Sharing, the saying goes, is caring. To that, a cynic might add, “I don’t care, so I don’t share.”
As we hope you realize, there’s more to communal dining than not double dipping, a basic manner you should have picked up the first time you shared chips and salsa with someone.
Modern dining is impossible to define. Go out for dinner tonight and, if you’re a bit more adventurous in your selection, you’ll find everything from traditional Ethiopian restaurants — where you and your table-mates will tear apart a sour flatbread called injera that serves as a plate and fork — to newly trendy dipping restaurants with more sauces spread about the table than you have fingers. Try hard enough and you might be able to sample them all.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a handful of tips to keep you – and your bad habits – in check at any restaurant that might have you just slightly out of your element.
Don’t forget what your mama taught you. Even if you didn’t attend a proper Southern cotillion class (and, unless you’re from South Carolina, good sir or ma’am, you probably didn’t) you no doubt know to chew with your mouth closed, keep your fork on your plate unless invited elsewhere and, of course, avoid the dreaded double dip. Just because you’re somewhere new doesn’t mean you should forget these basics. It sounds simple, but, trust us, someone at your table is going to take a bite and then head straight back to that delectable ancho lime chile aioli. Don’t let it be you.
Keep your distance. If you’re at a communal dining table — and they grace everything from Texas-style down home barbecue joints to critically acclaimed foodie haunts these days — abide by the “airplane rule.” Say, or at the very least, nod “hello,” and perhaps exchange a pleasantry or two to set the mood. After that, don’t over-engage your neighbors in conversation, keep your utensils and drinks nearby and, for Pete’s sake, don’t sample their food. That said, a little light conversation could lead to a lasting friendship, so don’t be completely unfriendly.
Plan ahead and work with the waitstaff. You’re going to be eating a lot of food all at once. Well, maybe not all at once, since you’re pleasing mom and eating delicately. But since your table will be ordering all over the place, it’s wise to chat things over with your table-mates so that you can be prepared not to order, say, five of the same thing. After you’ve ordered, it might be worth asking your friendly server to space things out a bit just to keep the table relatively empty.
Leave your inhibitions behind. You’re trying something new, so it’s fine to have your guard up. But if you let it down a little and forget about things like forks and knives, dining at, say, an Ethiopian restaurant can be an unforgettable experience. You’ll share a gigantic communal plate on which a delectable flatbread serves as an edible base for various vegetables, meats and sauces. Obviously, wash your hands thoroughly first, but then let go and have fun. Your table-mates are probably just as inexperienced as you are. One custom you might not accept quite so readily is the gursha, an Ethiopian tradition of respect that occurs when someone else actually feeds you.
Be as adventurous as you are comfortable — just make sure to share properly.