The Lady Will Have the Prawns

Dear Helena,
I went out on a first date with some dude I met online. Everything was going great until he ordered for me. He let me choose what I wanted, but when the server came, before I could open my mouth, he said, “I’ll have the steak, and the lady will have the ravioli.” Maybe he was just trying to be chivalrous, the same way he would hold open the door for me, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way. This lady is perfectly capable of addressing the server herself. Is it ever OK for the man to give the woman’s order to the server?
—Speaks for Herself

Dear Speaks for Herself,
The first female restaurant-goers would not have dreamed of ordering for themselves. Women began dining out for pleasure around the 1840s in the United States, says William Grimes, author of Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York. (Before this, public eating establishments consisted of taverns, inns, and men’s clubs and did not cater to women.) Well-bred women always had a male companion who ordered their dinner. In fact, many restaurants did not even admit women without a male chaperon.

Rebecca L. Spang, author of The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture, explains: “The public sphere in the 19th century … was encoded as male.” In other words, it was indecorous for ladies to address men outside their circle of family and friends, even if it was just to say, “I’ll have the roasted chicken.”

Since men usually paid, giving the order may have seemed part of being a good host. In any case, it made more sense back then for one person to give the order, since entrées came in family-size portions and diners often split them. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the vogue for individual entrées began, says Grimes. “Many menus from the turn of the century have parentheses after the item indicating whether it’s a double or a single portion.”

But as women entered the workforce in greater numbers, they needed somewhere to eat lunch, sans date. Thus, in the early decades of the 20th century, explains Grimes, “there was an explosion of restaurants catering to the feminine aesthetic and palate.” For instance, a number of tearooms sprang up. A woman named Alice Foote MacDougall built a restaurant empire by understanding what women wanted: unintimidating rustic design (inspired by her visits to Spain and Italy), soft-spoken waitresses, and ladylike portion sizes. Gradually, it became more acceptable for women to dine out without a man, and they grew accustomed to ordering for themselves.

Some might argue that even though it’s now socially acceptable for the woman to order her own meal, it’s old-fashioned good manners for the man to do it for her. I disagree. I’m all in favor of old-fashioned courtesy, especially on special occasions, like a first date. For instance, a half-rise when you go to the bathroom is a nice gesture. But chivalry goes too far when it implies you’re a feeble flower, incapable of ordering your own food.

So a sensitive modern man would not dream of speaking for you. Michael Michaud, an urban developer in San Francisco, says, “I would only [order for a date] if we were eating family style, like in a Chinese restaurant.” He points out a better way to show old-fashioned good manners: Just let the woman order first.

But though your date blundered, it’s possible he meant well. You don’t yet know him well enough to judge. Maybe he will respect you as an equal. Or maybe he’s the kind of guy who picks up the tab in restaurants but assumes that the rest of the time you’ll do the cooking. The only way to find out is a second date.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.