How to tell the waiter you’re still eating without saying a word

Did you know there are signals you can use to let the wait staff know you are still eating or are finished? Perhaps you are taking a break from eating for a moment but you don’t want the waiter to think you’re finished. There’s nothing worse than being engrossed in a conversation and then noticing your half eaten meal has been removed because the waiter assumed you were finished. Thankfully, you can communicate your eating status with some simple codes through your utensil placement.

The codes are best explained with photos. But basically, to let the waiter know you are still eating, if you’re eating American style, you put your knife across the top of the plate, with the blade facing in towards you and your fork on the side of your plate at 4:20, if your plate were a clock. See the diagram below.

American style resting server code

If you are eating Continental (or European) style, you place the fork with the tines down at 8:40 on the plate and the knife at 4:20 on the plate. Continental style is where you eat with the fork always in the left hand, and knife in the right hand (or possibly reversed if you’re left handed), and you use the knife to push food onto the back of your fork. See diagram below.

Now, when you want to signal you are finished, whether there is food on the plate or not, you put your fork and knife together at 4:20 on the plate. If you’re eating American style, your fork tines face up.

American style finished server code

If you’re eating Continental style, the fork tines face down.

For the wait staff out there, I’d like to encourage you to refrain from asking “Are you still working on that?” It’s a rather unpleasant expression – as if eating the meal is a chore. Instead, if you don’t see the server codes, ask, “May I take your plate?”, or “Are you finished?

And, waiters, whether you see the finished code or not, if a plate is empty please do not ask the diner if she is finished. If the plate is empty you are safe to remove the plate.

One last dining tidbit, never put your napkin on your plate. Instead, when you are finished and are leaving the table, put your napkin crumpled up slightly to the left of your plate or where the plate was. Keep your napkin on your lap until you are ready to leave even if you are finished eating. Why? Because no one wants to look at a soiled napkin while they are at the table.

That’s our dining lesson for today. Bon appetit!





19 thoughts on “How to tell the waiter you’re still eating without saying a word

  1. ArdenClise

     Hi Imelda. Continental style is very elegant and efficient. I wish I was better at it.
    Sadly, I don’t think many waiters in low and middle end restaurants know about the server codes. But, it’s always worth a try. Maybe they will read my blog post and learn these wonderful signals.
    Thanks for asking.

  2. Meghan

    For as many people that are upset by this…there are many who simple just don’t give a crap.
    If I’m finished before anyone else, I’ve never been offended when my plate was cleared. I’ve never felt like I’m holding up the flow of my table. I understand that people eat at different paces and I’m comfortable at where I fit in that spectrum. If I’m done, I’m done. I no longer need that plate starting back at me.
    In fancy places this is the rule because that’s what you think all costumers want and that it’s the rule of service. But to each their own. You don’t know.

  3. Arden Post author

    Meghan, that’s true, to each his own. However, if we are following polite and courteous behavior the etiquette is to not clear the table until everyone is finished so no one feels rushed or embarrassed for still eating while others are done.

  4. Ricardo

    Thanks Arden! This is a nice and useful article. And that’s true. You want to enjoy your time at the restaurant as much as you want people you are eating with do. So knowing how to act properly ensures everyone enjoys.

  5. John C Calhoune

    Have worked at 5 different restaurants, can say beyond a reasonable doubt that this is so not true lol. Maybe this is for some 6 star dining or something but at your basic restaurant your waiter has never looked at your fork and knife placement and said “ohh their knife isn’t next to the fork, they must still be eating”
    But thanks for sharing, cheers!

  6. Arden Post author

    Hi John,

    So nice to hear from a waiter. It’s probably true that in many casual or less formal restaurants wait staff are not trained to look for the server codes. Especially if you’ve worked in restaurants in the laid back Northwest or smaller Midwest towns. But, I know that at more upscale, fine dining restaurants the waiters know to look for the server codes. However, that said, many U.S. diners don’t know to use the server codes. You will for sure see the waiter codes employed a lot more in Europe.

  7. SP01L3R

    I just think and believe that this is not the only area of concern. There is a new wave of people joining society totally unprepared for what’s to come. Parents don’t spend time with kids anymore, educating I mean, they believe that just because they pay expensive school systems, schools and teachers will take care of those basic educating matters… the truth is… no one cares anymore. The problem starts when you, as a young future employee, go for an intetview, and show yourself not properly dressed and with lack of posture and attitude… The old society still runs on those ‘old fashion’ rules… and then ‘surprise, surprise’… ‘I didn’t get that job’, why???
    I’m sure (thanks God), this does not apply to everyone… but it does affect a lot of people…

  8. Lore

    I just push my plate aside and when I see the waiter, I tell him/her to take it away. No better way just speaking up. If I am not finished and just ” resting” if someone attempt to take my plate , I speak up and say “leave zee plate alone. I am still working on it.”

  9. Eimear

    Unfortunately, management in so many restaurants do not include this knowledge when training their staff. I still adhere to crossed cutlery and straight cutlery signs out of habit. Pity the staff don’t understand! So basic and so important. Growing up in Ireland, clearing plates before everyone has finished would be considered exceptionally rude and rushing other diners to “clear their plates” faster than they would enjoy. We can’t blame staff of management has not trained them otherwise.

  10. Arden Post author

    Hi Eimear, thanks for your comment. Yes, very true most American waiters don’t know about the waiter codes. It’s a shame. I also agree that clearing plates before everyone at the table is finished is rude. But, many American’s argue they think it’s gross to sit in front of a plate they are finished with. Restaurants can’t win either way.

  11. Curious

    I’d find it interesting to know which countries come under the blanket term ‘continental.’ I’ve been living in Spain for 25 years, and the signals are different. This is true even for many of the more well-heeled here. If not finished, both knife and fork (tines down) rest half on the plate. When finished, both are placed on the plate at 4:20 (tines up).

  12. Arden Post author

    Curious, I don’t think there is a universal standard that everyone subscribes to. Etiquette consultants don’t always agree on the way things should be and there are cultural and regional differences. I do teach that it’s fine to put the tines up in the finished continental position.

  13. John

    Some do ,I always put my fork cross my knife thinking finished and they always left my plate but took my girlfriends..thanks for the info.

  14. Scott Kieserman

    It is incredibly rude to remove someone’s dinner plate while others are still eating and that utensil placement thing is nonsense. People wouldn’t think of doing it at home and the restaurant does it because they’re “pre bussing” to save themselves time.

  15. Erik Wagner

    “Are you still working on that?” is so grating to me. It’s not work. Trained waitstaff will ask “Are you still enjoying that?” or the alternatives you give.
    You must include in your next edition, the “helpful Henry’s” who when finished push the plate away from them, them proceed to stack all their dishes and utensils and hand it to the waiter. It’s a horrible scene and disruptive to the buster’s system. This stems from people who came from large families where everyone handed the plates off to mom.

  16. Arden Post author

    Erik, you have pointed out some additional dining no nos. Thanks for the tips I will include them in a post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *