Dear Helena,

I want to propose to my girlfriend in the little French bistro where we had our first date, but I need advice on how to do it. I’d like to do something special like have the restaurant write “Will you marry me?” in chocolate sauce on her dessert plate. But that seems cheesy. What’s a good way to propose in a restaurant? I want everything to go smoothly. —Jittery Boyfriend

Dear Jittery Boyfriend,

Proposing in a restaurant is tricky. A public setting seems inappropriate for such an intimate moment. And you’ll have to work hard to avoid cliché. But, if you’re set on the idea, here’s how to go about it.

Call the restaurant in advance. Proposing in a restaurant means you’ll have an audience, but unless you’re a real exhibitionist you probably don’t want every single person there to watch. Ask for a table in a secluded corner, limiting onlookers to those at the tables next to you. You could book a private room to ensure complete intimacy, but that may cause your girlfriend to be suspicious. Instead, when you make your reservation, just ask for a quiet table. Be upfront about your plans, otherwise you could be upstaged. Rosanne Martino, general manager of One if by Land, Two if by Sea, a popular New York City restaurant for proposals, says: “If other proposals are happening the same night, we can separate people into different rooms.”

Don’t eat too late. Steven Lande, the maître d’ of the swanky Restaurant Gary Danko, has helped many patrons plan their proposals. He advises those bent on proposing to dine earlier, especially if you have family in time zones east of you. “When you get engaged, the first thing you want to do is phone relatives,” he explains. “If your reservation is at 9:30 p.m., by the time she calls her parents it could be 2 a.m. where they are.”

Pick your moment. If you wait until dessert, you’ll have butterflies all through dinner. Lande advises: “Do it near the start. Then you can have the meal as a celebratory meal. Otherwise one is uptight, and the other doesn’t know why they’re uptight.” Sven Liden, a marketing executive in Seattle, waited to propose to his wife until the middle of the entrée, and recalls: “I was definitely nervous. I checked that the ring hadn’t fallen out of my pocket probably 50 times.” But you need not propose the instant you sit down. Wait until your drinks have arrived, so you’ll have a little Dutch courage.

Don’t hide the ring in her flan. Don’t arrange for the kitchen staff to conceal the ring at the bottom of her champagne glass or in her chocolate torte. They might lose it. “The more people are handling an expensive ring, the more chance there is of something happening,” Martino says. Or they might pop the ring in somebody else’s dessert, leading to an embarrassing misunderstanding. Lande adds: “The ring could have traces of jewelry cleaner on it,” which could ruin the taste of her champagne. At worst, she might choke.

Shun the cliché of the cloche. The most popular method of presenting the ring, Lande and Martino say, is to have the server bring it out under a cloche. Personally, I feel this is trite. It’s better to simply offer the ring (and that way you don’t have to involve the server). Or you could devise something more original. Liden designed an image that included the words “Destiny, will you marry me? Love, Sven.” He had a printing shop print the image on a plate from the restaurant. The restaurant plated Destiny’s fish entrée so that the food covered the writing, and as Destiny ate, it was gradually revealed.

Expect confusion. “Sometimes people are very oblivious and it takes them a moment to get it,” says Lande. In all the proposal stories I heard, the person being asked was momentarily nonplussed. Liden recalls: “At first [Destiny] thought the restaurant had done some kind of trick … then she was in a daze.”

Don’t feel obliged to kneel. If you stay seated, you’ll keep the moment more intimate. That may be why, as Lande says, “people are kneeling much less these days.” If you get down on one knee, all the other patrons will turn to watch you. That’s OK if you savor the theatrical. But you must be confident she’ll say yes, or you risk public humiliation.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

See more articles