Is Saving Tables Wrong?

Dear Helena,

I like to have lunch at a busy downtown spot with only 12 tables. You line up to get your food and then seat yourself. The place is always packed, and as I stand in line, I grow increasingly anxious, scanning the room in hopes a table will open up.

Other people often claim a table before they’re done in line, either by dumping a bag or jacket there or, if they’re not alone, by seating one or more members of their party. I know on the grand scale this is a minor breach of ethics, but it still seems wrong. In crowded, cafeteria-style restaurants, is it acceptable to mark your table before you’re done in line? —Awkward Wanderer with Tray

Dear Awkward Wanderer with Tray,

In some parts of the country, it’s common practice to claim a table before you get your food. Not so in the South. George Mickelis, owner of Cleburne Cafeteria, in Houston, Texas, observes: “It’s been the same here since 1941. You get in line, you place your order, and then you take a seat … except with older customers that need assistance.”

Sara Dima, a native Texan and general manager of the popular City Bakery in New York, says that queuing is done differently in NYC. “It’s more important [to New Yorkers] that you get what you want. ... We have seen some elbows thrown.”

In an ideal world, the physically able would all practice Texas-style queuing. It’s simply more efficient. When you mark a table in a restaurant, that table is being wasted while you stand in line. New York–style queuing is also unfair to solo diners: Without a companion to claim their table, they must either risk losing their property or forgo the chance to grab a seat in advance.

Even in regions where seat-saving is considered impolite, if you’re physically incapable of standing in line, it’s OK for you to sit down while another member of your party orders. Those who are old, infirm, or heavily pregnant should take a seat, and so should those with small children (it might seem unfair that people with children get special privileges, but it’s even more annoying to have small children squealing while you try to order your sandwich).

Texas-style queuing, then, seems to be in the interests of the group, but it’s difficult to enforce. Although restaurants could post signs prohibiting customers from taking seats before they have their food, most places don’t want to risk alienating diners. Dima points out that the City Bakery is “self-service and self-seating. ... It’s between customers to choose whose seat is whose.”

As with many market systems, cheaters get an advantage. If there are a few people who do save themselves a table, then those who follow the rules lose out, politely waiting their turn while others snag the best seats.

One solution might be for the restaurant to make standing in line so interesting that no one frets about where to sit. Boston-based chain Finagle a Bagel has a device called a Bagel Buzzsaw. You pick your bagel, and it’s placed on a conveyor belt. Halfway along, a spinning, circular blade halves the bagel and propels it to the other end of the conveyor belt with such force that the bagel practically flies through the air. Then someone catches it and slathers it with topping. This process is so hypnotizing that you might not even think of looking for a table.

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