An Introduction to Table Manners and Dining Etiquette in the UK

The British are a very conservative lot. Over the years, table manners may have taken a back seat to fast food and fish and chips, although table manners are still very important in a restaurant or formal dining situation. It’s vital to know the different niceties so that a faux pas is not made at a time when trying to impress business associates or even influential guests. Dining should be a pleasure and if you can feel at home in the company of people who know their table manners, then you really can enjoy yourself without being embarrassed.


It is usual for important guests to have seats at the head of the table. This shows respect for honored guests. However, in a home setting, this changes. The host takes the head of the table at home, since their duties are to entertain the guests who are congregated around that table. Guests will normally be sitting in places marked with names and the ideal setting is one which allows for equal mixing of the fairer sex and male guests. It would certainly be bad form to seat people together who do not get on, and the ideal hosts will have seated their guests taking into account maximizing their guests’ enjoyment.

Starting the meal and choosing cutlery

It is bad form to start eating before those guests at the head of the table start to eat. Guests follow their lead. The cutlery is laid out in a fashion which means that guests work from the outside of the cutlery layout which will have been planned to coincide with the food being served.  The napkin is placed upon the lap, rather than tucked into the collar.


Soup is never eaten with the spoon ladling the soup towards you. The spoon is held in the hand and the soup scooped from the bowl away from the direction of the eater.  This is a rule which really will show those who are not aware of social graces. Bread is broken on the side plate and is eaten at the same time as soup, though never dipped into the soup bowl. Although this is an acceptable practice in neighboring France, it is certainly not done in England.

Smoking between courses

It is never acceptable to smoke between courses and shows the height of bad manners. If at a formal dinner, this also applies to smoking during the toast to the Queen.

Knife and fork

One must never eat off the knife or turn the fork over so that the prongs are left upward, in the left hand. This presumes the eater is right handed. If wishing to eat with the fork rather than with a knife and fork, the fork is placed in the right hand in which case it is acceptable to use the fork as a spoon to lift the food, prongs upward. Small vegetables such as peas can be eaten in this manner.

Talking at the table

Of course, people can talk while dining, even in a formal situation, though boisterous talking should be kept to a minimum.

English table manners include talking quietly and respecting the general rules of courtesy. They also include never placing the elbows on the table. There used to be a saying to discourage naughty children from leaving their elbows on the table which read that “all joints on the table will be carved.” although it is not sure where this saying originated from.

There are only certain foods which may be handled with the hands. Asparagus is one of these delights and a finger bowl will be provided to clean the fingers after the asparagus is eaten. Bread and fresh fruit may be eaten with the hands and, once again, a finger bowl is provided to clean the fingers. Cheese will of course be cut, though the cracker holding the cheese can be lifted from the plate using the hands.

Toward the end of the main course, remember that it is polite to leave a little of the food on the plate, thus indicating that the diner has eaten sufficiently.  In the old days, the gentlemen would retire into the lounge to smoke, while the ladies were left to their own devices. Of course, these days have passed, though guests are likely to be handed their glass of brandy or coffee having left the table and gathered in a more informal ambiance, thus allowing the table to be cleared without the clatter hindering the guests’ enjoyment. The British are quite formal in their approach to a formal dinner though the menu will have been well thought out and balanced so that the guests are neither too full nor still hungry.