Proper serving etiquette is a list of rules about how food should be presented and served at formal parties and restaurants. The precise details of serving etiquette vary, depending on cultural norms, and the rules may be bent on occasion for special circumstances. Training in proper etiquette for serving is usually offered to people who work in fine restaurants or who provide wait services for catering companies.
While serving etiquette may seem petty and a bit restrictive at times, it actually has some very sound reasons for existing. Coordinating service was critical in an era when people were waited on by servants, because it ensured that the servants worked smoothly together without crashing into each other or dropping things. Observing proper etiquette is also designed to keep guests comfortable, and to make people feel welcome.
When people are served, the tradition is to start with the guest of honor, followed by the women in the party, the men, the hostess, and finally the host. If the delineations between guests are not clear, servers start with the oldest woman at the table, and work their way down to the youngest man. The same order is followed when taking orders in a restaurant.
Food and drinks are usually served from the left and cleared from the right. In some regions of the world, this is reversed, with staff serving from the right and clearing from the left. Exceptions may be made, as for instance when a guest is leaning to speak to another guest, making it difficult to serve or clear in the conventional style, or when guests are seated against a wall which makes it logistically difficult to serve and clear from different sides.
Plates are served all at once, and cleared all at once, so that courses come out together. In some restaurants, wait staff may clear plates as people finish, although this convention is frowned upon in the rules of etiquette. The idea is that someone who lingers over his or her meal may feel pressured if the plates of other guests are cleared, since this may suggest that the guest should hurry up. On the other hand, guests may not want to look at dirty plates while they wait for others to finish, in the belief of some restaurant owners and waiters.
There are additional nuances of serving etiquette, some of which can get quite complex. For example, in some establishments, liquids are served from one side, and solids from another, and preplated food may be served from a different side than foods which are portioned out at the table. There may also be cultural norms to observe, such as not handling food with the left hand in the Middle East. Guidebooks on serving etiquette can provide additional details to people working in food service.