What Do I Do When They Give Me a Fork, Knife, and Chopsticks?

Categories: SF Etiquette
Fielding your questions about dining out in 21st-century Bay Area restaurants. Have one? Email me

San Francisco diners are expected to become practiced at a variety of eating implements in a seemingly infinite variety of combinations. So I wasn't surprised to get asked this question:
C.R.: So what do I do when I'm in a Chinese restaurant and the waiter brings me chopsticks and a fork and knife?
Well, C.R., a decade ago I would have answered something like "Use the chopsticks, duh, and ask for them if the waiter doesn't bring them to you." But that all changed a few years back, after some friends and I got into an argument at a Thai restaurant.

One person had asked the server for chopsticks, and I mentioned that in Thailand, you'd only use chopsticks for noodles; for curries and stir-fries, you'd use a fork and a spoon (yeah, a little obnoxious, but these were good friends). A third member of our party said, "But why does it matter? It's not like we're in Thailand."

The argument heated up from there, but it changed my entire approach to culturally sensitive utensil use. After all, Chinese restaurants don't do non-chopstick-users a favor by giving them chopsticks and a dinner plate -- rice is far, far easier to eat Chinese style, from a small bowl that you hold up close to your mouth. As I've been eating my way around Chinatown, I've noticed half of the customers -- of all ethnicities -- use forks to demolish their lunchtime rice plates.

So here's my current take on the "Fork or chopsticks or both?" question: Use whatever utensils you eat most politely with. Props to you if you know that in India, you should only touch the food with your right hand, and that in Korea, you use a spoon to eat rice out of the rice bowl without ever lifting the latter off the table. But departing from those rules is only going to raise eyebrows if you're in India or Korea.

In the United States, I'd rather see you with a tablecloth free of blobs and stains than watch you fumble around with chopsticks you barely know how to wrangle. These days, if my waiter brings me a fork, I use the fork. If she brings me chopsticks and a fork, I'm probably going to use chopsticks for most of the meaty bits and then break out the fork at the end to clean the plate of sauce-saturated rice. I'm not proud, and my shirt is much cleaner.

And to the first person I see whip out your own chopsticks to eat a bowl of fettucine at Incanto: You have my full support. Yes, it'll look unbelievably pretentious, but it's so much easier than twirling the pasta around a fork, don't you think?

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