Dear Mister Manners: Any time we dine out, my godmother makes a habit of stacking everyone’s used plates for our server at the conclusion of the meal. She insists she’s being helpful for the person bussing the table. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, so I'm wondering: Is she doing more harm than good?
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I’ve never worked in a restaurant, either, though I do love observing the choreography of a well-trained waitstaff.
In and out of the kitchen they go, countless times per hour, weaving and bobbing through tight spaces, serving from the left and clearing from the right, all the while juggling platters, hoisting pitchers, balancing dishes and landing entrées. And though there is the occasional head-turning crash of plates, by and large, our servers seem to have the whole thing down to a science that requires no help from us.
Practice makes perfect
William Bonilla, service captain at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco restaurant Dirty Habit, in Washington, D.C., says when it comes to dirty dishes, he prefers guests leave stacking to the professionals. “It has to be done neatly, with the silverware lined up,” he explained. “As much as we appreciate the effort to assist us, it really just makes it harder for us to clear and clean a table.”
Starting at the tender age of 13 and having been in the industry for a quarter century, Bonilla has held an array of restaurant industry positions, including busser, runner, bartender, server and banquet captain. From his perspective as a lifelong member of the hospitality community, he says shame rather than genuine gratitude is one possible reaction upon seeing customers take matters into their own hands at the table. “It would make us feel as though we were not providing the proper level of service for those guests,” he commented.
And though Bonilla and his staff do stack dishes themselves, he’s not a fan of nesting in excess of four plates at once. “Any more and it looks messy,” he said.
Putting a fork in it
Sarah Davey Cahill, manager of Davey’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, a family-owned-and-operated local favorite in Montvale, New Jersey, polled her own staff on the matter and found them divided. Half voiced approval of guests’ stacking if it meant the server could avoid a rude reach to retrieve a plate. The other half viewed the well-intentioned gesture as an accident waiting to happen.
The same team members who gave the practice an unabashed thumbs down observed that when a patron stacks plates, the server has less control over how and where the utensils lie. The unwitting result may mean the server has more contact with an unsanitary fork, spoon or knife than necessary.
Also a decades-long veteran of the restaurant business, having started by shining the brass rail of the bar at her parents’ eponymous eatery well before she was old enough to wait tables, Davey does offer a bit of wiggle room for patrons who stack so the server needn’t wiggle to retrieve a dish: "Maybe for appetizer plates … particularly if there are no utensils involved."
Ultimately, her belief is there is typically no need and certainly no obligation: “You’ve come out to dinner; you don’t have to help with the dishes,” she said.
Not disturbing the balance
In complete agreement is the Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave, wine and spirits columnist for C&G Media. “The whole beauty of dining out is feeling taken care of but not intruded upon … where you are discreetly asked, 'Are you done?' 'May I take this?' and where things happen in a very graceful, unobtrusive way," she said.
As a journalist and oenophile who’s dined in many of the world’s finest restaurants, her voice lifts as she speaks of being in an establishment where servers simply know when, where and how to glide in and out, almost imperceptibly. Where second glasses of wine are poured by a server who doesn’t stop to ask, “Do you want some more wine?” Where silverware for the next course just magically appears. Where dirty dishes vanish as though by telekinesis.
Without a doubt, in such an environment, "Stacking is a total nay," she said.
Verdict: Leave it to the pros
Though I give your godmother props for having good intentions, it appears she is better off simply enjoying her meal and letting the staff attend to the rest.
That said, perhaps she could be putting her stacking impulses to a more productive and indeed, competitive use. Might I suggest a rousing round of Jenga?
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