Thank Goodness We Don’t Have Ladies Menus (Except That Time I Did)

A few years ago, my now-husband and I were on vacation in Greece, and, as we try to do whenever we go somewhere new, used one night to dine at a really good, fancy restaurant. We had been staying with a friend’s family the rest of that week so we hadn’t been spending much money, and decided to really splurge and go to a Michelin-starred joint on the outskirts of Athens. It was a beautiful place, with a semi-enclosed courtyard and a CHEESE CART (note: write about the etiquette of cheese carts), and we immediately felt very high-class upon entering. We were led to our table, where someone pulled out my chair for me and placed my napkin in my lap, and we were handed menus. Curiously, I noticed my menu did not have prices listed. “Hey, do you have prices? Is this just how they do things?” I asked my date. Turns out, he did have the prices. Welcome to the concept of the Ladies Menu.

The Ladies Menu, one without prices, stems from the idea that someone being treated to dinner should not know what their host is paying for them. You wouldn’t tell guests at a house party how much you paid for all the ingredients in that cake you made, right? Of course not, because they’re your guests and you don’t want to make them uncomfortable about having a lot of money (or a little) being spent on them. Unfortunately, the idea was also that OBVIOUSLY the man would be treating a woman on a date (and obviously a man and a woman out together was a date, and obviously two men or two women would never date, etc.).

The concept works with limited success. Women were often taught to predict which dishes would be mid-range options, to avoid upsetting their dates by ordering too richly. Also, occasionally the “host” would forbid the guest from ordering certain things that were too expensive, defeating the point. And nowadays, given that most restaurants post at least sample menus online, can’t you just figure out the average prices beforehand? Or am I the only one that will spend all afternoon before a dinner trying to figure out what I want to eat?

Complications also arise when a man and a woman want to dine in any way besides the man treating. Tracy MacLeod writes:

…I recall the irritation of a friend of mine, a high-powered BBC current affairs presenter, whose attempt to treat her husband to a special birthday dinner at La Tante Claire was foiled at every turn. Even though she’d made the booking, the staff treated her as the little lady guest. She got the menu with no prices. He got the wine to taste. She requested the bill. He was given it to pay. As they were leaving, the manager asked if she’d enjoyed her meal. It was lovely, she said, but as she was paying for her husband, it would have been nice if they’d treated her as the host. The manager’s face broke into an incredulous smile, and he turned to my friend’s husband. “Lucky fella!” he breathed.

This isn’t the only way restaurants differentiate between men and women, though it’s certainly the most obvious. The New York Times says, “At most upscale restaurants…software lets servers note both the position at a table to which a dish is going and whether the diner is female, so the food’s couriers can plot to present dishes in a gender-conscious sequence,” whatever that is. And MacLeod continues, “it rankles when front of house staff refuse to accept a woman as the main point of contact in a mixed group. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve ordered wine which has then been brought to a male companion to taste. Same with the bill. And quite regularly, waiters have assumed, if I’m dining with a man, that the fish must be for me, and the steak and ale pudding for him.”

Restaurants giving priceless menus to ladies is dying out, though some restaurateurs do note the need for priceless menus. For instance, if one person is hosting a group at a restaurant, they may not want their guests to see the prices, and that is totally legitimate! But let’s be thankful that most women get to know what they’re paying for their own dinner.

How To Propose A Toast

Me as a bridesmaid drinking to my friend's health. [Jennifer May Photography]

Me as a bridesmaid drinking to my friend’s health. [Jennifer May Photography]

I LOVE proposing toasts. I do it at pretty much every meal I don’t eat alone, whether it’s a simple “cheers” with whatever glasses we have, or saying thanks to the hosts for having us together. According to my research, that latter move is in no way correct, but whatever, I’m grateful and I like clinking glasses and making eye contact.

So how do you toast a nice occasion? First, a bit of history. According to Service Etiquette by Oretha D. Swartz, the tradition of toasting goes back to “ancient times, when a piece of toast was placed in a goblet with the mead, or any alcoholic brew. When it became saturated, the toast sank to the bottom goblet, and after someone challenged ‘Toast!’ it was necessary to drain the goblet in order to get the toast.” Is this real? This sounds apocryphal, but The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette has a similar story. I’ll take it.

Swartz continues with some modern (it was written in 1988 but not much has changed) toasting etiquette tips. Nowadays it is not necessary to drain your glass; take a sip or two so that more of your beverage is available for future toasts. At formal occasions toasts may be made with champagne, but just use whatever drink you have on hand. If you happen to be served wine but don’t drink, Swartz recommends just touching the glass to your lips, since not participating in a toast is incredibly rude. However, I think it’s fine to just use whatever else you may be drinking, and give the wine to someone else.

Amy Vanderbilt notes that the best toasts are short and sweet, so if you are asked to toast a newly-wedded couple, a holiday dinner, or other celebration, simply honoring those who the party is for and saying how thankful you are to have everyone together is nice. A toast does not need to turn into a speech, unless you’ve been requested to prepare one, which is a whole other can of worms we can talk about later (or never because oh boy, public speaking).

Nearly all the etiquette books I’ve found mention that you are not supposed to drink a toast to yourself, lest you come off as self-congratulatory. I personally could not care less, but just be aware that some people might. In the event that someone is toasting to you but you still want to drink, you can respond “Thank you, and here’s to you all,” in which case you’ve flipped to toast onto them and technically are the only person in the room allowed to drink, you sneaky minx.

Now, some toast notes:

  • At a wedding, the first toast is traditionally given by the best man. However, I can’t think of the last wedding I went to that specifically followed this rule. Toasts were given in all sorts of orders by the couple’s parents, bridesmaids, siblings, etc. We may be able to retire this one.
  • Swartz says it’s traditional to toast the bride at a bachelor party, gentlemen.
  • If you feel an imminent toast, be sure to top your glass and the glasses of those around you, as it’s rude to toast with nothing.
  • According to Debrett’s, “port is never drunk before the Loyal Toast,” which is a toast to the head of the state. In this ceremony port is apparently passed to the left, and if you miss the decanter, you have to pass your glass to the left in hopes it catches up because the decanter can never be passed to the right.
  • If you’re going to be traveling abroad, learn the common toasts in those countries.
  • When I studied abroad in Italy I was taught you’re supposed to make eye contact with everyone at the table while toasting otherwise it’s seven years bad sex. It seems that many cultures have a similar superstition, so may as well play it safe.