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Stew Cues: Table seating, service order dictated by varying factors

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

Some of the most frequently asked questions I get regarding mealtimes are how to seat the guests at the table and where to begin service. The answer: It depends on the formality of the occasion and the traditions of the family.

The relationships of the host and hostess to the guests determines formality. A family will typically have a usual informal seating style and will simply sit down wherever they want. They will expect service in a particular way that may or may not follow standard rules of service. The hostess may tell you exactly how to serve, and even when and how to clear. However, when you are not sure how to proceed, formal rules of precedence are assumed.

The host and hostess often determine the seating arrangement ahead of time and direct people to their seats. When they are on board for several days, the host and hostess may rotate the guests to sit next to those who have common personal, business or professional interests, or simply to mix it up.

For professional or very special occasions, a formal seating arrangement is used to assign seats. There should always be an even number of guests in formal affairs. Distinguished and important guests are assigned seating based on their rank or importance.

The seating arrangement starts with the guest of honor. The host and hostess can sit at either head of the table, or in the middle of the table across from each other. The female seat of honor is to the right of the host; the male guest of honor sits to the right of the hostess. Service begins with the female seat of honor.

For the second most important persons, the female sits to the left of the host and the male to the left of the hostess. Husband and wife do not sit together, and male and female alternate.

Sometimes the number of guests prohibits the rule to alternate female and male guest. If the number of guests is in multiples of four (4, 8, 12, and so on), the host and hostess will not be able to sit at opposite ends of the table or across from each other. In this case, the male guest of honor will sit at the head of the table opposite the host. The hostess would be seated to the left of him. When the number of guests is not in multiples of four (6, 10, 14, and so on) the host and hostess can sit opposite each other, and males and females can alternate.

At a large formal event, each guest has a place card assigned to his seat.  Seating may be assigned based on rank, status or importance, or simply by common interests. Guests must sit where they are assigned; it is improper to change place cards.

An informal family seating arrangement may not have a guest of honor and the host decides where guests are seated. Age, gender and family relation will apply. Service can still begin with the female seated to the right of the host. This may be an older female relative, or his wife or significant other. If the hostess or spouse is seated to the left of the host, he may designate that she is served first and next the female seat of honor on his right. Traditionally, when the spouse sits to the left of the host, she is the last female served.

Food service moves counterclockwise around the table. Thus, the female to the right of the host is served first, and the female to the left of the host is served last. Generally speaking, the hostess and host are the last to be served. No one takes a bite of their food until the hostess has been served, unless she tells guest to go ahead and begin eating.

Beverage service may move clockwise around the table. The host or honored guest may taste the wine before it is served. Females would be served first, and the host or honored guest who tasted the wine would be served last. Refills throughout the meal would go to females first. However, if this would mean criss-crossing the room several times and disturbing the guests, then simply pour in order around the table.

The main objective of dining and service etiquette is to give order and structure to avoid uncertainty and confusion that would make guests nervous or uncomfortable. Once you have established a rhythm and flow, the guests can relax and have fun.

Alene Keenan is former lead instructor of interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares more than 20 years experience as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht,” available at yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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