When I was a child we were taught to chew with our mouths shut, to keep our elbows off the table and to ask permission before getting down from our chairs. There were probably more rules but those are the ones that were drummed into me.
Nowadays I often put my elbows on the table, but I will still excuse myself if I have to leave the table and I certainly wouldn’t talk with my mouth full. Seeing someone else’s half-masticated food is guaranteed to put anyone off their dinner.
It was also considered polite when eating a bread roll to put a dab on butter on your side plate and tear off small pieces of bread as you consumed them, buttering each one as you went along. I’ve never really understood this. I suspect it is the preserve of those who still insist on calling mirrors looking glasses and cringe if someone calls the loo a toilet instead of a lavatory. Frankly, if I want to butter the entire (halved) roll and eat bites out of it, I see no reason not to do so. If you want to judge me for this we should probably agree not to dine together.
I’m not fond of people who put buttery knives into marmalade jars but apart from that, and the inviolable rule that you don’t sit in my particular chair, I am fairly relaxed about what you do in my kitchen as long as you don’t mind me re-arranging the mugs and plates to conform with my somewhat OCD shelving requirements after you’ve kindly tidied them away.
When eating out my pet hates include people who are rude to waiters, those who don’t turn up at restaurants after making a booking (the infamous ‘no-shows’) and those who salt their food before tasting it. I do object, though, to chefs who won’t allow salt cellars on the table. But that’s another issue and I’m getting away from table manners.
There are modern conundrums that never reared their heads in my parents’ generation and they all revolve around mobile ‘phones. Is it acceptable to use them in a restaurant?
One restaurant I ate at recently asked diners to switch off all mobile devices. Having once endured dinner in a cramped but upmarket restaurant where the woman on the next table spent the entire night taking ‘phone calls from a child who apparently resented being left with the babysitter, I can sympathise with that. I wanted to slaughter the entire family, but being English, of course said nothing. I should say this was a good few years ago and I’d probably be a good deal more vocal now. If you are expecting an important call in a restaurant, by all means keep your ‘phone switched on (on vibrate, please), but go outside to take the call.
If I was eating alone though, and especially if I was taking a break during a working day, I might want to check my emails and otherwise do some quiet work on my ‘phone. I can’t see that that’s any different to taking a book or newspaper with you to read.
I have an unspoken agreement with one close friend that when eating out together we will keep our ‘phones firmly in our handbags until one of us needs to visit the loo. At this point it is acceptable to whip out your mobile and check your messages, providing it goes back in the bag on the friend’s return.
Then there’s the Instagram issue. The sight of people contorting themselves into strange positions to take a ‘photo of their food, or in a dimly-lit restaurant asking their friends to shine their ‘phone torches onto it so they can take said snapshot, is one many people find irritating. Mea culpa. Show me a table full of people taking pictures and I will show you a table full of food writers (or possibly just people under 30).
I think, on the whole, it depends on the venue. Eating at a very hushed and upscale restaurant full of somewhat elderly people recently, I didn’t take any photos. Usually I will, although often in an embarrassed and furtive fashion, unless my fellow diners start tutting. Restaurateurs themselves generally seem to approve, possibly because they like to see that someone has appreciated their carefully cooked and plated food enough to Instagram it, though perhaps also because they like the free publicity. Yes, of course you can regram it, chef.
I’d love to know what you think. Please feel free to join in the conversation. Just put your ‘phone on vibrate first.