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Recently, whilst dining in France I have noticed a custom that seems strange to me.

Typically in the UK I will expect a clean knife and fork for my main course after finishing my starter. However, on multiple occasions in French restaurants I have been handed back my knife and fork after having my starter dishes removed.

If this is indeed customary, is there a rationale for it? I can't imagine that it's done to reduce the amount of washing up to be done.

  • This is common in the US as most restaurants that set the table will set 2 forks and a knife and spoon. – AbraCadaver Dec 29 '14 at 16:47
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    Multiply double silverware for all patrons of a restaurant--that's quite a bit of extra 'washing up.' – mkennedy Dec 29 '14 at 18:08
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    Could be worse... Years ago I waited tables for an employer so... erm... profit-motivated, they bought in fewer sets of cutlery than they had seats. On busy days, we would have to lurk near the tables who were served first, nip in as soon as they finished to grab the knives and forks, rush them to be washed, quickly dry them, then rush them to tables of confused, hungry people with rapidly cooling meals in front of them, before they resorted to using their hands. And that place wasn't cheap either... needless to say, it didn't last. – user568458 Dec 29 '14 at 23:52
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    That is done in many German restaurants of different pricing levels, as well. I have come across restaurants where staff were going to replace knife and fork for a new course, but usually even then, they did not refuse if I insisted on re-using what I had already used. – O. R. Mapper Dec 30 '14 at 11:35
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    The simple answer to your question "customary in France?" is that this has utterly no connection to "France". this might happen at cheaper places, and of course not happen in expensive restaurants. There's absolutely no difference between "France", "UK", "Canada", etc, in this. It's rather astounding you've never noticed this in the UK. Food service standards are, as a very general rule, mindbogglingly higher in France than the UK. – Fattie Apr 21 '16 at 14:46
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It's definitely not a French custom. Whilst cutlery has its own chapter in the dining etiquette, several restaurants do not replace used cutlery between dishes. Indeed, I have had this happen in various restaurants around the globe. The common denominator across all these establishment was their affordability. Keeping the same set of cutlery for more than a dish is indeed customary of low/mid-budget restaurants. And as you guessed, the rationale behind this is reducing the amount of washing up to be done.

In general, high-end restaurants tend to have all the cutlery you will ever need, neatly laid out on the table even before you sit down. There are cases in which specialised tools such as steak knives, fish cutlery, soup spoons, etc will be brought to the table and exchanged with the prepositioned cutlery. In all such settings you will most definitely be using different pieces of silverware for different dishes. On the other hand, low/mid-budget places will either bring the cutlery with the dish, or will have only one set of cutlery, consisting of a knife and a fork, laid out on the table.

  • But the question is about France… For the rest, having worked briefly in a restaurant, I think the work required from the waiting staff or the number of utensils needed in total are just as much an issue as washing up per se. OTOH, in high-end restaurants, not all the knifes and forks placed on the table are intended to be used. Meat or fish knifes will be placed based on what you order, not laid out on the table beforehand. – Relaxed Dec 30 '14 at 11:29
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    @Relaxed The question is indeed about France, that's why my answer is centred around disproving that handling back cutlery between dishes is customary in France. You are right about the rest, I edited my answer. – JoErNanO Dec 30 '14 at 13:37
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You could just as well turn the question around: What's the rationale for bothering with several sets of knifes and forks? Minutes traces of food surely aren't a big problem and it does involve quite a lot of work, not only for cleaning but also for the service staff. One way or the other, such things are necessarily customary and this only strikes you as peculiar because you are used to something else.

That said, most restaurants in France will in fact provide a clean knife and fork and fancy restaurants will have several sets of utensils and a plate already on the table when you arrive. You start with the outermost set and then move on to the next one. The cutlery for the main dish are “stand-ins”, the staff will replace them with the correct ones depending on what you ordered shortly before bringing the food. Similarly the plate will be removed and replaced by the actual plate containing the food.

Simpler restaurants will have no plate and a single set of knife/fork and only bring special utensils like a meat knife as needed (possibly even putting it on the plate itself, e.g. with the blade under a steak to hold it in place). I have seen that in cheap café-restaurants, possibly some brasseries or chain restaurants. It does not bother me but I would not say it's common in France.

  • If you want to take the cleaning argument - if I take my dirty cutlery off my plate before it is taken away, place them back on the table cloth, there is now a dirty - possibly stained - table cloth. – OJFord Dec 30 '14 at 12:36
  • @OllieFord Like I said I don't think it's the main factor but in fact tables have to be cleaned anyway. Cheap places will have a disposable paper napkin or something else than a regular table cloth and for high-end places it's a well-known issue (I remember hearing one chef citing this as one of the reasons to give up on his third Michelin star because the costs of this type of things forced him to charge a lot for the meals). Most tables are much dirtier than that after a meal, so I am not sure this makes any difference… – Relaxed Dec 30 '14 at 13:19
  • Agreed they have to be cleaned anyway, but it's unpleasant for the current user. Seems rude to remove cutlery from plate and hand it back. – OJFord Dec 30 '14 at 13:24
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    This does not (appear to) address the question at all. The question would appear to be, is this customary "in France". (Of course, the answer is "no".) If you have any specific information about the "in France" issue, why not edit it in as an answer. The answer here would seem to be more a discussion about possible reasons? restaurants would/wouldn't do this practice. – Fattie Apr 21 '16 at 14:47
  • @JoeBlow What?! Of course the whole answer is based on my experience in France!! And only the first paragraph is about the reasons why, the rest details what you can expect from French restaurants (even using French words in several places…). In a nutshell: "Most restaurants [don't do it]. Simpler restaurants [occasionally do it] but I would not say it's common.” But OK, I added the magic words "in France", since that wasn't clear, apparently. – Relaxed Apr 21 '16 at 15:26
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This is common practice in Spanish restaurants. The more upmarket types will replace your cutlery after each course, but most mid-priced to lower-cost eateries will expect you to use the same knife and fork for your first (paella!!) course and the fish and chips or whatever you have for the second course. I initially found this curious after moving to Spain, but soon got used to it.

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NEVER. Unless you are trying to be be a (very) casual restaurant. If you have taken the cutlery up (either on the plate or it was handed to you), you always replace the cutlery with a clean set, appropriate for the next course. However, if it is not a formal restaurant and the client/ guest wants to use the same for the next course, no problem.

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