Annoyed at Aggressive Table-Clearing? Blame Small Plates

Annoyed at Aggressive Table-Clearing? Blame Small Plates
Anne Fishbein

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story by Roberto A. Ferdman titled: "The most annoying restaurant trend happening today." In it, Ferdman complained that more and more often, he's burdened with waiters who want to clear his plate before his tablemates are done eating. 

Without my permission, restaurants have abandoned, or simply overlooked, a classic tenet of service etiquette. ... Rather than clear plates once everyone at the table has finished the meal, which has long been the custom, servers instead hover over diners, fingers twitching, until the very instant someone puts down a fork. Like vultures, they then promptly snatch up the silverware — along with everything else in front of the customer. If you're lucky, they might ask permission before stealing your plate.

This article got a lot of play, enough so that last night Peter Tilden on TalkRadio 790 KABC called me up to discuss the matter on air. And as I was thinking about what I might say on the radio, a few things occurred to me. 

Ferdman goes out of his way to say that he's talking about entrees, not small plates. But if this is truly a "trend" of epic proportions, what kind of restaurants is he frequenting? Because everywhere serves small plates these days. When was the last time you went to a restaurant and didn't get the "our menu is geared toward small plates meant for sharing" speech? I can't imagine any "trend" happening outside of the context of small-plates restaurants because almost all new restaurants with table service are now small-plates restaurants. 

One of the mantras of small-plates dining is that the food comes out when it's ready. In which case, if plates aren't cleared as they're finished, you'll end up with a mess of plates on the table. Servers are trained to make sure that doesn't happen. 

Which brings me to the part where I take Ferdman at his word and believe for a minute that he could have eaten at enough non–small-plates restaurants and had this happen often enough to declare it an epidemic. Small plates and their required style of dining have been around long enough that the etiquette of that particular service is likely how most waiters are trained these days. Unless we're talking about very high-end restaurants, where service is strict, most of the waiters you encounter will have been brought up in a clear-the-table atmosphere. Small plates and its stylings are invading everything — even the service at non–small plates restaurants. 

This was not the only complaint the Post published yesterday. There were essays on how fancy burgers suck, how it's too dark to read the menu, how restaurant websites are terrible and how some napkins are not to the writer's liking. It was a package of "restauRANTS." Cute.

But all of these topics have been covered before, back in the day when the main job of many food blogs (mainly run by critics) was to pick out some tiny annoyance of dining and write a whole article about it. These people (me included), who get paid to eat for a living, poetically complain about some tiny facet of the dining experience, not in the context of a review or a genuine piece of criticism but as the basis for entire posts. It was a necessary phase for food writing to go through, I suppose. But man, I'm glad it's mainly over. 


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