Whether you're planning a dinner party at home, or are planning to go to an upscale restaurant soon, it's important to be aware of dining etiquette when it comes to napkin placement. The napkin can serve as a decorative yet functional piece of the table setting, but is also used to indicate messages to the host or waiter during various stages of the meal.
Table Setting Placement
According to etiquette, the napkin is placed to the left of the main dinner plate. If the napkins are placed in the glasses for the table setting, the napkins will be on the right, as the cups or goblets should be situated to the right of the main plate. For some place settings, the salad and dinner forks will be placed on top of the folded napkin, but some napkins may be folded in an upright, free-standing position on the table.
Unfolding the Napkin
Once all the guests are at the table, it is acceptable etiquette to unfold the napkin and place it on one's lap. The napkin should not be tucked into the shirt to resemble a bib. At some formal restaurants, the waiter may place the napkin in guests' laps. The napkin should remain in the lap until the meal is finished; if a guest drops a napkin, she should discreetly ask the waiter or host for another.
Being Excused from the Table
If a guest needs to leave the table but will return, the napkin should be placed to the left or the right of the plate. This indicates to the waiter or hostess that the guest has not yet finished eating. It is not necessary to refold the napkin completely, but the napkin should be semifolded, not wadded or crumpled. It is not proper etiquette to place the napkin on the seat or the back of the chair.
After the Meal
At a dinner party, once the host places his napkin on the table, this symbolizes that the meal is over. Guests are expected to place their napkins on the table at this time as well, in a semifolded fashion to the left of the dinner plate. Napkins should also be folded to the left of the plate at restaurants; this gives the waiter the indication that the plate can be taken away from the table.
It is not acceptable etiquette to use the napkin to wipe cutlery; if the silverware is unacceptable, it is best to unobtrusively ask the waiter or hostess for another set. Napkins should not be used to get the attention of a host or waiter; a slight hand gesture or eye contact is sufficient. Guests should also refrain from using napkins to wipe the nose or face--this should be done away from the table.