I’ll admit it: I like having my plate cleared as soon as I am done eating. Why must I be stuck with a giant empty plate in front of me while the rest of my table finishes? With all of this extra space I can easily reach for my glass of wine. My wife firmly disagrees with my stance. And, so do most proponents of modern etiquette. For instance, back in 2009, the New York Times included the practice on a list of “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do.”
Roberto A. Ferdman, a writer for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, also agrees: Plate removal has gotten out of hand. In a recent piece, he labeled the ever-increasing practice “the most annoying restaurant trend happening today,” arguing, “When a server clears a plate before everyone is finished, he or she leaves the table with a mess of subtle but important signals. Those who are still eating are made to feel as though they are holding others up; those who are not are made to feel as though they have rushed the meal. What was originally a group dining experience becomes a group exercise in guilt.”
The big question, however, is why this trend seemed to be increasing. “It's definitely been getting worse,” Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University who has written extensively about eating out, told Wonk. “It's a problem. I don't like it, either.” Still, neither Cowen nor Ferdman seemed completely able to understand the reason for the recent uptick.
One speculation is that both restaurants and waiters want to get more money from their tables. “The price of land is going up, which pushes up the value of each table,” Cowen continued. “That makes moving people along more important.” Ferdman suggests other reasons too: Maybe restaurants simply want to reduce clutter, or as he admits having heard, maybe people other than him (such as me) really do prefer it.
However, it might just be that, as it does, etiquette and dining experiences are changing. Worrying about when your plate gets cleared could be akin to lamenting the current lack of white table clothes or wondering what happened to the dessert fork. If people really are feeling guilty about the speed at which they eat, maybe it’s time to release some of that excess anxiety and just grab a glass of wine. Without a plate, you can set it anywhere you like.
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