Which Bread Plate is Mine?

Now all we need is food.

One of the jobs I don’t usually list on my résumé is “busboy”.  For some reason, it doesn’t seem to impress anyone that while I was in college, I spent a summer working in the dining room of a resort hotel.  Trust me, I’ve had worse jobs — “elf” at an amusement park, for instance — and being a busboy was very educational.

Because my job responsibilities included setting tables for banquets, I learned how utensils and glassware are supposed to be placed for formal dining.  That knowledge comes in handy every once in a while, like when I’m at a wedding reception or retirement party or — well, any event where a table that would comfortably seat six people is set for eight.

You’ve been in those situations, right?  There are so many plates and glasses on the table, it’s hard to know which are supposed to be yours.  So let me pass along some of my busboy wisdom…

If you look at the photo above, you can see that the soup bowl is on the dinner plate, the bread plate is to the left of the dinner plate, and the water glass is to the right of the dinner plate.  Some people use the mnemonic BMW to remember what goes where.  In this case, BMW doesn’t stand for Bavarian Motor Works; it stands for Bread-Meal-Water.  From left to right, that’s your place setting:  the Bread plate, then the Meal in the center, and the Water glass on the right.  Oh, and your wine glasses are over there on the water side, too.

So what’s the deal with all the silverware?  There’s a reason it’s placed as it is — basically you start on the outside and work your way in.  For instance, the soup spoon is outside right; after you have finished your soup, some extremely attentive young busboy will clear away that spoon along with the bowl.

The salad fork is usually on the outside left, but once in a while you’ll see it inboard of the dinner fork.  That probably means that the salad will be served after the main dish, European style.

The cutlery above your plate is for dessert.  Sometimes there will just be a dessert fork, and sometimes there will just be a spoon.  But when I see both, I’m thinking, “OK, dessert is gonna be big!”

Oh, here’s something worth knowing about your bread plate:  it’s not just for bread.  It can also be used as sort of the trash bin for your meal.  That’s where you discreetly put olive pits or stray fish bones or other inedible things, instead of spitting them on the floor.

My tenure as a busboy was brief; I was “promoted” to bellboy, providing room service to the hotel’s guests.  The things I learned in that job weren’t as useful in later life.  For one thing, I learned that occupants of the bridal suite — honeymooners, in other words — were terrible tippers.

And I learned that the best tippers were guys who called down for a bottle of champagne and two glasses — they were usually with someone they wanted to impress.  They weren’t on a family vacation, if you get my drift, and they were always in a hurry to get me out the door.  Their loss — I could have told them a thing or two about how to set a banquet table!

4 responses to “Which Bread Plate is Mine?

  1. Yes, but can you fold a napkin into the shape of a swan? Waitressing sure pays off too.

  2. We did napkins that looked a bit like a hat. Sadly, I never learned to do a swan. Perhaps you can teach me someday.

  3. Would there exist a logical reason for the bread plate being placed to the left of the place setting (a.k.a. cover)?
    is it to somewhat ‘equalize’ the guest operations at the place setting i.e. operate with the bread and butter to the left and the wines/water to the right or is it just more ergonomic for a right hander to handle (break bread and butter the same) by reaching to the left (rather than the right)?

    • The origin of the bread-plate-on-the-left tradition is unclear, but I think your theory about using the right hand is the most plausible explanation. Since most people are right-handed, it would make sense that they would hold a morsel of bread in the left hand and spread butter on it with the knife in their right hand. That might also explain why knives and spoons are set on the right — their use requires a little more dexterity than a fork does. Come to think of it, the word “dexterity” is derived from a Latin word meaning “right hand.”

      Thanks for your comment.

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