French mealtimes are more structured than in America. Good table manners are expected of dinner guests whatever the occasion, with formal engagements in particular following stricter etiquette. Even regular family mealtimes have a greater degree of formality. The French take time to enjoy every aspect of their meal and company. Even though it may seem daunting at first, sticking to the accepted guidelines help avoid embarrassment when invited to dinner in France.
If you have been invited to a large dinner party, it's proper to send flowers to your host to arrive on the morning before the dinner. This allows your host to display the bouquet in the evening for guests to enjoy. This is especially appreciated in the chic circles of Paris society.
Arriving for Dinner
It's customary to arrive fashionably late for your dinner engagement. If your host asks you to arrive at 8 p.m., you ought to arrive no more than 10 minutes after that. Timing can be a little more flexible the further south you go in France. If you're going to be much later as a result of an unexpected delay, try to phone your host to explain. Remember to dress smartly, though formal evening wear is not necessary unless specified in your invitation. If you're offered an aperitif upon arrival, you should not begin drinking it until your host raises a toast to the assembled company.
Taking Your Seat
Take your seat only when invited to do so and go where you are directed. Many French people also stick with the tradition of alternating place settings between men and women. It's impolite to go against the wishes of your host when taking your seat. When seated, place your napkin on your lap only after your host does so, and before you begin eating. During dinner, you should keep your elbows off the table but your hands in full view at all times.
Using Your Cutlery
The place setting has the fork on the left and knife on the right. There may well be a more bewildering array of cutlery than you are used to -- such as small forks for prising snails from their shells, but if in doubt about which to use follow the lead of your host. You should cut your food with the knife in your right hand and place it in your mouth using your fork in your left hand. Do not move your fork to your right hand once you have cut your food, and never use the edge of your fork to chop off pieces of food. Don't cut salad leaves with your knife; instead, wrap it around your fork. If you want to take a break from eating, place your knife and fork crossed on your plate, with the fork resting over the knife. Above all, do not start eating until your host invites you to do so. Place your knife and fork side by side on your plate from 6 o' clock to noon to indicate that you have finished.
Bread, Wine and Water
Bread, wine and water are on the table at every French meal. Bread is used to mop up sauce from your plate and to accompany the cheese course. Never cut your bread with a knife, but tear off small pieces by hand. It's considered polite when mopping up your plate to put a small piece of bread on the end of your fork, rather than using your fingers. Wine glasses are more than two-thirds filled. As a guest, never top up your own wine. You should indicate you would like a top up by completely finishing your glass. If you don't wish any more wine, leave your wine glass nearly full. Water is always available as well. It's common for this to be bottled, but carafes of tap water are perfectly acceptable. You may help yourself to water.
Leaving the Table
When leaving the table temporarily -- to use the restroom, for example -- and you aim to return to your meal, leave your napkin on your chair. Only when you are leaving the table at the end of the meal should you leave the napkin folded on the table. If your host begins to offer a soft drink such as orange juice at the end of the meal, this is usually a sign that the evening is coming to a close and that you're expected to leave.