A formal private dinner officially begins when the person presiding over the meal places his napkin onto his lap and unfolds it. It is only then that each guest places his napkin onto his lap and unfolds it—never before. (At formal public events such as banquets, large receptions, etc., where there is no one person officially presiding over the meal, as well as in restaurants and in informal settings, the napkin may be placed onto the lap and unfolded immediately preceding the serving of the first item—food or drink. If bread and/or some beverage is already on the table, the napkin may be unfolded once a person has taken his seat). Dinner-sized napkins, usually about 18” squared (46 cm. squared), should be opened halfway, with the fold towards the knee. Smaller napkins, usually referred to as lunch-sized napkins, should be opened completely and placed flat onto the lap. Some men have a habit of shaking open a napkin as if about to throw down a gauntlet to signal a duel, but such theatrics are more appropriate for the stage than for the elegant dining table.
Only when eating shellfish such as lobster, served in the shell, is it acceptable for adults to tuck their napkins into their necklines—if bibs are not specifically provided for the course. (And on airlines that provide cloth napkins with meals—these days a rarity—such napkins are usually appointed with a buttonhole in one corner so that the diner may button the napkin onto one of his upper-level shirt buttons in order to securely cover his chest area since, because of the way airplane seats and their meal trays are designed and configurated, one’s lap is covered by the service tray itself, while one’s torso is especially exposed to food spillage on account of being thrust against the food tray due to relatively confined personal space on airlines—even in the luxury classes).
The primary purpose of a napkin is to clean the lips of oily residue and food particles—especially before drinking (Floating “grease islands” are unappetizing!)—and to protect a diner’s garments by intercepting food that accidentally falls into the lap. The proper way to wipe one’s lips with a napkin is with a press-wipe motion as opposed to a swipe-wipe motion. The appropriate motion should be more akin to dabbing or patting than rubbing or pushing. Any food particle that falls onto the napkin should be picked up with the fingers and placed onto the upper left side of the plate from which one is eating. (The napkin is not the place to conceal bones or grains of rice, for example, that have fallen from the fork).
At most elegant dining tables, the tablecloth and napkins will be made of fine, white linen; and during the course of a dinner—especially one where food with prominently colored sauces is being presented—a napkin is likely to become food-stained. The conscientious gentleman, so as not to present a significantly food-stained napkin to his lips—for all to see and some to shun—will first discretely turn his napkin over in his lap when the stains appear sufficiently unsightly, then inside-out—again discretely in his lap—as the dinner progresses. For an experienced gentleman, then, a napkin has four “fresh” sides, and he utilizes all four during the course of his dinner if necessary. Out of consideration for the host and the person who does his laundry, most ladies of society know to wear a minimal amount of lipstick to the dinner table so as not to add yet another dimension of color to the napkin; and those who do not know that little, considerate rule quickly learn it.
On occasion, one’s napkin will fall from one’s lap onto the floor. But unlike the falling of a knife or a fork, which tends to call attention to itself, thereby alerting the host to request that a replacement be provided, a napkin, because it is made of fabric and generally obstructed from plain view by the tabletop, may fall to the floor unbeknownst even to its user. Upon discovering that one’s napkin has fallen to the floor, the most delicate way of handling the matter is to simply lean sideways, uneventfully reach down to pick up the napkin, and restore it to its proper place. The exceedingly fastidious gentleman, considering that the napkin has fallen onto the floor, will reverse its fold, thereby turning the napkin inside-out, and proceed with his meal. Requesting or expecting a replacement of a fallen napkin is not typical though a conscientious host will usually have a few extra matching napkins ready in case of any major mishaps. Of course, if one is dining alfresco and the napkin falls to the ground, a replacement may be requested. Care should be taken, therefore, to place a napkin securely upon the lap such that it is unlikely to fall. If dining in a restaurant, where extra napkins are usually readily available, a gentleman should feel no hesitation to request a replacement. Under such circumstances, he does not reach down to retrieve the napkin (unless, of course, it has fallen into an area where if left unattended might result in an accident). In a restaurant, a competent table attendant will not only provide a replacement as requested, but also retrieve the one in need of replacement.
During the course of the dinner, if a gentleman must take leave of the dining table for whatever reason, or if he must rise as a lady takes leave of or returns to the table, he places his napkin—not neatly folded, but drawn together in loose folds—to the left of his plate, returning it to his lap upon reoccupying his seat.
A gentleman’s personal handkerchief or tissue should be used to cover his mouth and nose if he must sneeze or cough at the table. If none is available, or if it cannot be retrieved in time, he is allowed to use his napkin. When he has been afforded little forewarning, however, he may use his bare hand, thereafter politely saying, “excuse me,” which should be audible only to those in his immediate vicinity. Of course, if the sneezing or coughing persists, the gentleman should temporarily excuse himself from the table, returning when his proper condition has been restored. Blowing one’s nose at the table, however, is an entirely different matter: it is completely unacceptable. To blow his nose, a gentleman should excuse himself from the dinner table, clearing his sinus and nostrils in the nearest powder room, where there will certainly be the benefit of a mirror to ensure that his face is presentable upon his return to the table.
At the end of the meal, the napkin, gathered up loosely—but not folded—as if to be slipped through a hoop, is placed at the left side of the plate. If the plate has been removed, the napkin should be placed in the center of the space previously occupied by the plate.
In some homes, the napkins to be used by members of the family and guests on extended visits are presented in napkin rings—rather than folded and laid onto a plate—when the table has been set for the meal. In such homes, at the end of the meal, the used napkin should be re-folded and tucked into its designated napkin ring. In such homes, each member of the family has a personalized napkin ring so that he may reuse his personal napkin at a subsequent meal. The custom of reusing napkins twice or thrice is ill-advised, however—especially in this day and age of washing machines. Simply put, a frugal host or hostess should find some other means of economizing than by reusing napkins since no one, not even members of the family, find the practice appetizing.