Don't put your elbows on the table. Chew with your mouth closed. Always say please and thank you.
Doesn't anyone remember these being drilled into your head by Mom and Dad at every family meal during your formative years? I, for one, was brought up to believe no nice boy would ever want to take me out unless my table manners were precise enough to win Queen Elizabeth's favor, should I ever chance to be invited to high tea at Buckingham Palace.
These days, though, there's no surer place to find people engaging in displays of bad manners than at a restaurant.
It starts before they're even in the door. Guests call for a table and treat the reservationist like some kind of lesser life form. Repeat after me, people: "First available table" means first available table. It doesn't mean, "Ask me another way and maybe, magically, I'll have something at 6 o'clock, even though I told you my first available table is at 10:30."
I've never known a reservationist to deliberately hide a table from a guest, only to make it available if they keep pestering, cajoling, needling or begging. If we have a table, it's yours. If we don't, it's not. The point is we want you to have a table. That's how we make money.
But what happens on the phone is small potatoes compared to the all-out lawlessness that occurs once guests are actually in the restaurant. At the front door they push each other out of the way and jockey for space in the host's line of sight, as though the 20 extra seconds it'll take to seat the people beside them first will ruin their entire dining experience.
I once watched two well-dressed, affluent-looking women edge the pointy tips of their stilettos toward each other like daggers to try and be seated first. One finally stumbled on the marble floor and the other swooped in on the host stand like a starving buzzard over carrion.
And when guests are finally in the seats? I've seen it all. Eating with their fingers. Chewing with their mouths open. Talking to the server like an indentured servant. I've watched women's faces fall when they realize the handsome man who's buying them dinner is spraying food spittle in a 3-foot radius around his plate because he's talking with his mouth full. I've watched businessmen try to impress clients by ordering a $400 bottle of wine, and then negate it completely by using the wrong fork for their salad course. And the last time I heard "please" or "thank you" from a guest came from the 5-year-old whose parents demanded she say it.
I suspect as soon as I was out of earshot they assured her no nice boy would ever want to take her out unless she worked on improving her table manners.