Should customers stack their own finished plates at a restaurant?
At a restaurant with service, and metal silverware, and cloth napkins, here are the rules.
1: When you sit down, put the napkin on your lap. (If you want to be very correct the fold is toward your hips, not toward your knees, but I don’t know who will ever check this!)
2: The napkin stays on your lap until you leave the table.
If you leave the table during the meal, leave the napkin on your chair.
At the end of the meal place it beside — never on — your plate.
3: Good service requires all dinners to be served as simultaneously as possible because it is rude to begin eating before everyone has their food in front of them. There are no exceptions to this rule. (Just don’t. Even if they say “Please go ahead,” don’t. I say, “I’ll wait.” then smile and continue the conversation.)
4: The goal is for everyone to finish at about the same time. Which means pacing yourself, and your conversation. If you finish before everyone else (maybe because you weren’t contributing to the conversation?) do not ever
4a: push your plate away - your plate stays where it is, right in front of you.
4b: allow the server to take your plate - the goal is for everyone to have their plate removed at the same time - it is rude for plates to be removed when anyone is still eating.
4c: since it has become popular for individuals to act for their own convenience instead of courtesy to others, some servers will violate this rule. I’m often first finished. If the server moves to take away my plate I put my hand over it and say “I’ll wait until they’re done, with a smile.
5: If you drop a fork, leave it there. For the most part etiquette is about cleanliness and safety. You do not want the nasty fork that was on the floor to be on your table. Leave it there. When the server comes say, quietly, “I dropped my fork, may I please have another?”
5a: If a glass falls, spills, breaks - the server cleans it up. If it’s a horrific mess everyone gets up, and moves away from the table so the server can clean up. Sometimes they will move you to another table, often they will just take a clean napkin and place it over the spill, and the conversation continues. Don’t make a big deal about it. Accidents happen. Thank the server for their service and continue the conversation.
6: There is never a time when it is appropriate for you, a guest, to stack plates at the table, the way you would if you were at a fast food restaurant and were going to throw them away. The china and cutlery is cared for. The servers care for it. If the server stacks plates (very good servers don’t) so they can clear the table more evenly, or quickly, that’s their decision. It’s a style issue for the restaurant, and they’ve been trained whether that is appropriate for their guests.
The most important thing to remember is that dining is as much about the experience as about the food. Dining with others is a choreographed dance, or drama, that brings maximum pleasure. If you are just there to eat, do that at home, from a bowl, with a spoon, in front of the TV. When you are dining create an experience of grace and gratitude.