative such as inviting your hosts to a restaurant. Do not reciprocate with an invite that requires you less effort than the effort your hosts put up. 

Sources

  • Assessment of Lighting Design of Restaurants with Reference to its Aesthetics and Function: researchgate.net