How Long Is OK to Stay at the Table After You Paid?

It's been a pleasure to be your waiter, now please leave my restaurant.

How Long Is OK to Stay at the Table After You Paid?
Photo: PhotoAlto / Alamy Stock Photo

When one works in food service there is no shortage of things that might be aggravating. From the minor disrespect of customers refusing to use eye contact to the more bothersome act of being snapped at by customers with either fingers or words, there are plenty of ways servers can be annoyed. But there is one situation that gets deep underneath the fingernails of practically every restaurant server, embedded there like ground beef when you hand mix a meatloaf: customers who stay way past closing time.

Restaurants have designated business hours and no server expects a diner to inhale a three-course meal and gulp down a bottle of wine in order to leave one minute after the doors have been locked. Still being in a restaurant 30 minutes after closing time isn't awful. 45 minutes is approaching awful territory. An hour is officially within the city limits of Awful-town. Anything over that is downright downtown Atrocious-ville.

Customers who know that the restaurant is closed and make no effort to put some pep in their step are single-handedly affecting everyone who works in the place. The kitchen crew is twiddling their thumbs wondering if a dessert is in their future. The dishwasher is eagerly waiting on those remaining plates, glasses, and utensils. The busser is ready to turn the lights up and mop the floor. The manager wants to turn off the piped in music that everyone has been listening to for eight hours. And the server just wants to go home. Everyone is in limbo because one customer is casually sipping one inch of Chardonnay that is 99% backwash wine anyway.

People who wear out their restaurant welcome are called "campers." They practically pitch tents and roll out sleeping bags right next to their booths. If they had their druthers, they'd be telling ghost stories over an open flame while making s'mores. They might pretend they care by saying to the server, "Oh, are we keeping you?" but there is only one answer a professional server can give to that question: "No, of course not. Please, take your time," said with a smile.

The real answer is quite different: "Yes, Carl, you are keeping me here. Do you see anyone else in this restaurant? I can't leave until you leave. I'm chomping at the bit to clear your table, take off this apron and get out of here. I've been standing in my non-slip shoes for nine hours and the only thing on this earth that eats slower than you is a 105 year old turtle eating molasses in December. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here!"

There are subtle hints that restaurant workers can drop that let customers know it might be time to wrap things up. If you are in a restaurant and notice any of these circumstances, you should probably make like a tree and get out.

How to Know When It's Time to Go

Listen to the music.

The background music changes in some way. It might get turned off completely or if they're being understated, Donna Summer's "Last Dance" might start playing. If subtlety isn't their forte, you'll hear a song by a band like Five Finger Death Punch suddenly blaring out of the speakers making your bones rattle and your teeth shake.

The smell is in the air.

You smell the scent of candles being blown out and then notice that your table is the only one that still has any ambient lighting. All of the other extinguished candles are being whisked out of the dining room by a server.

Wait, is that smell garbage?

There are bags of trash being dragged from the kitchen and out the front door, which has to be unlocked before it can be opened.

Your bartender is no longer tender.

You feel the piercing glare of the bartender who is throwing daggers at you with their eyes because they're ready to turn off the cappuccino machine and dump out the coffee that you might still ask for. (If you do ask for coffee, it will be decaf even if you ask for regular. And it definitely will not be fresh.)

The table's been swept clean.

Your table has been cleared of everything from plates to salt and pepper shakers leaving you with nothing except whatever you may have been holding onto and the server was too professional to pry it from your hands.

Rest assured that these nuanced maneuvers are reserved for only the worst case camping offenders; those people who clearly have no cares or concerns about the hours of business. If you're making an effort to finish your meal so you can say goodbye, you're OK. However, if you are one of those customers who slips into the restaurant, beating the closing time by a nose and happily exclaim, "Whew, we made it!" all bets are off. It's time to go.

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