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I'm still eating so leave my husband's plate alone!

I don't know if it's standard restaurant practice, or if it varies from place to place, but why, oh why, must waitstaff feel compelled to take away my husband's (or whomever) plate the second it looks like he's done and leave me there to eat all alone?

I eat rather slow, but no exceedingly so. My husband eats at a "normal pace." It doesn't matter if we're in a $$$$ establishment or a $ establishment, my husband has taken to leaving just a bit of food on his plate so he can tell the waiter that he is still working on his food and I won't be eating alone. He usually gets a very strange look from the waiter because there could be just a tiny morsel of food left on his plate.

This has got to be my one pet peeve with restaurants. Most places will ask something like "can we clear your plate?" or "are you still working on that?" (like eating was laborious). But why can't they just see that I'm still eating and leave his plate there?

Is there a proper way of saying, "leave the plate" without having to resort to pushing around a bit of food? Would love to hear some waitstaff opinions. TIA.

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  1. It's not correct to take someone's plate before the rest of the party has finished eating. Just say, "please leave it."

    1. Funny, there are differing opinions on this but I am also incredibly irked by waitstaff partially clearing the table while someone is still eating...always have been. Some people feel just the opposite, they do not want the dirty plate sitting in front of them and the "rules" do not matter to them. Etiquette rules state that it is bad manners to clear anything while people are still eating, has that changed?

      1. i dont mind prompt removal of dishes. i think in modern times that manners such as that are rather subjective. i mean if the other party has a plate in front of them or not, you're not eating alone, per se.

        also, i think this probably goes in "not about food"?

        1. i agree that the dishes should all arrive at the same time and depart at the same time.

          i would never think of calling a wait staff over to remove my plate prior to all the others finishing so why is it acceptable for them to intrude on the table.

          i find it the same as someone in the family getting up when he/she is finished before the others and places the dish in the sink.

          i usually tell the wait staff the same thing i tell my children, please wait for everyone to finish before clearing the plates. never received anything other than a "yes sir."

          hopefully this is the biggest faux pas of the nite.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jfood

            I did not think of it at the time I posted but, yes I agree about the dinner table at home as well. Same school of thought. I think it is simply a reflection of the changing times (as the post below elaborates on further), not that this makes it okay, my children (first one due in December) will know the "rules".

          2. OK, here's the deal:

            For a very long time in the US, proper etiquette was that no course would be cleared until all at the table had completed the course. It was considered a deep rudeness to do otherwise without the consent of the host (remember when there was a host?).

            This still tends to be the practice at very fine dining establishments. In the past generation, however management of many lesser restaurants mistrained servers to reverse the presumption. Which has created that expectation among younger generations who did not know the old rules, and who now think it is rude to have a finished plate sitting in front of them while others are still eating.

            Btw, the proper non-verbal cue to show you have finished your course in the US is to arrange the cutting edge of the knife horizontally against the fork in the 10:20 position, imagining the plate as a clockface and the utensils as clockhands. (The clock positions vary from country to country, and I have to say it the cue is not as well known in the US by servers as it once was.)

            Needless to say, this creates a situation rife for miscommunication.

            My family follows the traditional rule. At anything less than the finest establishments, we direct the server at the time of ordering that plates not be cleared until all have completed the course. Woe unto the server who defies the direction (innocent mistakes of course are innocent): I can think of a time when a server in Arizona THRICE tried to pull an incompleted course from my sister who was still eating -- the last time a tug of war between them broke out. Obviously, the server wanted to get on her break (we had not tarried at all).

            9 Replies
            1. re: Karl S

              Most servers, even at fine dining estabilishments, are not aware of the fork rule. I was at Le Bernardin (four star NY Times, 3 star Michelin) and they clear just as they do at Applebee's, except the fact that they take your silverware and you are not in a booth.

              1. re: Karl S

                Amen. I will restrain myself from adding anything further, but both are pet peeves - both by waitstaff (removing when not everyone has finished eating) and diners (not using cutlery to properly indicate that they have finished eating). That's why the rules are useful, not just "arbitrary etiquette" or social mores designed to differentiate classes, as someone will inevitably suggest in defense of ignoring the rules.

                1. re: Karl S

                  I had a waiter try to remove a plate with food still on it at a brunch (service all around was just terrible)...not a small morsel, but something like half of a muffin, if I remember correctly. He didn't even ask, he started to reach for the plate and seemed surprised when I told him I was still eating. Unfortunately, my husband has also taken to leaving a small portion on his plate to give me time to "catch up" to him...pretty sad.

                  1. re: Karl S

                    This is a real pet peeve of mine because I eat slowly. I was taught to eat slowly and I was also taught that one never ends a course, much less leaves the table, until everyone has finished. When a server clears my husband's plate before mine I'm uncomfortable and feel that I must stop eating. This seems like such an intuitive thing (not clearing other plates and drawing attention to the slower diner) that I'm puzzled that servers can't figure this out even if they're not aware of proper ettiquette.

                    When we go to dinner, I don't like to have to give pre-emptive instructions to the server. But as many have noted, this is not a problem that only happens in family restaurants. It happens in restaurants where one is paying enough to expect reasonably good service. I might feel more comfortable saving the instruction until the server comes to collect the first dirty dish. But taking the step to simply say "Please do not clear until we both have finished" is going to be an uncomfortable one!

                    1. re: Kater

                      I also can't stand this practice. I'm a slow eater, and I'm usually running my mouth during dinner, so that leaves me way behind my husband who wolfs his food down, and can't get a word in. It often leaves me shoveling the last few bites in, or not finishing at all because I hate to be left with my plate while he has nothing in front of him.

                    2. re: Karl S

                      I do use the knife/fork cue when I'm done. Too bad there isn't some other non-verbal cue that indicates I'm done but my partner isn't -- other than common sense. My husband has also resorted to actually holding the fork in his hand and just poking at the little bit of food left on his plate. That seems to keep busboys at bay.

                      1. re: Karl S

                        We always called that the "4:20" position : the fork and the knife laid parallel, touching the "4" position. Few servers and fewer bussers in the US know it.

                        I once had a well-meaning but hopeless waitress try and take my great-aunt's plate before she was finished. She tried once and my great-aunt said, "I'm not finished eating, please wait." She tried twice and my great-aunt said, "I am not yet finished, young lady, you will need to wait." On the third try, she actually got the plate an inch or so off the table before my great-aunt whapped the back of the waitress' hand with the fork and said, "Are you deaf? Leave the plate here until you're told to take it. I'm not finished, and neither is anyone else."

                        It's one thing to try once... but take the hint! I had to call the manager at Chinois over once, because the busboy kept trying to take my plate while my wife, who savours her food more slowly than I, was still eating.

                        It drives me crazy. Usually, when I'm asked if I'm done, I'll say, "I'll wait until my wife is done, thank you."

                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                          4:20 position is also used in the US, but I think 10:20 is more common. In the UK, IIRC, the most common positions are 12:30 and 6:30.

                          Btw, one placement cue to show you are NOT finished when not using your utensils is 8:20...

                          1. re: Karl S

                            I always cross my knife and fork (tines down) at a 90 degree angle to each other, with the apex of the angle pointing toward the top of the plate, to signal that I am still eating. Then, when I am ready for the plate to be cleared, the knife and fork are parallel at 4:20. This seems to work.

                      2. This reminds me of a rant I recently posted about wine service: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                        1. In my experience, management encourages this practice to help out the bus staff, they call it "pre-bussing" and get on the waitstaff's case about it.

                          1. I too object to being left eating alone after my friend's plate has been removed--I feel like the identified slowpoke, even though he is the one who wolfs down his food and I eat at a normal speed. On those occasions when I am the faster eater, I always pace myself and leave a significant amount on the plate (enough to deter the wait staff from removing it) and finish at about the same time as my dining companion(s). I can't help feeling rushed when plates are being whisked away while I am still trying to enjoy my meal, and I don't want to have to fend off impatient wait staff who are circling around me, anxious to snatch my plate the second my fork has carried its final burden (this has actually happened; I haven't even got the food to my mouth and the plate is being removed--what ever happened to professional training?). I am not a slow eater; I don't dawdle. But my digestion is strained by worry that my plate is coveted immediately after it has been delivered, and it detracts greatly from my enjoyment of the meal. Does the Slow Food movement have something to say about this, I wonder.

                            1. I'm disinclined to return to a restaurant if anyone in my party gets treated like this. I don't believe clearing plates too early is an issue of waiters not knowing proper dining etiquette. It is an intentional gesture of trying to get your group to hurry up and clear the table so they can seat someone else.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: amandine

                                "It is an intentional gesture of trying to get your group to hurry up and clear the table so they can seat someone else."

                                That's true to some extent. But I think a more charitable view is that it is designed to minimize busboys effort. If they can make a pass through your area and clear a few plates, it may save them a separate trip back later. Either way, I don't like it.

                                As evidence that it simply isn't about turning the tables, it happens even if there won't be another group using your table next.

                              2. I'm a server at a fine dining restaurant. We were trained to never clear anyone's plate unless everyone is finished -- unless someone is clearly indicating that they'd like their plate removed (they've shoved it to the very edge of the table, away from them, for example) which rarely happens. We keep an eye on the table and when it appears everyone is done (I'll get to the knife & fork position in a minute) we approach the person with the most left on their plate and ask "may I clear your plate?" Again, we've been watching to make sure no one is still eating. As far as knife and fork positioning to indicate being finished, I was brought up that way as well, but it appears a shockingly large number of people were not. I've had finished people with knife and fork all over the place, as well as people who are clearly not finished putting their utensils in the "finished" position, so it isn't a reliable indicator, unfortunately. What can you do. Anyway, I'd be very irked as well if someone partially cleared the table. I also hate it when the plates are cleared while I'm still chewing...I take the last bite and they swoop in and grab the plate. Unacceptable.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Kbee

                                  It was refreshing to read that. Thanks for the post. There definitely seems to be a difference in this regard between fine and not-so-fine restaurants.

                                  1. re: Kbee

                                    i've worked in fine dining for a long time as well and agree with everything you've said. we are trained to wait until everyone is finished. it is one of the very basic, dining 101 rules and we take it very seriously. as far as the "i'm finished" signals though, a large number of people don't know the utensil rule so we have to resort to keeping an eye on the table until we see that no one has picked up their fork in a while. this gets tricky however when it is a larger party (say 4 people and up) because the larger the party, the more the table is focused in on their conversation with each other than on their food. there have been a countless number of times where i've had a table look like they were finished for at least 5 minutes, with or without the utensil signal, i've gone over to ask if i may take their plates, was given permission to clear, then as soon as i start taking away the first dish someone picks up their fork and starts eating again. this happens a lot, not every table, but at least once a night. we can't put dirty dishes back in front of the guests we've already cleared and our only choices left are to stop and leave the table partially cleared (which looks silly and awkward) or clear everyone but the person still eating figuring the wait-for-everyone-to-finish rule has already been broken so we may as well clear everything else. what do you think is the most appropriate way to deal with this situation?

                                    i've also had several experiences with tables where there is one incredibly slow eater, usually because they are doing more talking than eating, making everyone have to wait for this one person to finally take a bite from the forkful of salad he or she has been waving around while running his/her mouth. meanwhile the rest of the table has been finished for the past 20 minutes and wants their entrees. it screws up fire times, and sometimes guests get mad at ME for the service being too slow (an example of when doing the right thing back fires). in situations like this, i feel the right thing to do is to purposefully break the waiting rule by trying to clear the slow eater so that they realize they have been holding things up and start eating. or ask if they would like to keep their appetizer on the table when their entree arrives. i do this ONLY for the sake of the rest of the table and not to rush them along for turnover. so 99% of the time waiting for everyone to finish before clearing is the right thing to do, but there are those times when breaking the rule benefits the party's dining experience.

                                    1. re: rebs

                                      Well said! There are exceptions to every rule, with every table. That's both one of the best and worst things about being a server.

                                      The only times that I will clear in advance of all parties finishing is when someone moves their plate or in the case of the dreaded nibbler/talker. Last time that happened my chef was so upset with them that he fired for me.

                                      Sometimes in those cases I will go to the table to ask about wine, or bread, or anything really and drop a 'your meals should be right out' or a 'the chef is nearly finished preparing your meals.' Someone at the table usually gets it.

                                  2. i can be either the first or last to finish. I generally like my plate to be removed, especially if the meal did not please my palate. get that drek out of my sight please. best to ask first.

                                    i was in a large dining group and realized that i was the last to be finishing. I called the waiter over and said hand out the dessert menus, since i wasn't planning on ordering and knew it was a must for most of the group.

                                    Communication is good.

                                    1. OOOO- this is infuriating! My husband eats rather fast and I eat very slow. I've lived all over- Dallas, NYC, DC, Austin and every restaurant across the board (and $-$$$$$) does this!

                                      Why is it necessary to punish me because I take the time to enjoy my dish? It is so uncomfortable once they take his plate away. Can't we bring this to servers' attention?

                                      1. I tend to eat more quickly (and less food) than my husband. I always push my plate aside so the staff knows I want it to be taken away and/or leftovers wrapped up to go.

                                        At home, Dh generally has second of everything and honestly I get antsy waiting for him to finish and often leave him there and start loading the dishwasher, etc.

                                        1. Here's the funny thing:

                                          I don't know the first thing about what the proper etiquette is or is not (except for reading this thread).

                                          But speaking as a fairly quick eater, I hate sitting there with a messy plate in front of me while my wife is still eating. I can't wait until my plate is removed and the crumbs brushed away, so I can move my beer or cocktail center stage to enjoy while the wife is still eating. The sight of an emptied plate -- or worse, a plate with the remnants of a completed meal -- is disgusting to me. And if I ate more slowly than you, I wouldn't want to have to see the unappetizing remains of your meal while I'm finishing mine.

                                          As for her feeling uncomfortable to still be eating after my plate has been cleared -- well, she has never mentioned it one way or the other. So, I don't know how shee feels. But I don't see the difference between an empty plate and no plate. She is still the only one still eating. The presence of my empty plate doesn't mean I'm still eating invisible food.

                                          Like I said, if etiquette and good manners dictate one particular behavior, I'll go with that. But my personal preference is for plates no longer in use to be removed from the table as soon as possible.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: PaulF

                                            In formal private dining etiquette, if a used plate was cleared, a clean plate was put in its place; there was never to be an empty space in front of a guest. This was considered less formal practice. And in very formal practice the fork was not laid down until you were done eating, so that was the signal for clearing for the servants waiting at table. Restaurant practice worked out a bit differently.

                                            Of course, in a world of gracious courtesy (did it ever exist outside of novels?), no one would finish their course too early and no one would dawdle too late, but everyone would eat and talk in balance so that people ended up finishing in reasonable proximity to each other. Think of it as dancing with a fork and knife....

                                            Then I think of that scene in "Mrs. Brown" where Queen Victoria pecked at her food, laid her fork on her plate, and presto! the servants whisked everyone's plates away from them that instant (regardless of whether they were done).

                                            1. re: Karl S

                                              In a perfect world, a husband and wife would always finish at the exact same time.

                                              But, in my experience, that rarely happens. After all these years, I still usually finish first. :)

                                          2. Lots of great ideas on the subject, but if you would like your dishes removed simultaneously as the last person finishes, just ask the busperson such when he asks if he can clear the first. why is everyone so fearful of an old fashioned conversation? i am concerned in this day and age of e-mail responses that everyone if loosing the old gift of gab. smile, thank the busperson and politely state that you would like all the dishes cleared when everyone at the table is finished with the course. No biggie!!

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: jfood

                                              I think the idea is that you only get your plate cleared once, maybe twice if you have two courses (or 30 times if you eat at Alinea....but they wouldn't dare clear plates at different times...). So, you get your plates cleared once. If you have to have the conversation interrupted so you can tell the waiter/busboy not to clear the first plate, it's almost as bad as if they had cleared it. Basically, I interruptions minimized.

                                              1. re: Darren72

                                                you are interupted many times during a meal, water, how is everything, more wine, etc. maybe a good suggestion is to tell the staff when they bring the entrees that you would like the staff to wait until everyone is finished before clearing.

                                            2. When I go out to eat, I'm focused on the food and conversation.

                                              I can't imagine paying so much attention to other people's plates or what the bussers are doing.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Do you find it hard to pay attention to the conversation when you are interrupted 12 times?

                                                1. re: Darren72

                                                  That's not a familiar experience. I'm focused on my good time. The servers can do whatever they want with empty plates. I spend enough time dealing with those at home.

                                              2. I think this practice of clearing plates must have originated from some managers who think this is providing efficient service to the diners, who of course, will no doubt appreciate it as well. Personally, it drives my nuts. Whenever I have stopped a staffer from picking up my plate by saying "I'll wait until everyone's finished, thank you" I've gotten looks like I have two heads. Another widespread problem in my book is when the staff take the fork you have just used for an appetizer or salad from the empty plate and returns it to the table to be used again on your main course. Why is this considered acceptable practice by so many supposedly nice places? Is it too much of a hassel to provide utensils for each dish?

                                                1. I remember Miss Manners explaining that the idea of having codified etiquette at all is to put people at ease by letting them know what to expect and how to act in social situations. Customs and habits change and evolve, and with them, the mannerly norms. So I can't agree with those who "can't believe" their dining partner or waitstaff dosen't participate in the 8:20 (or is it 10:20- see what I mean?) (and what if you're using chopsticks?) ritual.

                                                  But to go to the core reason for having a set of rules... that people can feel at ease... one could argue for clearing plates
                                                  all at once as easily as another could argue for clearing on an as-needed basis, as in the previous responses. Given the wide range of expeiences, expectations, and customs we encounter in 21st century dining, I have to hand it to jfood, who pointed out that verbal communication- with your guest, host, kid, server, or whoever will ultimately be less frustrating than relying on non-verbal cues.

                                                  One more word about changing etiquette through the years... has anyone seen the Smithsonian's National Design Museum (Frick Gallery) Utensil exhibit? As recently as George Washington's time, forks, knives, and spoons were an optional, "bring your own" accessory. So I don't want to hear that manners are going downhill!

                                                  1. I saw the exhibit - wonderful! Though I didn't come away with the idea that using some kind of utensil was optional at that time, just the people travelled with their own utensils. It's not a bad idea given the quality of utensils at some places! BTW - the museum is at the Cooper Hewitt, not the Frick.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      Cooper Hewitt, check. Didn't you read all the stuff on the walls? The general all-around utensil was the knife. Before that, hands.

                                                      1. re: The Engineer

                                                        Yes, but they used a knife (some kind of utensil) and I had thought that by the late 18th century, people, at least of GW's class, had moved away from using their hands. But I certainly could have misread the stuff on the walls. A fascinating book on this subject is Margaret Visser's "The Rituals of Dinner - traces the history of how we eat.

                                                    2. The number one thing you can do is make sure anyone at your table does not push their plate to the side or away. This is the cue all restaurants will take to begin stripping out the table. Trust me on this. The slightest bit of dish piling or change in placement will activate the clearing. And many of you do it.

                                                      I do not believe comment regarding Le Bernadin. Impossible.

                                                      4 Replies
                                                      1. re: TheDexter

                                                        I also find it rude when someone pushes the plate away - whether at my home in a restaurant - don't know why, but I find it offensive in some sort of visceral way. I also may have been influenced by my imbeccably mannered husband who has told me that it is "poor manners" to do so.

                                                        1. re: MMRuth

                                                          You expect me to put my elbows in a dirty plate? Sheesh.

                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                            At least that suggests that your elbows weren't on the table *while* you were eating. (smile)

                                                      2. This reminds me of that funny commercial where a total stranger sits down and starts eating a ladies' husband's meal.

                                                        1. I agree with The Engineer about the 4:20, 8:20, 10:20 rule. I have been a server for 13 years in Oregon and Minnesota, and I have never even heard of it (and I wasn't born in a barn, either---I was born in South Dakota, but not in a barn), so to profess to be "shocked" that so few people know about it sounds a bit pretentious, as well.

                                                          First of all...yes, communication is paramount. There are both verbal and nonverbal cues on which a good server should pick up.

                                                          As a matter of policy, however, I would usually begin clearing (servers helped to bus at some of the places, and I preferred to do it if possible just because the bussers were at times overeager) sometime between the first and last person finishing their meal. As a rule, I never cleared the first person's plate and left them as the only one finished; and on the flip side, I would NEVER clear to the point that only one person was eating. So in a party of 5, three plates might be cleared, but I would always leave at least one other plate so that no one was eating alone.

                                                          In addressing the diner, you NEVER say "are you still working on that?" Like the original post said, eating in a restaurant should not be "work," and if it is, you as a server have bigger concerns than whether you get the bussing done right.

                                                          A simple "Would you like me to take that?" or something similar, works just fine. Sometimes I said "Are you still enjoying that?", but you have to be careful with that one, as some customers find it a bit cheesy.

                                                          As to whether it is done to move customers along so that the table can be seated again...There are things that are done to try to move people along, but these things are done WELL after the meal, dessert, drinks, coffee, have been finished. During the meal, the staff is almost always concerned with you enjoying the meal. You will only get "nudged" along if you have been completely finished for some time, and there are other parties that have yet to be seated.

                                                          (I know that there are some people who are infuriated by this, but I personally find it to be unbelievably self-absorbed to linger at your table, coffee cups empty, plates cleared, when you are in a restaurant that clearly has a number of people waiting. I don't say this as a server...I say this as a DINER. If other people are waiting and you have finished your meal, graciously give up your table and finish your conversation in the bar or elsewhere. Either that or get seated late. Then the only people you are putting out are the servers, and we can take it---but that's another post entirely).

                                                          Of course I can only speak for myself and, to some degree, the restaurants for which I have worked.

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: Clifford

                                                            On your last point, I agree and often take responsibility for getting my fellow diners to relinquish the table for others to enjoy. Basic courtesy.

                                                            Note to current servers: Please never say "Are you still enjoying that?" It's not so much cheesy as presuming; were I chewing on food I might spit out with laughter. "May I clear for you or should I wait?" is much better (and I think it much better form to explicitly offer to wait) if you don't follow the practice of assuming that clearing is done only after all have completed a course. (In which case you get bonus points in consulting about when to clear courses at the time of ordering. I've seen that done a couple of times, and I nearly fell over in joyful relief.)

                                                            1. re: Karl S

                                                              I would never address you while you are chewing on food, or anything else for that matter. While I might approach the table, I would wait until all parties are finished chewing, swallowing, and ready to speak before addressing the table.

                                                              1. re: Clifford

                                                                That can be such an awkward moment. Every once in a while I'll approach a table and the host, of all people, will actually take another bite as I'm opening my mouth to speak.

                                                          2. I can't tell you how glad I was to find this thread. This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and people look at me as if I had two heads when I mention it.

                                                            Possibly it is worse for me because my husband practically inhales his food within two minutes. Even though I eat at a normal or even fairly rapid pace, on a regular basis his plate is being swept away AND we are asked if we have saved room for dessert. I have tried various responses, from a quizzical look and a hand gesture at my plate half full of food to a frosty, "I don't know, I will let you know when I finish eating.

                                                            The worst case was in a Chinese restaurant where the busboy reached across my plate of food and removed the utensils that he apparently anticipated that I wasn't going to need. Fortunately I had my fork in my hand at the moment so I was able to finish eating the meal.