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Certain etiquette to using napkins in restaurants

May 6, 2012
By ANITA HANABURGH , For The Leader Herald

After I folded the damask white cloth in half, I rolled it neatly and feed it into my pewter napkin rings. Cloth napkins? Interesting. Except for the holidays, I rarely serve cloth napkins. Except for restaurants I rarely use them. Then I remembered that last week my friend, Kate, suggested I write an article on napkins. I told her that I already have, but I agreed to revisit these little squares of daily use.


As Americans we are neat. We use napkins, paper and cloth, both at home and when we eat at restaurants. A basic component of dining, napkins are just one of those things that are a widely accepted custom. Every restaurant provides some kind of napkins for the customers.

I recently heard someone complain about the relative thinness of paper napkins used in restaurants. I laughed to myself thinking about the sordid history of the napkin. Here we are complaining about the quality of the individual napkin when there was a time when no one used a napkin or even considered there was a need for it. This was especially messy before forks came into use!

It appears that the first napkins were actually pieces of bread used to wipe the mouth and hands during and after a meal. It was then consumed. (Yuk!) The Romans used a cloth mappa to wipe their sweaty brow during meals and then would use it to carry home the leftovers. (Yuk!) The English initially used large communal napkins - a yard by a yard and one half that were share by all at the table. (Yuk!) During the middle ages, no one used napkins or cared: a sleeve or shirt did just fine. (Yuk!) The napkin, as we know it, came into use by the aristocracy in England and France.

The word "napkin" most likely came from the French term "surnappe." This was a cloth that was laid at the place where an honored guest sat. The English call our napkin a diaper from the Greek word for a fabric with a diamond shape; the French call our napkin a serviette.

As with all dining, there is certain etiquette associated with the used of the napkin.

The cloth napkin formally is folded into classic rectangular quarters with the opening close to the plate. It is proper to place the napkin on the left side of the place setting. This allows easy pick up by the left hand.. It should not be placed under the fork/s. Most restaurants obtain their own signature fold. A special napkin fold adds to the tables overall appearance. White napkins speak to formality and cleanliness.

A formal restaurant might actually have the server place the napkin on the customer's lap. This is done by removing the individual napkin from the left and gently placing it on the customers lap. My students hated to do this, but the customer always was impressed. During the Renaissance, French banquet service required that the napkins be unfolded and placed on the lap in the order of rank the most important person unfolding their napkin first. (I might try this at home , me first!)

But most of the time, we place our own napkins on our own laps. So when should you place the napkin on your lap? The answer is "anytime you need it." I recommend that you open that napkin after you have "settled" in your place. At a restaurant, I usually wait until after I have ordered. Putting the napkin on your lap indicates that you are "ready" for food. I don't really need it there if I am just having a drink.

When getting up from the table, place your napkin on the right side (left if you are left handed) of the place setting for easy pick up. A trained server will twist your napkin and place it in a horse shoe shape at the center of the place setting while you are gone: a nice touch. The cloth napkins should only be used as a napkin, not as a handkerchief, glasses cleaner, sneeze guard, lipstick blotter or leftover carrier.

Today we use cloth and paper napkins. The paper/cloth decision frequently categorizes the style of restaurant. We might "rate" the formality of a banquet, wedding, restaurant or event according to the used of cloth or paper. The restaurant's choice is determined by price and the concept or style the operation is trying to convey. My stepdaughter said she never uses paper napkins as she wants to leave trees for the next generations.

Actually, paper napkins can be more environmentally friendly if one compares them with cloth napkins that are only used once. However, the size and amount of the paper napkins matters too. Taking too many napkins certainly negatively effects the environment. It adds to the costs in a restaurant, the cost of the product, the cost of waste removal. If you take 10 napkins when visiting McDonald's, use some, crunch up some and throw out the ones you don't use, then the problem is not the type of napkins, but the attitude of the user.

Restaurant watch: Check out the use and style of napkin used at your favorite restaurant.

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