The Proper Way To Serve And Retrieve Dishes At A Sit-Down Meal–left side vs. right side (and the rationale for each one)

Presentation (and Removal) of Dishes

A student of etiquette would be wise to realize that most rules of manners are rooted in logic and reason; rarely do the rules exist merely for their own sake. And when meaningless rules do emerge for whatever reason, whether inspired by some social fad or the caprice of the self-appointed style arbiters of the era, such rules tend to be relegated into relative irrelevance as quickly as they emerge. But for the rules rooted in necessity, convenience, comfort, safety, respect, courtesy, etc., once the rationale behind the rule is fully understood and appreciated, the application of the rule becomes much more automatic and effortless. Prime example: The general rule for presenting dishes to guests seated at a dinner table is that dishes should be presented or served from the left of the guest—but retrieved from his right, whenever possible. And the reason behind the rule is this: In the days of yore, when servants would present large trays of food before guests, who would then help themselves to the desired portions, dishes were offered on the left side of each guest since most people are right-handed, and a dish presented from the left would more easily allow a right-handed guest to properly extend his right arm so that he could hold the serving utensil to transfer the food from the service tray to his plate, steadied, if necessary by the other service utensil held in the left hand. Had the dish been presented from the right side, the typical right-handed guest would have found himself with his right arm somewhat restricted, space-wise, by the very dish from which he was to serve himself. Likewise, at certain formal dinners, guests did not serve themselves from platters presented before them, but were instead served by servants from platters as they made their way around the table, placing desired portions onto each guest’s plate. In such instances, it was much easier for the right-handed servant to fill each guests’ plate if he approached the guest from the left, using his right hand to place the food onto the plate. Had the guest been approached from the right, the right-handed server would have had to have supported the service dish in his left hand while twisting his upper body towards the guest in order to place the food onto the plate. Today, it is rare for guests to be presented with service trays; but on such occasions, guests should expect to be served from the left, and they should lean ever so slightly to the right upon the approach of the server, allowing him to place the food onto the plate without incident. When the guest must use the serving utensils to serve himself from the presented platters, he should take the serving spoon in his right hand to scoop up the desired portion, then use the serving fork (if one is provided), held in his left hand, tines pointing downward, to hold the food in place on the serving spoon as he transfers the food to his plate. At less formal, private meals, where dishes are being passed around the table in order for guests to help themselves to the desired portions, the dishes should be passed counter-clockwise so that each guest is presented with the dish from his left side, thereby allowing him to properly extend his right arm to serve himself, assisted by the left when necessary. When dishes are being passed around a table, diners help themselves when the dish arrives, thereafter holding the dish in order for the person to his immediate right can serve himself. And after serving himself, the courteous guest will place the serving utensils with their handles to the right side of the service dish so that the next guest may reach them without having to reach across the dish to retrieve them. Ladies are especially appreciative of this courtesy since they are oftentimes dressed in garments with sleeves that may become food-stained if they must reach across the dish to retrieve the service utensils.

But times change…and so do the rules of etiquette. At typical 21st-century formal dinners, because so much attention is placed by modern-day “designer-chefs” on the decorative manner in which food is presented on the plate, most chefs prefer to artfully prepare and style each plate in the kitchen then have the serving staff present the prepared plates to guests. Consequently, there is a new line of authority that is of the opinion that kitchen-prepared plates should be presented from the right side, not the left, since the logic that justifies presenting dishes from the left does not apply to pre-portioned plates. Many staunch conservatives, however, maintain that there should be one, simple rule (with the necessary exceptions, of course): Serve food from the left; retrieve dishes from the right. The simpler, the better, they argue, and most people seem to agree. (But even the “conservatives” differ at times: Amy Vanderbilt, in her Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette (1967) states, “…at a formal meal, removal is only from the left, except for those parts of the setting that are on the guest’s right.” The New Emily Post’s Etiquette (1975), however, states, “Although all dishes are presented at the left of the person being served, it is better that plates be removed from the right.” The conservatives also argue that the serve-food-from-the-left rule reduces the occasion for accidents at the table since the right side of a diner’s plate is occupied by the various glasses, sometimes numbering four or more, while the left side tends to be less congested, thereby making it better-suited for placing food—sometimes very hot—onto the table.

Traditionally, in Western and Western-influenced cultures, a servant places a dish onto the table with his left hand, his right hand behind his back. (The rationale for the rule is that serving a guest from the left side with server’s left hand is less invasive of the guest’s personal space than serving a guest from the left side with server’s right hand—the hand closer to the guest—which would require that the server pass the dish directly in front of the face and shoulder of the guest as it is being placed onto the table). The dish is held flat in the palm of the server’s hand so as not to have his fingers—gloved or otherwise—in the vicinity of the food. In the case of especially hot plates, a folded napkin, serving as a pad, is used to protect the hand of the server. In Islamic and several other cultures, presenting anything with the left hand is an insult since the left hand is the hand designated for personal hygiene in such cultures. A conscientious host, therefore, when entertaining guests of the Islamic faith, will instruct his table assistants to use their right hands to serve his Muslim guests. At ultra-formal dinners, the service staff will wear white cotton gloves. But presenting food with the left hand, even if immaculately gloved, is still considered insulting in certain cultures; and it is the job of the international host to be mindful of certain, easily accommodated, international customs—even within his own home.

Naturally, glasses are always filled from the right side since they are situated to the upper right side of the plate, and filling them from that side makes perfect sense. The glass designated for each course is also removed, at the end of its corresponding course, from the right. Likewise, glasses are replaced and substituted from the right.

Then there are the exceptions—but they, too, are based on common sense: The bread-and-butter plate, which is always placed to the upper left side of the place-plate at the commencement of the meal, is removed from the left side since it would be both senseless and awkward for the table attendant to position himself to the right of the guest only to have to reach across the guest to retrieve an item placed to his left. Forks for courses beyond the first three will be added from the left, while spoons and knives beyond the first three will be added from the right, consistent with the left-side, right-side placement around the plate.

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