Looking back, it seems simple in comparison. Thirty years ago we at least knew where we stood. Our food was familiar and there were rules and regulations, the right way and the wrong ways. But at least there were ways. Now, just as we're getting to grips with correct forks and glasses, restaurants and eating habits change, as do the rules. Things aren't so simple any more. We dine out at Vietnamese restaurants and people come around not for Sunday roasts but for pizza and beer. But if you think that means we're in a time of anything goes, guess again. As I discovered when I spoke to those who know, rights and wrongs still exist, it's just that they're all more complicated.
Use your noodle
Is it ever OK to slurp? This is a perfect example of how the traditional rules have become outdated. "No, not nice," says Anne Hart of Debrett's, the old-school arbiter of manners and publisher of The New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners. But Kimiko Barber, who was born in Japan and is author several excellent books on Oriental food, disagrees: "It's unlucky to cut noodles or to bite them in two, so you slurp them up." Henry Harris, restaurateur at Racine agrees: "Slurp if you can do it with confidence. It's impressive if you can pull it off."
'Hello! I'm in a restaurant...'
There's one area where old guard and avant guarde agree: moblie phones. "Pointless calls are the worst offence against good manners," says Hart. "If you really must put your mobile on the table, check with the maitre d' to see if it's all right to put it on silent ring and then leave the room if you must take a call."
If there's one Asian cuisine we ought to have worked out, it's Indian. You're probably not getting much wrong – your mum might have told you off for dunking biscuits into tea, but feel free to dunk your naan in a curry. "In India you tear off a little piece of naan and use it like a spoon to scoop food from a bowl," says Iqbal Wahhab. And since he runs once of the most upmarket Indian restaurants in the land (Westminster's Cinnamon Club), he ought to know.
Meet and greet
When a lady arrives to join your table, do you stand? "It depends on the woman, and the restaurant," says Martin Raymond of trendspotters The Future Laboratory. In most cases, half-rise, half sit, and stretch out your hand." Don't overdo it or you'll look obsequious, not mannerly. As for PDAs (public displays of affection), cheek-kissing and hugging are fine, but keep it at that.
Forks or fingers?
These days, the most unlikely foods can be tackled with your hands. Many upmarket restaurants now serve burgers – you'll have cutlery, but don't feel you need to use it. "It's fine to use fingers, as long as you don't get too messy," says Hart. But Wahhab extends the rule to the Cinnamon Club, encouraging people to be more tactile with little appetisers to be eaten with fingers.
For some people, wine is the only alcoholic drink to serve with food. In Harris's opinion, for instance, "beer's naff". People sneer at beer because it can be bloating. But do whatever you're comfortable with – many people think it's fine with bold, spicy food. And, says Raymond, people are starting to drink whisky with spicy Asian dishes, following a trend that started in Japan. As for insisting on white wine with white meat and red with red – forget it. "Since New World wines have arrived, people have been reassessing their choices. Match wines to the flavour of the food. A light Italian red might well go with white meat or fish. And don't shy away from asking for a red to be chilled – it holds back certain flavours in the wine, and might make it more appropriate for your food." And in restaurants, don't be afraid to order tap water.
Give it some stick
Chopsticks can often spell embarrassment, but even if you have the skill to pick up individual grains of rice, you can still be caught out, most often by leaving your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice. "In Japan and China, a bowl of rice with chopsticks standing upright in it is often left by the grave of a loved one," says Barber. So, not a happy image to recreate. "That's one of the reasons you let chopstick rests beside your bowl. It's also incorrect to rest chopsticks on the bowl."
Thanks but no thanks
There are pitfalls even if you're not hosting a dinner party. Your host should check what you can and can't eat, says Hart. But don't go overboard – allergies and vegetarianism are one thing, but you have to draw a line. "If it's your carbohydrate-free diet that's bothering you, don't make an issue of it; just avoid the bread," says Hart. Nonetheless, "I'm on a diet," can be a useful line if you can't face finishing something unpleasant.
Something fishy's going on...
One might think that the sushi bar is an etiquette nightmare waiting to happen. But not so. First, if you pick the wrong dish on the conveyor belt, you can just put it back. "The dishes are usually covered with some sort of lid, so return it to the conveyor belt, just as long as you haven't opened it," says Barber. And if you find chopsticks tricky, then this is the Oriental food for you: "In Japan you see people using either fingers or chopsticks, so use whichever you like," says Ni Lenette, owner of Tsunami in Clapham, London. But there are a few things to watch. Take a side plate for wasabi and soy sauce, but try not to let them mix. "You don't want a brown sludge drowning the delicate taste of the sushi," says Barber. "Dip a corner of the sushi in the soy, touching both the fish and the rice."
Think outside the box
Just because you're on home turf, things aren't necessarily more clear-cut. Even serving take-away pizza for friends has its protocols. Step one: take it out of the box to serve it. Step two: dress it up a bit. Try freshening it up with capers, says cookbook author Kevin Gould. It may sound prissy, but it shows effort. But don't go too far, though – save the knife and fork for the pizzeria and use hands at home. Take-away or pre-prepared food is fine for most occasions – but don't try to pass it off as your own cooking.
The final word goes to Raymond: "Relax. Etiquette is there to make people feel included, not excluded. It's about belonging. A host should follow the guests – if someone breaks with convention, follow them. Knowing what's on is fine, but don't think you can lay down rules for other people."