I stay up-to-date on current ideas and articles in my chosen fields using Google Alerts. Ten years ago, I would have been lucky to get two or three hits a week in my searches on <etiquette> and <modern manners>; in 2010, I can’t read half of what comes through on a daily basis. While there are some unqualified and ill-informed persons in cyber-land posing as etiquette consultants and experts, for the most part advice is well-intentioned and focuses on the essence of etiquette and good manners – to make others comfortable and at ease. What often causes me to wince is the attitude that there is a single right answer to any situation without regard to culture, location and circumstances.
A recent web-based Q&A regarding placement and clearing of multiple wine glasses at a formal dinner prompted a flurry of telephone calls and emails to consult with my own circle of experts. I spoke with Ms. Pamela Eyring, director of The Protocol School of Washington (which is credited with training protocol and etiquette consultants throughout America and increasingly across the globe) to ask: “Do you really clear away wine glasses after each course in America? Say it isn’t so.” She confirms that, yes, wine glasses would be cleared at the same time as the course they accompanied (sherry with the soup, white wine with the fish, red wine with the meat, etc.) as a courtesy to the guest and to make it easier for the guest to negotiate the remaining glasses. Our discussion included frequent reference to “the server.”
There are two issues: commercial dining vs. private service; and formal vs. informal dinners as well as the understanding of the word, “formal.”
Butlers managing a dinner table in a private house are not “servers”. Five-star restaurant service does not sit well in a private house. Even the finest trained wait staff from the top Swiss hotel schools require different routines and behaviours in private service.
The vast majority of people today learn their fine dining habits in restaurants. They have observed the maitre d’ and the waiters as skilled professionals and they have learned from them. While the number of wealthy individuals employing butlers has grown tremendously in recent years, few of them have grown up in staffed homes where the traditions of formal dining were practised and learned. When today’s employers say they want their house run like a five-star hotel, they may not realize that a higher standard exists.
When managing a formal dinner, the butler does not remove the wine glasses with each course. They remain on the table (all of them) until just before the dessert (fruit) course. Note that there may well be a pudding and a savoury course after the main course and before dessert. Just before dessert is served, all glasses except the water glass are removed. Port glasses are then set, as well.
Sound a little “over-the-top”? Few people in actual numbers live this way but be assured that this is still the standard for formal dinners in many established houses. Also be assured that they would never dream of going to such trouble and lengths on the butler’s night out; these dinners require experienced and knowledgeable staff. Newer houses and newer money rarely have the experienced staff or equipment to manage a formal dinner, (the silver vault has been removed to make room for air conditioning equipment or the pool filtration system; the butler’s pantry has been renovated as an additional powder room). More often, they simply don’t want to live this way. They prefer simpler menus and fewer courses but still want an elegant table. Hardly casual but a simpler version of formal.
Professionally trained butlers know the history and traditions of formal dining but, more importantly, they know how to adapt to changing times and attitudes. So, when do you clear the glasses? Know your options, consider the circumstances, make your own decision and never apologise or explain.
John Robertson is a professionally trained English butler and a certified protocol and etiquette consultant. He is proud to enjoy the friendship and trust of an elite circle of professionals in both these fields and is grateful for their assistance and advice. John is a founding member of The Charles MacPherson Academy for Butlers and Household Managers where he teaches protocol and etiquette as well as butling skills.