What is Proper Serving Etiquette?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 14 November 2018
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Proper serving etiquette is a list of rules about how food should be presented and served at formal parties and restaurants. The precise details of serving etiquette vary, depending on cultural norms, and the rules may be bent on occasion for special circumstances. Training in proper etiquette for serving is usually offered to people who work in fine restaurants or who provide wait services for catering companies.

While serving etiquette may seem petty and a bit restrictive at times, it actually has some very sound reasons for existing. Coordinating service was critical in an era when people were waited on by servants, because it ensured that the servants worked smoothly together without crashing into each other or dropping things. Observing proper etiquette is also designed to keep guests comfortable, and to make people feel welcome.

When people are served, the tradition is to start with the guest of honor, followed by the women in the party, the men, the hostess, and finally the host. If the delineations between guests are not clear, servers start with the oldest woman at the table, and work their way down to the youngest man. The same order is followed when taking orders in a restaurant.


Food and drinks are usually served from the left and cleared from the right. In some regions of the world, this is reversed, with staff serving from the right and clearing from the left. Exceptions may be made, as for instance when a guest is leaning to speak to another guest, making it difficult to serve or clear in the conventional style, or when guests are seated against a wall which makes it logistically difficult to serve and clear from different sides.

Plates are served all at once, and cleared all at once, so that courses come out together. In some restaurants, wait staff may clear plates as people finish, although this convention is frowned upon in the rules of etiquette. The idea is that someone who lingers over his or her meal may feel pressured if the plates of other guests are cleared, since this may suggest that the guest should hurry up. On the other hand, guests may not want to look at dirty plates while they wait for others to finish, in the belief of some restaurant owners and waiters.

There are additional nuances of serving etiquette, some of which can get quite complex. For example, in some establishments, liquids are served from one side, and solids from another, and preplated food may be served from a different side than foods which are portioned out at the table. There may also be cultural norms to observe, such as not handling food with the left hand in the Middle East. Guidebooks on serving etiquette can provide additional details to people working in food service.


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Post 10

In France it seems to be the person with the whitest skin colour gets served first. I would have thought that these rules of etiquette started in France. I'm the oldest, but certainly am the last to be served, which incidentally ruins my night as I am a stickler for rules.

Post 9

Can we serve snacks with dessert?

Post 8

I would love the feed back on clearing the table at a function.

Post 7

Should plates be cleared first or should condiments and gravy boats or vegetable tureens be removed first. leaving a line of plates on a function table? I would love some feed back on clearing at a function.

Post 6

At a wedding function, when the guests get up from the table to serve themselves at the buffet, should the wait staff re-fold the napkins while the guests are gone?

Post 5

Is it proper etiquette to serve punch for a wedding shower in china coffee cups?

Post 4

when invited to anyone's home (including family) for a party dinner or any social gathering, it is customary to offer assistance and or ask before helping yourself to starters before being offered, because that is basic manners or respect.

Post 3

In Laws always arrive early to dinner party and make a meal of the hors devours without asking the host or hostess if the starters are ready.

Post 2

Went to restaurant for Easter. Dad and husband were served their food before me. I sat while looking at their plates of food. Five, maybe 10 minutes later, when my food was served, the noodles were hard and tough.

Post 1

Although many restaurants serve from the left this is incorrect for pre-plated dishes.

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