Does My Waiter Hate Me?

Dear Helena,
When I dine out and we’re finished eating, I sometimes put the plates in a neat pile at the edge of the table, thinking I’m making life more convenient for the server. But in a recent online discussion of what waiters hate about customers, I learned that servers apparently loathe plate-stacking. When my two-year-old is squirting ketchup on the floor or when my friends and I linger for 20 minutes after paying the check, then at least I know I’m being annoying and can leave a bigger tip to compensate. I’m curious if there are ways in which I’m being annoying without realizing it. What can I do to avoid unwittingly bugging my server?
—Compulsive Plate-Stacker

Dear Compulsive Plate-Stacker,
You shouldn’t worry too much about the server. After all, you’re paying him. But there are some little ways in which you could easily help him out at no cost to yourself.

First, resist the impulse to whisk dirty dishes to the edge of the table. Servers may not like to carry plates in stacks, which are heavy and precarious. In more upscale restaurants, management may actually require servers to carry no more than two plates at a time. Generally, the server must separate your stack, and in the process, he may get crumbs and gravy stuck to his hands. Malcolm Fenwick∗, the creator of bitterwaitress and a maître d’ in Manhattan, says he then has to waste time washing his hands. If he’s busy, he has no choice but to skip this step and compromise hygiene.

So when you’ve finished eating, leave your plate where it is. A good server won’t let it stay there very long (although he should wait until everyone at the table has finished). But it is OK to pass your plate to the server, says Fenwick, especially if he would otherwise have to lean awkwardly across the table.

Second, leave your napkin on the table when you finish eating. Removing your napkin is usually the busser’s job, but if you put it on your plate, the server has to remove it and put it in the linen bin, and then take your plate back to the dishwasher. Fenwick adds, “I then have on my hands whatever came off your napkin, and [again] if I’m busy, I may not wash them.”

Third, at the start of the meal, you shouldn’t dither when you give your order. Obviously, it’s OK if you have questions and can’t make up your mind until they’ve been answered. But you should not force the server to listen to your entire decision-making process. “Half the time when people say they’re ready to order it means they’re ready to decide,” says Fenwick. Servers do not like having to waste precious minutes listening to you blather: “Oh, you’re getting the Caesar salad? In that case, maybe I’ll get the spinach soup and we can split them both? Or how do people feel about getting a large Caesar for the table?”

Finally, there’s one thing people do that might seem a little peremptory and demeaning but actually is not. That is using the international signal for “Check please,” or miming scribbling on a pad. Vasil Azarov, a server in San Francisco, says, “It’s a real time-saver because it saves me from having to come over and find out what you want.” Now if only we could work out sign language for “Please refill my water” and “I am ready for the dessert menu.”

∗He asked that his real name not be used.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.