The Napkin Etiquette You Should Know When Dining At A Fancy Restaurant

If you've ever sat down at a fancy dinner and let any length of time pass before dismantling the decoratively folded art piece-of-a-napkin, you have committed a minor faux pas. Good manners dictate you break down this textile origami as soon as you sit, and then fold it in half in your lap, all while making interesting conversation with your fellow diners. What you do with your napkin is important; it can signal the start or end of a meal, send hints to your server, or — if you do it wrong — pose a problem for tablemates who need to leave the table briefly.

A subcategory of table etiquette, napkin etiquette stems from a mixture of common sense, courtesy, and some age-old ideas. The ancient Romans used a "mappa" — a large cloth draped on the edge of the table that was there to protect it from errant morsels as well as for all diners to wipe their mouths. Using the modern napkin is a much more personal affair, but if you're ever in any doubt, remember that you can take cues from others — ideally the meal's host or hostess. It's natural for a fancy dinner to sometimes feel stifling, but don't get intimidated, and let yourself get a feel for the flow of things around the table. And, please, don't forget to take pleasure in your meal in observance of all the propriety. 

Napkin etiquette is mostly logical

Firstly, the napkin goes on the lap — not around the neck, tucked into your collar. Once seated, open your napkin without shaking it excessively and place it on your lap, folded in half with the opening towards your body. This way, you can easily pick it up and wipe your mouth with the part that's folded inside while keeping the outside of your napkin clean. 

The napkin is only meant to be dabbed on the mouth, so avoid wiping your nose, cleaning cutlery, or stifling sneezes with it. Ideally, it should spend most of the meal out of sight, and it's considered good form to perform your napkin  maneuvers beneath the table. At the end of the meal, you may loosely fold your napkin while keeping the soiled side out of view and place it to the left of your plate. If there is no plate in front of you, keep it in the center of your place setting. This also serves as a signal to the server that you are finished. However, if there's after-dinner coffee or wine, the napkin can remain on your lap.

Advanced napkin etiquette: What to do if you drop your napkin or have to leave the table?

For the times when you need to briefly leave the table — say, to visit the restroom — there are two schools of thought on what should be done. The first is that the napkin should be loosely folded and placed to the left of your plate, and your chair should be pushed in to signal that you're coming back to finish your meal. The other option is to place your napkin folded on your chair while you are away from the table. We don't encourage this, however, for two reasons. The first is that this risks accidentally transferring food stains to the chair. Plus, you don't want something that you'll wipe your mouth with touching the seat.

When wiping your mouth, it's good practice to use the areas near the corners of your napkin to dab. In addition to keeping your napkin looking cleaner, it makes it easier to refold it onto your lap. It's also advisable to wipe your mouth if you suspect there's food on it before taking a sip from your glass to avoid an embarrassing rim stain. 

And if amidst any of these maneuvers, it slips out of your hand or off your lap, a dropped napkin shouldn't be reused. Instead, request from the nearest server (or host if at a dinner party) for a fresh one.