Friday, June 4, 2010

Decorum: Summer Social Dining Guide

(singing) Summer-Summer-Summertime! The sweltering heat has arrived. That means I can come out of hibernation and assume a less anti-social lifestyle than I enjoy throughout the winter. I don't like the cold, but I do like the lack of awkward moments at the end of dining out with a group of friends where I realize I must now shove out cash to subsidize someone else's five-course meal when I, personally, dined as the fiscally-responsible, underpaid young adult I am. I've got some old-school tips on social dining etiquette that seem to have fallen out of fashion for some reason, but I'm doing my best to bring them back. Some of the tips after the jump will smooth awkward moments, if not prevent them, in restaurants, casual BBQs/potlucks, and formal dinner parties. Dine on, friends, but let's be "socially responsible" diners. Not to mention, let's avoid being talked about by our friends behind our backs (oh, you know you do it!).


When going out to dinner in a group it is important to remember that no one else is responsible for buying your dinner, unless someone has offered.

  • In cases where someone has offered to buy your dinner, the gracious and reasonable thing to do is to politely ask them what they are thinking about ordering off the menu, and then quietly sneak a peek at the price ranges of whatever your sponsor is considering, and order within that range. This will be greatly appreciated and you will surely be treated again at some point. But getting overly extravagant will make you seem ungrateful and exploitative.
  • If everyone is going dutch, then I suggest (especially for the budget conscious like me) that you be the obnoxious person who asks the server up front for separate checks. I honestly don't think this is obnoxious, but some people have told me they feel that way…and then added that they appreciated me doing so anyway. So, speak up and you'll probably be appreciated more than you know too. It's a recession, folks!

Note on check-splitting: Oftentimes your server will attempt to make you feel like this is a terrible inconvenience and I'm not sure why they do that (any readers in the restaurant business know why?), but stand your ground. Tip him/her according to the extra trouble and know that your friendships will be healthier this way. So, it's a win-win in the end.

Informal BBQs, Potlucks

I have found that informal dining in the home is tricky, and I don't understand why. Maybe it's because people use misnomers to describe their events. Here's my personal guide:

  • Dinner party, from the old school, means that dinner is provided.
  • Potluck dinner party means chip in, bring your favorite dish. Picnics mostly fall into this category too.
  • Summertime barbeque means bring beer.
  • If you're planning to have a dinner party with cooking to begin after your guests arrive, I'd bill this as a cooking party, and as a participatory event, folks could reasonably be asked to bring ingredients and help in the kitchen. But the billing is extremely important, it's always disappointing to get to someone's house hungry and then have to wait an hour for dinner service. So, make sure your guests know what to expect.

I live by this particular guide because I am just naturally inclined to entertain—could be my southern hospitality roots. I'm not necessarily one of those folks who expect folks to contribute to even my informal gatherings. And I really don't want people showing up at a dinner party with food. Call me old-fashioned (which I am), but as a host of a dinner party, I feel responsible for entertaining and feeding my guests. Selfishly, I also don't want someone ruining a planned meal by bringing an incompatible side dish. But if someone wants to show up with a bottle of wine or a six-pack—well great, press play and let's get this party started!!!


Sometimes, people will ask you to contribute to meals that aren't billed as potlucks by bringing hamburger buns to cookouts, or other small items. This is acceptable. However, I tend not to attend "bring your own entrée to throw on the grill" affairs. For some reason, I find it a bit gauche and would never ask my friends to bring their own food to my party.

Formal Dinner Parties

Formal dinner parties require only a thank you after dinner service. Formal dinners are generally planned from A to Z and it will usually be an inconvenience to have surprise contributions (though if you want to ask the host if there is anything you can bring ahead of time, it doesn't hurt).

After Dinner Etiquette

  • Volunteering for clean-up patrol after any events taking place in the home will be greatly appreciated and you will zoom to the top-friend spot. I never expect anyone to go all out, but if you want to make sure the trash makes it in the bag, or stuff the first load of dirty dishes is in the dishwasher, I will not turn you down, and will be forever grateful. Entertaining is a lot of hard work.
  • Don't overstay your welcome. Be sure to leave someone to finish cleaning or get some rest within a reasonable time frame. Unless you have plans with the host afterwards, or are best friends, or lovers, it's a bad sign if you're the last one left at someone's house.

So, how do you feel about social dining? Disagree with any of my takes or have something to add? Also, if any of my policies are no longer applicable. I'd love to know what's now commonly acceptable.


  1. Hey there

    I'm a server, and thought I might chime in:

    so here's the thing with seperate checks. It is sort of a pain, but if you ask for them before ordering anything, any server worth her salt will be happy to do it. Along with table numbers, we use seat numbers, so if the checks are going to be seperate, I have you down in my computer and my brain as being, say, 15.4 : the person at table fifteen who, if it is a four-top, is kitty-cornered from where I'm standing to take your order.

    So keeping bills seperate from the get-go is not a big deal. But it's quite a different story when, after everything is eaten, drinks are drunk, and desert is had, someone asks for seperate checks. I have about six to ten tables at this point, and I absolutely don't remember who had the martini and who had the rum and coke.

  2. Hey Jamie,
    That is really helpful, so thanks so much for chiming in. One question for you: Which is more annoying, us asking for separate checks at the beginning, or us giving you 5 different credit cards with our names and amounts written on the back of the bill? I ask because so few of my friends (mostly me!) carry cash these days, that we often do the latter. Does this make you want to spit in our food (not that you would!)?

    I am definitely not a big fan of "let's all split it evenly", which is super unfair if you're a non-drinker or vegetarian. One solution that I've found works and ensures enough money left on the table is to tell everyone to calculate the amount of their food and add 25% to the total, which covers 8% tax and a decent tip, and is easy to calculate. So if your food was $10, pony up $12.50, bro.

    I know it must be super frustrating for servers to serve a large group and end up with a substandard tip because people forgot to put in for tax, etc. Part of the reason behind those "18% for parties of 6 or more" policies, I'd imagine.

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  4. Thanks, Jamie! I usually am pretty good about asking up front for separate checks. And I see your point about it being a little late at the end of all service to go back and rethink through who ate/drank what. Glad I'm not being too much of a pain! I'll spread the word to my friends!

  5. Nice art & Art prediction Jamie!!I'll forward the same to my friends as well,,


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