Life Advice



What Counts As A 'formal Dinner'?

Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin on

DEAR MISS MANNERS: In connection with a question about butter pats, a letter writer stated, I know that dinner rolls and butter are not traditionally part of a formal dinner service. You didn't comment about that, but let it stand.

Is that true?

Please define a formal dinner for us. Is it when diners dress in cocktail dresses and evening gowns, or is it when a large family has Christmas dinner with children and babies present? Or is it just when we invite friends to meet us at a restaurant? My husband won't return to a restaurant that doesn't serve bread and butter with the meal!

I hope you can clear this up for us. My family is very conflicted over this question right now.

GENTLE READER: Please calm down your husband by assuring him that slow-food restaurants will always offer him bread. They must, because their patrons arrive hungry, expecting to then decide what they want to have cooked for them.

This is different from a formal dinner, which typically has several courses that the host has decided upon, and which are timed so that service can begin when the guests are seated.


But Miss Manners cannot get away with that as a definition of a formal dinner -- especially with that use of typically, which she threw in because a formal dinner could be three courses or, as at some 19th-century banquets, 18. In any case, there is plenty of food and no waiting, so there is no need to fill up on bread -- although some dishes may be accompanied by toast points or special crackers.

However, breaking the no-bread rule is not a high crime. Miss Manners is not one to deny bread to those who crave it.

Meanwhile, however, the concept of formality keeps changing. For some, it means eating from a table instead of on a tray. And what is now considered formal dress, known as black tie, was once informal in comparison with white tie.

Today, any staged dinner -- that is to say, one in which an effort has been made to decorate the table, around which everyone is seated at the same time; participants dress up, to whatever degree is customary in their circle; the courses are served in turn; and table manners are somewhat restrained, to the extent that bones are not chewed from the hand -- would be considered somewhat formal.


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