Elbows on the Table? Answers to Your Dining Etiquette Questions

August  4, 2017

The season for getaways is upon us, and that means many shared group meals around the table. Whether that comes in the shape of a more formal wedding dinner or a casual backyard affair, we've got tips to help you navigate any setting. Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette, has been sharing practical, often straight-shooting advice in a series of posts addressing common summertime scenarios. We hope these points will serve as helpful guidelines rather than rigid rules, meant to complement your existing customs rather than correct them.

Etiquette is all about putting others first and showing respect. So when it comes to dining etiquette, what’s the point of knowing which fork goes where?

If you ever go to a nice event or someone’s formal party, it may seem pretentious (and confusing!) when you see a table setting with a half dozen shiny pieces of silverware placed in a row. But try not to think of a formal place setting as ostentatious and instead, think of it as a sign of respect: Your host has put out all of the pieces of cutlery you will need in order to enjoy your dinner. The table should never be set with pieces you will not use during your meal. They exist to help you take in the different courses.

Additionally, from the guest’s end, it’s important to know a few formal dining basics so that you can focus on enjoying your company and your food, and not feel self-conscious about which fork and knife to use.

The next time you go to a formal dinner party, don’t sweat it; follow these guidelines to help you navigate the meal. Remember, think of these as having tips in your tool belt to use when it’s relevant—if you go to a formal dinner party, you know the rules, but if you go to a BBQ or casual get-together, you can always scale back as needed!

Navigating a Place Setting

In order to avoid the embarrassment of stealing your neighbor’s wine glass (has happened to the best of us!), try to remember BMW: Bread plate on the left, Meal in the middle, and Water on the right. All drinks, including water and wine, stay in the "W" category.

As for the cutlery—eek, so many pieces of silverware!—where to start? If you’re totally confused, just pause to watch which piece your host picks up. You can typically (and safely) start by picking up the pieces of silverware on the outside of the setting, and working your way inward. Remember to only start eating once everyone at your table (of eight or fewer guests) has their food. By the way, the silverware at the top of the plate is for dessert!

Holding a Wine Glass

If the glass has a stem, hold by it. Try holding the stem with a minimum of three fingers: your thumb, index, and middle fingers. If you need more fingers for a sturdy hold, feel free! You want to avoid holding by the bowl of the glass (and instead, more in the lower middle of the stem), as it will heat the liquid if held by the bowl.

The Napkin

No matter how the napkin is folded, take it off of the table and refold it in half. Then make sure the crease of the napkin is facing you. To clean your mouth, open one of the ends of the napkin and wipe inside of the napkin, so that the stains only stay within the napkin fold and are not visible to the other diners.

When you go to the bathroom, pinch your napkin in the middle of the crease and leave it in your seat. At the end of the meal, to signify to waitstaff that you are finished and leaving, you pinch it in the middle at the crease and leave it to the left of your place setting on the table.

Holding Cutlery

No matter if you are left- or right-handed, the fork stays in your left hand with the prongs down and your knife in the right hand with the blade down. When the fork is in your left hand and knife is in your right, your index fingers are out on top of the silverware and the rest of your fingers are tucked underneath. Only use your fork in your right hand with prongs facing upward when you do not need the knife to eat (for instance with risotto you would not need a knife, so you would only pick up the fork in your right hand and eat with the prongs up).

Cutlery Placement

To signify to waitstaff that you are still working on your meal, you simply put the fork down on the left side of your plate with prongs facing down and your knife on the right side of the plate with your blade facing inward, making an upside-down "V" on your place setting. To show you are “finished,” place the fork and knife together with the handles at 4 o’clock on the plate, prongs upward.

Elbows on the Table: Yay or Nay?

What about the age-old argument about elbows on the table? For formal dining, I advise never elbows on the table. In Great Britain and the U.S., hands stay under the table before and in between courses. In most parts of Europe, the hands stay above the table before and in between courses—the difference is that you rest your forearm on the table, still never your elbows.

There you have it! What other etiquette questions do you have around dining? Let us know in the comments.


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • liliana
  • joey
  • HalfPint
  • scott.finkelstein.5
  • myka meier
    myka meier
Founder of Beaumont Etiquette & Plaza Hotel Finishing Program


liliana April 18, 2018
Just to clarify my question. It was not in respect to the end of the meal when knife/fork are at 4 o'clock.
It was placement during the meal when you pause to talk, drink etc.
I was also taught that at end of meal knife fork could also be at 6 o'clock.Is this valid?
liliana April 17, 2018
Oops, I meant touch the table
liliana April 17, 2018
You never discuss how you place the knife and fork while you are not eating. I was taught that once the knife and fork are used they should never tough the table again. You rest them at an angle on the top corners.
This was seriously disputed by a friend who insists you must rest both handles on the table.
But I was told that the knife and fork are never to be oars and so disagree,
Please clarify
myka M. April 18, 2018
Thank you for the question! The correct etiquette for placement is: Once the cutlery come off the table, they never touch the table again! The handles go together and if the plate is a clock, the handles stay on the plate and go at a 4 o'clock position. Fork closest to you then knife on the outside with the blade facing in! I hope that is helpful! All
joey September 26, 2017
This post has good insight about cutlery placement
HalfPint August 4, 2017
I disagree with leaving the napkin in your chair when you leave the table. I was told, in a table etiquette workshop, to refold your napkin and place it on the table. The idea is: you would never put your napkin in your chair that you've sat in and would return to.
scott.finkelstein.5 August 4, 2017
"No matter if you are left- or right-handed, the fork stays in your left hand with the prongs down and your knife in the right hand with the blade down."

You forgot the American style, in which prong direction varies and you switch the fork to your right hand when bringing the food to your mouth.

The elbow rule is to keep food off your clothes.