President John F. Kennedy in formal dinner attire
As mentioned earlier, a defining feature of formal dining events will usually be either “Black Tie” or “White Tie”, depending on the event. If it is to be White Tie, the invitation will always specify this. At White Tie formal dinners, women need to wear a full length dress, although at a black tie dinner, a long dress or a cocktail dress just below the knee is acceptable.
If you are unsure of the dress code, it is essential to ask beforehand to avoid dressing inappropriately.
What will happen at the formal dinner?
Traditionally, formal dinners have been an opportunity to honour important people and serve as a way for the host and hostess to showcase their wealth, taste and opulence. The protocols, or rules, and ceremonies that often take place at formal dinner events have evolved from traditions going back centuries. Complex rules surrounding the aforementioned seating plans, presentation and serving of the meal can be a daunting prospect if you’ve never been to a formal dinner before. However, if you remember that once you have arrived at your seat you will be waited on by hand and foot, and any instructions will be called out by the Toastmaster who will guide you through the evening, you can relax and enjoy the experience. Often you will find information about any ceremonies and or words that you may need to recite in your menu cards.
Often, people are seated alternating men and women, with the host and hostess at either end if it is a small private dinner. Additionally the host and hostess escort, or are escorted by, the lady and man of honour; and married or engaged couples are never sat adjacent to each other, except at weddings! If the hostess rises from her seat at any point, it is expected that the men at the table will all stand, and if you’re at a very large formal dinner, you may well be seated at round tables away from the host and hostess. Alternatively and more commonly at larger affairs there may be a top table from which there are any number of sprigs that lead from it. The host/hostess and their principal guest(s) are likely to be on the top table in the centre, with other dignitaries from within their household or organisation at the end of each sprig. In technical terms these are called “the Gunners”.
A name card will tell you where you’re sitting, although at smaller formal dinners, you may be shown to your seat instead. Smaller events will see you greeted by the hostess but large events will see you greeted by a member of the staff and you’ll only interact briefly with the host and hostess. At City or Civic events there may be what is called a receiving line, where all the guests are announced to the Host formally as they arrive at the reception. It is very good form to have your invitation and or table card to hand so you can show this to the Toastmaster to make your announcement easier. The Toastmaster will then call everyone to dinner once the reception is concluded.
How will the courses be served?
The number of courses served varies, but usually you will be served between three and six. The menu will have been developed by the chef and the head butler or banqueting manager, and the host.
Throughout the meal, the preparation, service and removal of food is completed by the service staff, not the hosts or guests. The food will be served anti-clockwise, to your right and starts with the guest of honour.
Individual portions of the food will be presented to you prearranged on a platter, to make service as quick and efficient as possible. A higher number of courses mean that you will receive a smaller portion of food and smaller amount of wine with every course. You will not be able to have second helpings and once tablewear is removed from the dining room, it won’t be returned.