The mood has been set for dinner, just as carefully and confidently as the napkin has been folded. There is an irresistible feeling of generosity as you fling the napkin open to reveal enough cloth to cover a fair-sized Episcopalian minister. It feels luxuriously weighty as it unfurls over your lap, protecting you from the spills and splashes of misfortune.
A good table napkin is a marvellous accessory to dining. You can gesture with it, play with it, scrunch it, tuck it into your collar, or dab the corners of your eyes with it after a particularly good joke. It is also reasonably good at wiping stray bits of food from your face, but there is a downside: it gets dirty. We seem to have forgotten that's why the things were invented in the first place. They're supposed to get dirty, so that we don't.
In a restaurant, one of the waiter's prime tasks is to turn the draping of a starched table napkin into a ceremony that signifies the beginning of a wonderful evening. Everything waits for that moment the napkin is laid across your lap. Yet modern neuroses may signal the end of such a charming ritual. The renowned American food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, for example, leaps to unfold his own. Apparently, there is nothing he likes less than to have waiters fiddling about in his lap.
Now that we have established that there are few things as pleasing as a simply folded white napkin, we need to acknowledge the Dark Side of the napkin world.
In the same way that a child must scribble on a clean sheet of paper, restaurateurs must take a perfectly good, plain napkin, and Do Things To It. There are those who believe that napkin-folding is one of the world's finest arts, as full of nuance as Japanese origami. It can also be seen as satisfyingly postmodern, in that the artwork is not revered and stored in an elitist art gallery, but immediately deconstructed.
As with most artforms, there are stereotypes. If your napkin is in the shape of a water lily, then you are obviously at a Thai restaurant. Only Thai people have the patience and serenity required to create water lilies from cloth without going completely mad.
If it is in the shape of a fleur-de-lys then you are at a French restaurant - but beware. It is obviously not a very busy French restaurant if the staff have time to sit around and create fleurs-de-lys.
If it's in the classic fan shape, then you're probably stuck in some god-awful out-of-town pub dining-room with pretensions to restaurant prices. A Loch Ness Monster, and you're at a kid's birthday party. A twin candle means you're at a wedding reception. A flying nun's hat or a bishop's mitre means very little, but it may well be a Sunday.
As for that peculiar high point of napkin-folding, the dwarf's boot, I have no idea where you are, but I suggest you get out fast.
There are few alternatives to a good napkin. Reject those disgusting bibs they offer you at all-you-can-eat seafood and barbecue-rib theme restaurants, as you will walk out with more dignity if covered in sauce. If they insist (in these litigious days, the restaurateurs may not want to be culpable for dry-cleaning bills), then say you will indeed wear one - but only if they play aeroplanes and feed you by hand.Reuse content