Students file into the dimly lit hall, adorned with candelabras. They take their place at the table and begin to relax, only to then have to stand up again five minutes later, as the Principal/Provost, senior fellows and tutors take their seats at the high table. Then cue a large bang as the Principal hits the table with a mallet. The doors to hall close and Latin grace is read aloud. Then, at last the meal can begin...
Now this might sound like a pretty lengthy ordeal but it is just so Oxford. I personally love the fact that these long-held traditions are still in existence today.
Saying that, I do vividly remember struggling to stand up properly in the small gap between the table and bench seat behind me in my first formal hall. I wasn't alone...all of us freshers were wobbling away, our balance threatening to collapse at any moment and desperately attempting to hold in the embarrassed giggles, as we waited to be seated.
Once you've worked your way through the three course meal, the same sort of procedure begins again; there is a loud bang on the table, guests rise, high-table leave the hall, swiftly followed by the students.
Over time you get used to the small gap between the table and benches, the loud bang is no longer shocking but expected and Latin grace becomes the norm.
Frequency of formal hall and prices vary depending on the college, check out: http://apply.ousu.org/colleges/compare/formal-hall/ for more info.
There are also different rules on wearing gowns - At Christ Church students have to wear their gowns, whereas at other colleges like Somerville gowns aren't required.
Some colleges give extra dining rights to students who excel in their exams or studies. These students are known as 'Scholars' and 'Exhibitioners'; one of the perks of owning this title can be free formal dinners! (I'll do a more comprehensive post on these titles)