An etiquette expert reveals the secret signals your menu choice sends

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First dates are a minefield when it comes to manners and never more so than when that all-important first meeting is over food. 

As an etiquette expert and co-author of Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners, I am inundated with clients’ questions about the subtle things we get wrong when we eat. So I was fascinated to read last week’s Blind Date in Femail, which caused an etiquette uproar. Jacob felt Anastasia had committed a faux-pas by choosing fish, which he considered too smelly for a date. 

I’m afraid to say he was right. White fish is usually fairly innocuous, though often still best avoided, while aromatic oily fish like smoked mackerel, salmon or sardines are a definite no-no. But then, he ordered curry, so I’m amazed he was able to detect her plate over the whiff of garlic and spice from his own. 

After last week's Blind Date in Femail caused an etiquette uproar when Jacob felt Anastasia committed a faux-pas choosing fish, etiquette expert Jo Bryant reveals what first date meal choices really mean

After last week’s Blind Date in Femail caused an etiquette uproar when Jacob felt Anastasia committed a faux-pas choosing fish, etiquette expert Jo Bryant reveals what first date meal choices really mean

The thing about first impressions at the table is there’s a lot going on, and nowhere to hide — your table manners, what you choose to eat and how you eat it are on show. In my experience what you choose to order can unwittingly reveal a surprising amount about you. 

People often think they were taught good table manners as a child and don’t need to know any more, but there are still hidden hurdles that trip people up. 

Here is my essential etiquette guide to first-date menu choices . . . and what they might say about you.

PICK A SALAD? WHERE’S YOUR PASSION? 

A good date is all about balance, and few men will enjoy tucking into a hearty meal while you push leaves around a plate

A good date is all about balance, and few men will enjoy tucking into a hearty meal while you push leaves around a plate

Oh dear, salads can be a byword for joyless. Many do come with something substantial like chicken or halloumi. But overall, they are seen as rather a passionless choice when plucked from a menu of delicious options.

A good date is all about balance, and few men will enjoy tucking into a hearty meal while you push leaves around a plate. You may have had a big lunch, and, if so, do explain that’s the case. 

Otherwise, a man could be forgiven for thinking you’re not as invested in a convivial evening as they are. Salads are difficult to eat elegantly too —there’s too much folding involved! 

PENNE EATERS MAKE CONSIDERATE DATES 

Elegant and easy to pace, the woman who orders penne, neat bitesize morsels of pasta, is a dating pro

Elegant and easy to pace, the woman who orders penne, neat bitesize morsels of pasta, is a dating pro

You might think of penne as the ultimate yawn, but you’d be wrong. Elegant and easy to pace, the woman who orders penne, neat bitesize morsels of pasta, is a dating pro. She may be traditional, controlled, not particularly edgy — but she is also sensitive to others and not overly fussy. By choosing something she can eat with just a fork, she can focus on getting to know her date. 

The same cannot be said for the inveterate gambler who chooses spaghetti bolognese. This risktaker will be the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons as their date is forced to watch every slurped-up strand or flying fleck of tomato sauce. An unwelcome distraction. 

BOLD BRAZEN BURGER 

If you pick it up with your hands, you are liable to get juice on your face or even coursing gently down your wrists

If you pick it up with your hands, you are liable to get juice on your face or even coursing gently down your wrists

It’s a bold, confident and possibly less self-aware woman who picks a burger and chips on a first date. If you pick it up with your hands, you are liable to get juice on your face or even coursing gently down your wrists. But then you might not care about that, because you’re a straightforward ‘this is me’ woman. One who isn’t worried about getting messy — or is less concerned about what other people think than her own enjoyment. 

If you’ve both ordered one, then fine. But it might not make the best first impression if your date has chosen something small and elegant while you’re chomping away. Of course, some men might like this devil-may-care trait . . . but it’s a risk. 

TWO STARTERS IS SELFISH 

We all have that friend who orders two starters or a starter and a side instead of a main. Perhaps you’re watching your weight or simply not that hungry. But it can set the wrong tone on a date, as you are upsetting the rhythm of the meal. 

Clearly you are independent but also potentially rather strongwilled or selfish. If you must go for this option, explain your unusual choice and make sure your food comes at the same time as your partner’s main course. 

SHELLFISH IS ONLY FOR EXPERTS 

Mussels, lobster and oysters may seem a sophisticated, sensual choice, but they’re likely to land you in hot water

Mussels, lobster and oysters may seem a sophisticated, sensual choice, but they’re likely to land you in hot water

You’re either rather cultured — of course you know the right way to eat shell-on prawns at the table — or a pretentious amateur. 

Mussels, lobster and oysters may seem a sophisticated, sensual choice, but they’re likely to land you in hot water (and I don’t just mean that grubby finger bowl at the end of your meal). Make a disgusting mess of it and it’s obvious you rarely eat them and have possibly ordered them to show off. 

If you pull it off with panache, and shellfish is your favourite, then that’s fine. But a word of warning on lobster — it’s best not to pick something flamboyantly expensive on a first date. He won’t be thrilled if he’s paying, or if you go Dutch, it might imply you routinely splash the cash . . . and might expect him to do the same.

GARLIC? YOU’VE GIVEN UP 

There is very little green light for romance if your date picks a dish slathered in garlic butter

There is very little green light for romance if your date picks a dish slathered in garlic butter

Smelly or spicy food really does create issues on a date. Besides the digestive wobbles the latter can provoke, there is very little green light for romance if your date picks a dish slathered in garlic butter. 

It could happen by accident, but if deliberate, this is like closing the door. Either you’ve made a poor first impression, or she’s an unrepentant foodie who’s decided she likes her food more than you. One can safely assume that it’s a cab, not coffee.

THE SHARING PLATE DILEMMA 

This is the Marmite of menu choices. On the one hand, it shows a romantic willingness to lean into the date. This woman is open, invested and easygoing. A sharing plate also takes the pressure off what to order, is a convivial icebreaker and means you don’t have to eat too much if you’d rather not. 

There’s the initial awkward ‘Oh you go first’. Then neither side knows how much to eat and how much to leave to the other person. I’d say that for all but the most relaxed of diners, this is a layer of etiquette complexity you don’t want to be bothered with. 

HOW MUCH DRINK IS TOO MUCH? 

Fizz is popular so why not have a glass each to melt the ice. But don’t make a song and dance of ordering celebratory champagne just for you – that could look presumptuous. 

Beer is fine for a woman these days but if you feel selfconscious, order a craft beer or a bottle rather than a pint. 

Sadly, you will look gauche if you come to the table with a cocktail — they are strictly a pre-dinner drink, and tequila sunrise and steak simply don’t mix. 

Opting for wine? Great! But don’t pretend to know more about it than you do. 

Don’t be a wine snob, either — you’ll strike a sour note if you fuss about looking for the tasting notes on a gastropub menu.

FOIE GRAS OR VEAL 

Ah yes, the provocateur. If you have a strong opinion and know a lot about your subject then, well, go for it. But must you strike such a combative note on a first date? This gives the first impression that you’d rather be wrong than put out, that your opinion is the only one that matters, and you’re not fussed about giving offence. 

This raises the question, too, of what to do if your date is vegetarian or vegan. Good manners dictate you don’t order something too showily meaty — no lamb neck or ribs for you, please. 

But if you’re the vegetarian watching your date lustily attack the veal, do bite your lip. 

You’re never going to change someone, and you’re not their parents, so now is not the time for a telling-off. 

DON’T GO FOR ARTICHOKES 

Choose with a practical head on. Forget novelty and pick something you know you like. That way, you can focus on your table manners without worrying how to eat an artichoke. 

Also, order something you can eat neatly, even if that means forgoing your favourite thing. 

Save the dripping burger or linguine alle vongole for dinner with your best friend and remember that undistracted conversation is the goal of a date. 

… AND NEVER SCOFF! 

How you eat is also important. My own personal frustration is that people rarely think about pacing — ideally you will either speed up or slow down eating so you finish your food at the same time as your date. 

Too many of us simply get our heads down and start scoffing, creating a mismatch of when each course is finished. 

And if you find you’ve barely touched your food when your date has finished? You may be talking too much.

  • Jo Bryant (jobryant.com) is an etiquette consultant and coauthor of Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners. 

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