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'Helping the server' at your table...

Hi... When dining at inexpensive-to-moderately priced sit-down restaurants, I have a bit of an odd habit. I tend to 'tidy-up' the table during the course of the meal (if there are apps, entree, dessert) and especially toward the end of the meal prior to the arrival of the check. I will stack my salad plate and bread plate together (when finished) and nudge them toward the edge of the table for removal, 'bus' the table by wiping crumbs into a used napkin, and even wipe up spilled sauce or condiments from the table surface. I will also 'cover up' unsightly gristle or uneaten fat with a paper napkin, prior to the removal of plates from the table. I generally only do this when the co-diner is my wife, who has accomodated such fussy compulsive behavior for lo these many years. My question is: do servers appreciate this behavior, or am I really just making more work for them? I like to have a non-cluttered table as I work thru apps, entrees, dessert courses, etc.. And since I do not expect fastidious and prompt table clearing service at inexpensive restaurants, i tend to do the small micro-mangement of clutter and mess removal from my own table between courses. I also try to do this unobtrusively, so that other diners do not gawk at the guy cleaning his own table. Do any of you also 'police' your table-top as a part of the casual dining experience? Is this behavior very silly? And more importantly, do you think it bugs the restaurant staff? Just wanna do my part, I guess, and mamma always taught me to clean up after myself :-)

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  1. Good question. I tend to do this as well at more casual places. I stack plates on top of one another, group utensils together, etc etc. Nothing major, but if I see something that can be done, I do it. What worries me is when the busboy is in the process of cleaning up and I see him/her having difficulty getting to a particular object on the table. More often than not, I'll reach for that object and try to place it on some dish already on their arms, but I'm always worried that I'm placing it in an incorrect place as to throw off their plate balance or whatever.

    1 Reply
    1. re: fascfoo

      I think that moving an item into the person's reach is generally far more effective than putting whatever it may be onto something they are holding. If it's the last thing on the table, they have a free hand and are reaching for it, by all means pick it up and give it to them if you're physically in a better position to do so. I personally cannot stand when diners put things on plates I am holding. Pick it up and put it closer to me, hand it to me if you think I'm reaching for it but please don't put it onto what is probably a very carefully balanced potentially heavy stack of plates on my arm. We are not pack mules! I'd rather return for a bread plate or even a utensil than have someone plop or even carefully place it on what I'm already holding.

    2. I work in a bar, and my SO works in a restaurant; we both stack glasses and plates whenever possible and appropriate. It's appreciated.

      1. I'm guessing it doesn't bug the restaurant staff, but if I were dining with you it would definitely bug me! Sounds like you are aware of this, but personally I'd make sure this is ok with your dining companions (including your wife: why should she not get the same level of politeness as other diners?) before you do it: personally I would find it unappetizing; not to mention the fact that some folks, including me, consider it rude to buss a table before ALL persons at the table are done eating (which seems to be more likely to happen in this scenario).

        8 Replies
        1. re: susancinsf

          I completely agree with you! My grand father does that all the time, even at high end restaurants, and it annoys all of us! I personnally find it vulgar...

          1. re: Frenchie

            Okay, yeah, I would never do it with a group of people and I would never do it at a high end restaurant!

            1. re: Katie Nell

              Well, if it truly was a higher end place that knew what it was doing, then the opportunity to DO this would never even arise, as the plates and such would be magically whisked away leaving only what's necessary for each course at the table at any given time.


              1. re: TexasToast

                There is always a moment, high end or not, when you can put your bread plate into the big plate and everything...plus professionnal "server helpers" such as my grand father work faster than the servers themselves...;-)

                1. re: Frenchie

                  I disagree - there is never such a moment.

                  1. re: MMRuth

                    My rule is, if in doubt, then don't do it. Every person likes to stack plates a different way. That's what they get paid to do, so let 'em take the stuff away as it suits them. Your trying to be helpful, just creates more work if they have to undo what you've done, and then pile it back up how they like it.


                    1. re: MMRuth

                      Outside of the most informal places (clam shack, cafeteria, e.g.), the only time "helping" might be in order would be to hand a plate to the server who is in the process of clearing if the table is placed such that the server cannot politely reach for it. Finer dining establishments normally design table logistics to avoid it, but one does encounter tables in middling places wedged into unfortunate spots in this regard. Then again, one is not forcing the plate on the server but truly responding to timely action by the server.

                      1. re: MMRuth

                        I really agree with you. Unless you have a really bad service, you should never stack up plates or glasses etc. It is really more annoying than anything else.

                        The fact is that most people don't realize that there is a way to do things such as stacking plates and most people that do so don't do it right and so it ends up being more complicated. And if it is more complicated, it will take more time than it would have if you would have let the server do his job.

                        Lets repeat this :"Let the server do his job," and don't forget that if you have eaten your meal in 2 seconds and that your company is still eating, your server will most probably not take away your plate unless you ask him or her to do so. If you want something removes from your table you should simply ask.

            2. We had this topic a while back, and several people were annoyed by customers tidying up the table: other customers and wait staff. One waitress, or perhaps former waitress, said that that was her job and she took offense to someone else doing her job for her. That being said, I tidy my table- can't help it!

              1. Wow! I'm not the only one! I have a real problem with sitting over the remains of my meal and in an ideal world the plate would disappear as soon as I've finished the last bite -- I like sitting at table for hours, talking, but I really need the remains of the meal to be whisked away immediately. So, I often exhibit the same kinds of behaviour you're all talking about and have often wondered the same thing. I've never done it in a high end restaurant because I've never had to (which is the joy of an expensive dinner in a restaurant with good service), but at a busy chain, you can bet I'm stacking the salad plates to the side as soon as I'm done with them.

                1. This behavior makes me crazy! I am there to enjoy a meal and the experience of being served. I HATE IT when my companions turn beautiful service into stacky up at a greasy spoon. I never know how to get them to stop. I have tried a gentle hand and saying, 'Please, people are here to do that for us. you don't need to.' It is tacky and incorrect etiquette. You should never touch your plate.

                  1. nope, Im there to relax and eat/drink, not do someone elses job for them.

                    let the servers/busboys/bartenders clean it up. The better they do, the better the tip.

                    1. Just want to throw out there that we generally don't stack in a large party; it's generally just when it's the two of us, and we know when we're finished. I wouldn't start grabbing everyone's plates in a six-person party and stacking them up.

                      At bars, though, I always bus my table, especially if there are no cocktail waitresses. Especially if it's busy, folks--bring your glass back to the bar when you refresh your drink or leave.

                      1. DH, a former server, prebusses all the time. Not quite sure if it's because he hates clutter, or wants to be helpful. We've never gotten a complaint, only appreciation, from our server. It started to bother me, but then I got over it. Life's too short, y'know? ;-)

                        1. I am from the school of thought that all plates should be removed at the same time, not as each person finishes so...there is my answer on that one. However, helping the server means many things, not necessarily pre-bussing but perhaps some straightening up, a little kindness goes a long way. I am also a bit nuts about dirt and clutter so I may throw a bread plate, napkin, etc. on the large dinner plate to help ease the process of bussing and clean up any hard to reach items and spills (in a more casual place it may mean butter wrappers, etc.) but I do not start "cleaning" before everyone has finished eating.

                          1. This made me laugh. My husband has had to "endure" my stacking compulsion for 20 years. I can't remember a casual meal out where he doesn't look across the table at my antics and simply say, "Stacker." I was a waitress for much of my younger life and it's something I can't help doing when it's just him and I. I don't do it (much) when we're in "mixed company" and never at a higher-end place. I just like to have the room to relax. It's no judgment on the server. So glad I'm not the only one.

                            1. I do this often, I'll often walk the dishes back at "leave the dishes on the table" kind of places. And certainly if dining in a bar environment I bring my dishes over if I'm not seated at the actual bar, simply because the bartender often isn't in the "waiter/table" mentality and I consider it an accomodation of sorts to eat in the bar.

                              I would never describe it as a compulsion, though. It's just something that feels right to do.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Chowsmurf

                                You clear the table and walk the dishes back to the kitchen? Are you kidding us? What is a "leave the dishes on the table" kind of place? I have no iea what you are talking about and how this can ever be appropriate.

                                1. re: chow_gal

                                  She's not kidding--it's not really that shocking or inappropriate. She's referring to some places here in SF, like taquerias, in which you pay at the cash register before your order's called, and they have bussers that pick up the plates after you've gone. Generally there's a station with a few bins for dirty plates, and I always carry my own plates to the station at those places.

                                  1. re: MuppetGrrl

                                    There's a difference between taking taking your tray to the trash bin and walking your stemware to the kitchen. The former I'd do, the latter ain't my job.


                              2. The only version of "help" that would bug me when I used to wait was when somebody handed me their plate when I was clearing. Sometimes it didn't matter, but other times I'd sized up the table and had a strategy to clear it in one shot. Perhaps it was a 4-top and two of them had lamb shanks on their plates. I know that the first person I'd bus would be one of the plates with bones. Then I'd stack the two empties on my wrist of the same hand placing the silver onto the dirty plate. Then I'd grab the other plate with a bone on it and stack any bread plates etc. on that.

                                If, in the middle of that little dance, somebody I wasn't expecting sticks their plate in my face, the whole thing is ruined.

                                None the less, hardly the end of the world.

                                1. I think, within reason, you can do whatever you want to do, whatever makes you feel most comfortable. It is your table.

                                  1. I have no problems with people straightening out their table for pick up. I usually try to get the plates off the table when I notice they are finished.
                                    On a similar note, I hate waitstaff that try and take a plate away before I am finished. I might just be "On break" for a minute, but I am going to finish the steak.
                                    Some customers are harder to read than others, but if they do stack, I know they are ready to have their plates cleared.

                                    1. I think the problem is that we usually train this "compulsion" into service professionals to ensure that nothing gets missed when they sweep a room. Unfortunately, it's difficult to turn this off when these professionals are not on shift. I haven't been on the floor for almost 10 years now, but I still find myself straightening silverware and stacking plates. I would not call it vulgar, I'd call it a bit compulsive but a sign of good training.
                                      If someone thinks it's vulgar, it may just be that they've never had to clean up after themselves.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: foodiegrl

                                        I'm sorry if I offended you in any way...I did have to clean up after myself and still have to. However, I am french and my choice of vocabulary might have been wrong. But I do think cleaning up and stacking plates on a table in a restaurant is inappropriate.

                                      2. I'm not very self-aware about clean-up habits, and being "the boss", hardly anyone complains about my table manners. Not that they are so good! My parents couldn't afford to send me to finishing school. It was all they could do to stop me from licking my fingers at the table, or even my plate...

                                        I stack empties at dim sum to make more space, but at most places, I only stack bread plates, never dinner plates. However, I will swap my clean plate with that of anyone having difficulty finishing their dinner. ;-)

                                        1. Stack it or not, I'm confident that if you say "thank you" upon the plates' removal, annoyed or not, at least the server will know he or she is appreciated. :-)

                                          1. It cannot be done politely except in the most informal situations.

                                            7 Replies
                                            1. re: Karl S

                                              Agreed - no stacking, no cleaning up the table, etc. If I've spilled something on the table cloth, I might place my unfolded napkin on top of it, so that it is flat on top of the table cloth and covering the stain, once the plate has been removed so that the other diners don't have to see my spill. Then I'd ask for a new napkin. My DH is a real stickler for such things, and in his view one should also not push the finished plate/dish away from one, or move anything on the table other than for personal use/consumption or to move a vase that is obstructing one's view of one's fellow diners. And no handing plates to the waiter/busboy unless for some reason based on table configuration it is physically impossible for that person to remove the dishes.

                                              I don't stack at home either, and I don't see how stacked dishes on a table, waiting to be cleared, are more appealing than individual finished plates - it's not like one needs the room on the table to do something else.

                                              1. re: MMRuth

                                                Stacking also creates dirt/ food mess on both sides of the plate. Not a big deal in some cases but in others, it requires additional scrubbing, especially if dishes are not done immediately after they are removed from the table, at home or in a restaurant. I hate picking up a plate with food mess all over it, just a little pet peeve of mine...

                                                1. re: Michele4466

                                                  Exactly - not that I don't wash both sides of the plate, but there's no reason for both sides to get greasy/dirty etc.

                                                  1. re: MMRuth


                                                    I do wash both sides as well but... you get the point :-)

                                                2. re: MMRuth

                                                  You said: "..it's not like one needs the room on the table to do something else ". Sometimes, couples more interested in romance than in food or table manners like to hold hands across the table from each other. Perhaps not 'proper', but definitely an understandable employment of table space, which would otherwise be obstructed by uncleared plates...

                                                  1. re: silence9

                                                    I take your point, but I guess I would just wait until the table were cleared - stacking the plates to the side would perhaps detract from a romantic ambiance for me - but, to each his own.

                                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                                      Yes, except in the most informal of locations (clam shack, cafeteria, and things like that), you must wait for things to be cleared by the staff at the proper time.

                                              2. Apologies in advance if I'm wrong, but I'm sensing from the posts a certain "uptightness" around this issue, as though there is some kind of universally proper level of bahaviour at a table. Nothing could be further from the truth. Etiquette is purely subjective. As long as you are not offending others at your table (and sometimes even if you are), then you can do whatever you like, servers be damned. The best servers mould themselves to your tastes. You are not paying the bill to please or impress them.

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: ognir

                                                  I use the etiquette/manners that I've been taught so as to not offend my fellow diners, or diners at another table. This has nothing to do with pleasing or impressing a server. To my mind, etiquette is a "default" set of rules that ensures that I don't offend others, as well as ensuring good communication with the server. If I were dining in a restaurant and people at a table close by/within my eye sight starting piling up their plates, it would bother me - I'm dining in a restaurant, not next to a kitchen sink.

                                                  While I don't agree that "etiquette is purely subjective" (although it is culturally subjective), people are certainly free to make their own choices as to their behaviour when dining.

                                                  1. re: MMRuth

                                                    The etiquette any individual has learned does not extend beyond themselves. Etiquette is only a tacit agreement that certain conventions are observed amongst a group, but manners are constantly in flux on an individual level and they are by no means universally "default", and never have been. With respect, what happens at another table (within reason) is none of your business, and that it would bother you is your problem, not theirs. People who impose arbitrary conventions and expectations on others are infinitely more rude than someone who makes a simple faux pas, or who may have idiosyncratic (but harmless) tastes. And etiquette _is_, by and large, arbitrary.

                                                    The server should have no part in the equation except to ensure you enjoy yourself and don't, unduly, disturb other patrons or detrimentally interfere with the running of the restaurant.

                                                2. I do it, but only in minor ways. Loose silverware goes on the plate when I'm finished. If something came in a small bowl or cup along with the plate, I'll set it on the plate when I'm finished. I never stack a drink glass or cup. I'm not nearly as compulsive about that as I am about rearranging magazines or books that are out of place when I'm in a bookstore.

                                                  5 Replies
                                                  1. re: Chimayo Joe

                                                    Oh yeah, will totally walk around Borders putting the magazines in their correct places!


                                                    1. re: TexasToast

                                                      I have to confess to a similar issue - at least within a section that I'm perusing!

                                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                                        I have asked people (I cannot call them customers when they sit reading in the aisles and then returm the book or mag to the shelf) to please stop eating the greasy McD's fries while they are reading the book or magazine... LOL

                                                        BTW: I do not work in a bookstore...

                                                        1. re: Michele4466

                                                          I get so obsessed that people assume I work there and ask me to help find things elsewhere in the store. Embarrassing...

                                                          1. re: Bananna A.

                                                            I am with you... I love talking books with people and getting recommendations... but the messiness and inconsideration of some people really gets me :-) and I cannot ignore it... I have had the same thing happen to me when asked where a certain section is... though I was able to direct them LOL

                                                  2. My brother does this and while he (and others) have good intentions, it bugs the living hell out of me. Granted, he is not concerned with being discreet, he considers it an obligation as part of the dining experience. He goes as far as to wipe his plates with his napkin. We have almost thrown punches over the table because of our divergent viewpoints! Talk about rude...haha.

                                                    The most that I'm willing to do is shuttle extraneous items within easy reach and only for the sake of my own comfort and the pace of the meal. I won't move plates and I won't stack items but in order to prevent the server from having to scrabble over the table, disrupting the dinner conversation I try and make things a little easier.

                                                    ...and I always say thank you.

                                                    1. The only thing I unconsciously find myself doing is putting the salt/pepper/vinegar/soy sauce/chili sauce/whatever condiments were to the back of the table when we arrived, back in their place. Oops.

                                                      1. While being sent to my first military assignment on a train, I stacked the dishes to make room on the small table. The dining room attendant leaned over and very quietly told me " Gentlemens don't stack dishes". I've never done it since.