A dirty plate and an empty cup of coffee. The half-eaten cupcake on a plate. Empty dishes after eating. On the background of a girl in a cafe

Ask Ann: How Do You Signal to a Waiter That You’re Finished?

A “universal” signal to send your server

Read all of our Ask Ann questions.

Q: At the end of a recent restaurant meal, a friend scraped his plate clean, pushing it away from him on the table. I’ve seen different approaches to signaling that the dish can be cleared, but some of them seem tacky (piling dirty plates?), if not flouting the proper code of behavior. What’s the right action to take?

A: I hear you! It happens too often – we’ve moved on to the next course, but those plates from the previous course have not budged. Listen up, though, servers. Etiquette gurus say not to remove an empty plate while other diners at the table are still eating the same course. (Plenty more serving dos and don’ts can be gleaned from the New York Times’ 2009 story, “100 Things Restaurant Staffers Should Never Do (Parts I and II)”). It sends the impression that the server is rushing diners through the meal.

Barring that situation, if everyone is finished, those plates should be removed. Interestingly, there seems to be a trend toward overzealous plate removal, chalked up to the restaurant owners’ desire to speed up the meal and free up the table for someone else. Shame on them!

As for a “universal” sign letting the server know you’re finished, there is one, and it’s very simple and easy to remember. Think of your plate as a clock. Place your knife and fork down in the 4:20 position. Don’t stack the plates or silverware, or push the plate away from you. Or god forbid, snap your fingers or wave at the server! ◆

Have a dining question? Ask Ann!

[ninja_forms id=14]

‘Ask Ann’ appears in the January 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning January 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.



Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.