Manners Monday- Toothpicks, Trash & Tips: Cocktail Hour Etiquette

Cocktail Hour is an informal time of pre-dinner socializing, hors d’oeuvres (light snacks) and alcoholic beverages, including wine, beer and mixed drinks. It has become very common for weddings and formal events to include an hour of stationed or butlered hors d’oeuvres (or both) before guests sit down to a formal meal. It may be located indoors and/or outdoors depending upon the weather, the size of the group and the preferences of the hosts. During Cocktail Hour, you can hold a plate of delicacies in one hand, a Signature Cocktail in the other, have an earful of beautiful music and the sweet sounds of happy mingling, and be able to find a place to enjoy yourself while the time flies by. 


 If you’re headed to a formal event such as a wedding, a gala or a special dinner, here are some tips for proper etiquette that you can use during Cocktail Hour:


Getting Food & Drinks: 

– If there are passed (or butlered) hors d’oeuvres, take a napkin and take one or two items at a time. Do not touch anything on the Server’s plate except for what you’re taking, and do not place your toothpick back onto the plate after you’ve eaten the food off of it.

– Feel free to ask questions about the food you are eating, especially if you have dietary restrictions due to allergies. If the staff member you ask does not know the answer, he/she should be able to find it for you in a timely manner.

– If there are stationed hors d’oeuvres, wait patiently in line to get your food as well as any silverware or napkins needed, then move through quickly (using provided serving utelsils, not your hands) and move along to another area to eat. If/When you go back up for more, you can choose to get a fresh plate (and leave yours in the area where you were eating to be cleared) or to reuse your original plate. When you return, if the 1st plate has not been cleared yet, do not stack the new plate on top of it. Simply move it aside.

– Cocktail Hour food is typically quite tasty, but it can also be filling. Keep in mind that there are often 3 more courses coming (salad/soup, entrees and dessert) and sometimes more, and try to pace yourself so as not to be wasteful or give yourself a stomachache.

Speaking of pacing yourself, remember the guideline that you should consume no more than ~1 standard alcoholic drink per hour so as not to get drunk, and to have a spacer (a glass of water) in between drinks. One drink at a time is plenty, and you don’t need to refill until your last drink is empty. You know your body better than anybody else at the party, so hold yourself accountable for what you’re putting into it, keeping in mind the occasion and your mode of transportation when the event ends. If your goal is to get tipsy/drunk and it’s an appropriate occasion to do so, don’t just throw caution to the wind: You still want to pace yourself so that you don’t black out, pass out, or toss your cookies before the party ends (or even after it’s over).

– You may want to plan ahead and bring along some cash for tips at the bar. While many venues do not put out a tip jar, you can certainly offer a tip for exemplary service, and most bartenders will happily accept. Don’t plan on the venue having an ATM, because they may not.

– Do not go up to the bar with the intention of handing over your trash and dirty dishes. The bartenders have limited space to make your drinks, and your food trash and dishes will just get in the way of that (and cause a longer wait for drinks). Somebody else– somewhere else– will clear your food trash and plates! That being said, if you have a glass from your previous drink and you would like the bartender to refill it, feel free to bring that with you. If you have a dirty glass you do not want to reuse, it’s better to have a server clear it from the spot where you’re eating.

Where to Eat Your Hors D’oeuvres :



Look around! Are there hi-top tables? Tables with chairs? Comfy chairs and couches? Outdoor seating? Tables for the main meal in the same room where Cocktail Hour is taking place? No more room to sit? Assess your options and pick a spot. It is easier to eat and drink if you have a surface to put something down, but it’s possible to stand and hold everything where you are if needed. You should avoid eating at a food station or a table with an important function (for example, a Place Card table, a Gift Table, or the table with the Guest Book/Board) as something could spill or get in the way of the table’s intended purpose.

What to Do With Items When You’re Finished: 
– You may wonder what to do with your toothpicks, trash and even dishes as you finish. If you’re standing at a hi-top table, you can just put them down and a staff member should be around to clear them in due time. You should not have to flag them down, and should certainly never snap at them (literally or figuratively). If you do feel as though your area needs some attention after some time has passed and perhaps they’ve missed it, it would be okay to respectfully make a request as a Server passes by.

– Do not ever toss things onto a Server’s tray. Keeping a tray balanced is…well, a balancing act!…and having somebody add something on (or take something off) when you’re not ready can cause things to fall, spill, break, etc. Make sure he/she is ready before handing them anything and allow him/her to place it on the tray.

– Leave trash on top of a plate or a napkin if possible. Do not place trash into glasses, especially if there’s still liquid inside.

– If you are not standing/sitting at a table, you can either find the nearest table to put them down, OR if you see a large tray set up anywhere in the room, feel free to place your items there. Please do not put them down on a food station or a table with an important function.

– If you are seated at the larger round table, try to place items near the edge of the table (instead of scooting them to the middle) so that staff members may clear them with ease.

Toothpick Etiquette: 
PLEASE do not break your toothpicks into little pieces. This goes for straw wrappers, too.

– You may be in the habit of using a toothpick at home or elsewhere and keeping it in your mouth for a long period of time. When you’re at a formal event, this is not really the time or place to do that. The purpose of these toothpicks get the food from the kitchen to your mouth, so once that is done, it has served its purpose and you can put it down. If you need to clear something from between your teeth, you may want to excuse yourself and take care of that in the bathroom.

Your To-Do List During Cocktail Hour: 
Enjoy yourself! Eat, drink & be merry! 
Mingle and smile. Network if it’s that kind of event, and get to know new people no matter what the occasion!
Look around! The hosts may have planned some additional details that they wanted you to take note of during this time. Is there a Guest Book or Board to sign? Are there lawn games to play? Is there a Signature Cocktail that they’d especially want you to try? Did they bring in a selection of seafood for you to try? Is there a table with Place Cards for the main meal? If so, go and find your place card (or Escort Card).
Be aware- This one is for safety purposes. When the party starts, be aware of the flow (of people and servers), the crowd, the seating options, etc. If it’s very busy, make every effort not to swing your arms, back up (or even walk forward) without looking, or plant yourself directly in the path of traffic. This way, everyone will be free to move and socialize as they wish without getting stuck. Along the same lines, watch where the staff members are coming from/going. If they’re all using one door, please do not stand right outside of that door! It can be dangerous for you and for them.
– Keep your friends close and your children closer- Having your children at a formal event can be a lot of fun, but it comes with an added responsibility for you to know where they are at all times and to be close by. This should go unsaid, but you still need to parent your children at a party, even when there are other children, staff members and lots of other adults around. This is true for the entire wedding day, down to the last minute. Children running around can be dangerous for them and others– especially if they are small and out of the line of vision of a Server who may be carrying heavy/hot/large things. Keep them close and keep everyone safe.

When Cocktail Hour Ends:
At the conclusion of the hour, you’ll be asked to take your seat. Feel free to leave any plates, glasses, etc. that you are finished with behind. If you’re still working on something, bring it along with you. Follow the seating plan if there is one and try to get to your seat quickly. If the bar has closed temporarily, do not try to pressure the bartenders to give you one more drink. If you need to use the restroom or want to grab one more little plate of food, do so quickly, but please wait to go smoke one more cigarette or take 10 more pictures with your family. There will be time to do that later, and your Server may be waiting at your table to confirm your entree order, so get in there!

Do  you have any other Cocktail Hour tips and suggestions? Add them in the comments below!! 


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