To say that there are a lot of rules when going to a formal British dinner party is an extreme understatement. In fact, there are so many unwritten rules to trap those not up with English (and it tends to be that rather than British) that the unwary can end up with some big social faux pas.
Although we don’t (or rather do not) have time to write about them all here, we have picked a list of the most mistaken and misused.
When to arrive?
If you are invited to a formal dinner party at 7:30 p.m. then it does not mean you are eating at 7:30 p.m., so it is essential that you do not arrive early nor be on the dot of 7.30 p.m. The general rule is that it is fine to be 10 to 15 mins late, anything more than this, say 20 mins, and you will need to call your host to let them know. Be warned, it is extremely rude to be more than 30 minutes late and will likely cause offence.
How to ‘cut’ bread rolls?
Many people assume that you cut a bread roll with the butter knife but in fact you should never use a knife on bread (a rule that dates back to the Middle Ages). Instead the idea is to break the bread into mouth sized pieces, then use your butter knife to add a little butter to that piece, and then eat. Furthermore, never butter in the air; use the plate instead.
When to use your napkin?
Firstly, to be clear the napkin is the cloth variety and it shouldn’t be referred to as serviette.
You should not immediately unfold your napkin upon sitting down at the table, unless the staff are already bringing out the food (this rule would also apply in a restaurant where the waiting staff should unfurl your napkin and present it to you).
Actually, the hostess/host is the person who should unfold the napkin first unless there is a VIP present then they should be the one to unfold the napkin. And of course; never tuck your napkin into a shirt, this is the worst thing you could ever do.
How to get a top-up of drink?
The rule is, if the wine decanter or bottle is left on the table, then the guests are free to help themselves. Always offer people seated on your right more drink before you pour for yourself and you pass the bottle to your right.
However, you can forget that rightwards rule when it comes to Port. This used to be served in a decanter due to the residue but these days bottles are usually fine as most port producers have solved the sediment issue.
Port is drunk at the end of the dinner after pudding, at about the same time as coffee.
Unlike other after-dinner drinks or digestifs such as brandy, it is not normally served away from the table.
Port is always passed to the left. This is because the Port side of a boat is the left side. Traditionally, Port would be drunk by men – ladies would have left or “withdrawn” from the dinner to their own “withdrawing” or “drawing” room. But today everyone enjoys it.
How to squeeze a Lemon?
In British food a wedge of lemon usually accompanies fish or seafood. To squeeze it, you use a fork and insert it into the lemon and then twist to help channel the juice. Keep the lemon wedge low over the plate and be very careful to not spray others or drop pips on the table. If half-lemons are served, they are normally wrapped in muslin and squeezed with the fingers (without using the fork).
If in doubt, copy what others are doing
As there are so many little rules our best tips is to follow your hosts and see what they are doing. Then just copy. By doing this you will be able to eat with the highest of English society.