It depends on the dish.
After finishing dinner with my family at a somewhat upscale restaurant, my mom eyed the piece of bread left on our table. She wanted to ask for it wrapped up, but like a teen getting picked up early from the party, I said, “Mom, you can’t do this.” So when I went to the bathroom, she slipped the bread into one of the many Ziploc bags she carries around with her, and then told me in the car when I couldn’t do anything about it.
But the incident got me thinking: Would it have actually been awkward or inconvenient to our waiter to ask him to wrap up a single slice of bread? And, more generally, is there any stigma surrounding taking home leftovers from fancier places, where the plates can be smaller and the logistics of wrapping, say, an amuse-bouche become more complicated?
When it comes to bread, the answer is a resounding “no”—though it gets a bit contentious with other foods. Almost all the fine-dining servers I spoke to said they don’t judge diners who want a slice or two wrapped, and a year after the Bread Incident with my mom, I regret being weird about it. Food shouldn’t be wasted when it doesn’t have to be, period.
“Sometimes people wrap up bits of bread they've been hanging onto the entire meal, and I don't judge them for this,” one server tells me. “Once a woman wrapped up her fried broccoli, and when I asked if she wanted her bread, she paused, then said she was avoiding carbs. That I judged her for.”
But don’t celebrate yet. In terms of wrapping up leftovers more broadly, one woman who’s worked at multiple upscale restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn says there’s not so much awkwardness as there is some annoyance if the house is packed, and there are a million other things demanding her attention.
“I didn't experience judgment from other staff usually, just frustration if it was busy, and I had to wrap up like half a bite of steak and a fingering potato,” she says. “But it was just par for the course. Also, some tasting menus are weirdly huge, so it was pretty normal to wrap up leftovers for that.”
Another server, who has worked at two upscale restaurants in Manhattan, echoes this sentiment. She’s never judged people for asking to get food wrapped up, but she’s certainly resented them for it because of how tired and overworked she is.
“There are dishes that are an insane pain in the ass to wrap up,” she says. “We had this crudité tower, which is three tiers of spreads and raw vegetables. People have trouble finishing this because it sometimes comes at the end of the meal and is a ton of veggies and dip. It's really impressive visually, but when they ask for it to go, a busser has to scrape black hummus into a box and throw veggies on it, and it literally looks like shit. If I opened that at home I would give it to someone I didn't care for.”
Of course, hundreds of tons of perfectly good food are wasted every day in the restaurants, which is the main reason why servers wouldn’t judge you for taking it home. (Some servers even admit to eating the leftovers off your plate, I discovered earlier this year.) But there’s one thing you should never, ever do—ask for an elaborate multi-course meal to go.
“We once had to make an entire tasting menu to go,” that same server tells me. “I have no idea why this happened, because the whole point of a tasting menu isn't all the food you get, it's sitting and watching everything unfold course by course. All I kept thinking was, ‘Who allowed for this to happen?’ And it's such a shame, too, because nothing looks nice in a box. I'm all for not wasting food, please take home your leftovers, give them to someone on the street if you don't want them. But this is a restaurant. Sit down and have people bring you your food, please.”