What are the rules for how long I am allowed to camp out at the table after paying?
When I eat dinner solo with my book when I'm finished eating the waiter(ress) will bring the bill folder and leave it on the table. I put the money in the bill folder and continue reading. At some point the waiter(ress) will return and take the bill folder with the money away. 90% of the time they don't have to bring me change because I leave cash equal to the bill plus a tip.
When the bill folder is taken away presumabley I'm "done". But if it's after the dinner rush and there's empty tables around can I stay a while reading? How long? Assume I don't want to "transfer to the bar" because I don't want to buy any more drinks.
I assume if there's other tables empty I'm not using "valuable real estate". On the other hand I've read that each server is only allowed to have a certain number of customers at a given time so even if other tables are empty I'm depriving my waiter(ress) of a new customer by camping out and continuing to read.
So do I always have to skedaddle after the bill folder with the money is taken away? Or if I can stay and read for awhile, under what circumstances and for how long? I'd appreciate hearing from some servers too. Thanks!
Depends on where you are. In the US, where it seems to be a lot more about turning tables all night, that would probably be frowned upon.
In Germany, you can pretty much stay as long as you want to, whether you've paid already or not. For some reason, restaurants in Germany manage to stay in business despite this more relaxed seating policy.
There isn't a simple answer to your question; there are just too many variables at play. Even if you're the only customer in the restaurant, the staff may be waiting for you to leave so they can turn up the lights and start vacuuming the carpet. It's really a matter of situational awareness and good judgment, both of which it sounds like you have.
I'd be reluctant to linger for an hour under any circumstances, but in a place that's half-empty, a few minutes shouldn't be a problem. Also keep in mind that solo diners tend to finish more quickly than groups (you spend more time eating and less time yakking), so a reasonable amount of lingering won't disrupt the restaurant's turn time.
When all else fails, ask! Pose the question honestly and politely, and odds are the server will give you an honest and polite answer.
Short answer - if the restaurant is not busy, feel free to linger a bit. As for "valuable real estate"; every server has a station - a set collection of tables in the restaurant. Depending on where you are seated, you may still be depriving that server of new customers. Some tables are more popular than other or are seated more frequently than others. It is nice, truly, that you are worried about that sort of thing, but you don't have to. As a server, I really do appreciate thoughtful customers such as yourself, but you are there to enjoy yourself. So long as you do not overstay, feel free to linger. How long before you overstay? It depends, but in general, in a not busy restaurant, I'd say you have 20 minutes. But again, it depends. Are people still coming through the door or is it pretty much over? Are you at a little table in the back or do you have prime real estate? But don't over-think it. A good server knows that this kind of thing happens. It always evens out in the end.
You have read correctly that there is generally a rotation system for tables in the U.S. Furthermore, as the shift slows down, the restaurant will generally start to close certain sections and consolidate new patrons to specific sections/servers.
Negative (to servers) effect of campers:
*throws off your rhythm, management and general hospitality means you still need to check on them
*may keep them from getting a new table - new table means another chance for a tip. Also, some places assess a server by the total sales for a shift. So even if you tip large it can still hurt the server.
*Servers can't go home after they are "cut" (section closed to new patrons) until their area is clean & ready for the next shift. Area must be checked by shift supervisor. A camper means they are basically hanging out without compensation. Most states still pay servers restaurant minimum wage, so a camper totally skews your hourly average for the night. Plus if they have to pay a babysitter for an extra hour or miss a ride with co-workers who already left and have to call a cab...the average just gets worse. Making your wage as a server is about maximum volume in minimal time. Part of the way to achieve that is to be super efficient. In very high ticket places it changes, leisurely dining is expected and the bill reflects that.
If a place is quiet and the server is going to be there anyhow it can be ok, especially if the customer is pleasant and polite. Be aware of cues - if you see your server refilling s/p and condiments or rolling silverware then the shift is probably at its end. Or just ask if it is ok to linger or will that be keeping them from being seated. If nothing else they will appreciate an aware customer!
A general rule of thumb would be to increase your tip proportionally for the amount of camping time vs dining time.
I agree with meatn3. Just because a restaurant doesn't appear busy doesn't mean you aren't harming the server in some way by camping. The fact of the matter is, a dining table in a restaurant, at least here in America, is not designed for you to linger over a book. It's designed for you to eat and then vacate. If you want to linger over a book and not pay for drinks, there are endless coffee shops and bookstores where you can even bring your own book and sit and read. As meat explains, the server may be a) missing future income from another table being sat in their section (and leaving 2-3 more than you would have if you weren't camping really isn't going to cover what they'd be missing out on from a party of 4) b) be held up in completing their side work, cleaning, silverware etc because you are sitting in their station. We were never allowed to roll silver in front of the customers so I'm not sure that's a good indicator too, though if you see your server doing that, yeah, you should leave because as soon as they're done with the silver, they can go home, and you're holding them up as they need to clean your table and restock salt/pepper and then get their station signed off on as being cleaned and ready for the next day. I would say that if you insist on lingering even though it's not a place designed for that, an even better indicator than the silver rolling is if the server is seen cleaning the tables around you. This is sort of a hint that it's time to get out. They may even have additional work to do after you leave that they're not allowed to go in the back and complete as long as you, their customer (paid out or not) is still occupying the table, so the likely scenario is you're holding them back.
If the restaurant is slow I have often had the server tell me to please stay as long as I want, continue to bring me water or refill my ice tea, etc. When the server comes and asks if there is anything else I need, without the additional comment about staying, then I figure it must be time to check out. If they are putting the chairs on the table and have lined up the vacuum cleaners around the edge of the room, i figure its past time to go.
Seriously, if you are worried about it, trust your judgement. Offer to tip out the server ahead of time, and don't be shy about asking. Maybe they will say please stay, maybe they will offer to help you move to the bar, or maybe they will give a subtle signal that they aren't going to ask you to leave, but its gonna be inconvenient. If you know you are going to be 'camping out' when you arrive, let the person who seats you know that, it lets them put you in the most convenient place for them.
Old school protocol is that you have the 'right' to occupy the table till they close, but old school protocol isn't necessarily considered correct in all cases.