Done Eating, Not Dining

Dear Helena,

I hate it when I’m eating in a restaurant and the server snatches everyone’s plates away the instant they are done. I like to take my time over a meal and sometimes am the last to finish. I feel like by removing the other plates, the server is trying to rush me through dinner. When clearing plates, shouldn’t the server wait until all members of the party have stopped eating? Or is it now considered good service to whisk away each diner’s plate as soon he is done? —Savoring My Entrée

Dear Savoring My Entrée,

Some servers may take plates away in an effort to hurry you up and turn the table. But they know their tip will be smaller if you haven’t had a pleasant experience. More likely, they are removing plates as diners finish because they think that is attentive service. In fact, it’s an annoying intrusion, like when they top off your water glass each time you take a sip.

Martha Keller, a hospitality instructor at the Culinary Institute of America’s California campus, says: “The proper etiquette is to wait until everyone has completed their meal and clear everyone at once.”

A diner should be content to have his empty plate in front of him while he waits for his companions to finish. Unfortunately, as Keller points out, some people feel an obsessive-compulsive need to get rid of their plate as soon as they are done. “People sometimes shove their plates away to signal to the server to take it,” she says.

And some diners are anxious to have the remains of their meal taken away so they won’t be tempted to overeat. Jonny Bowden, author of Living the Low Carb Life: Controlled Carbohydrate Eating for Long-Term Weight Loss, cautions dieters that having your half-eaten burger sitting in front of you could lead to “mindless picking.”

But, when you’re having dinner with people you care about, you are enjoying one of life’s greatest pleasures, and for the short space of time you are seated at the table, all you should be thinking about is the meal and the conversation. Ideally, you shouldn’t be worrying about your waistline or chafing at the sight of a dirty plate, and should be happy to wait until your companions have finished. (Your friends, in turn, should try to eat at a reasonable pace.)

When everyone is finished, the server should not pile the plates in an unwieldy tower so he can remove them all at once, as he could send lukewarm spaghetti slithering into someone’s lap. According to Keller, no server should clear more than three plates at a time. Two is the ideal, because even the clumsiest server can remove a pair of plates without incident. In top-tier restaurants, she says, all the plates should be removed at once, which means there should be one server for every two diners, all working together. That way, clearing the plates causes minimum interruption to the diners’ conversation.

As a side note, I’ve noticed that people at restaurants and home dinner parties sometimes try to help clear the table by scraping food remains and cutlery onto a single plate, then piling the other plates neatly underneath. This is a bad idea: A pile of plates in the center of the table can be hard for a server to reach or lift. Plus, watching congealed lamb chops get mixed together with wilted spinach and pieces of damp bread may cause indigestion.

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