The Salty WaitressSalty Waitress is The Takeout’s advice column from a real-life waitress that will teach you how not to behave like a garbage person while dining out—and maybe in real life.  

Dear Salty Waitress: I enjoy eating by myself at restaurants with a book. Depending on portion sizes, often I’ll eat half the meal and box up the rest to take home. My problem is that I have medical conditions that see me visiting the bathroom frequently, especially when I’m eating or drinking.

Dozens of times, I’ve returned from the bathroom to find my table has been cleared and the food that I was still eating or saving to take home has been thrown away. I’ve even had food thrown away that was sitting on the table in to-go boxes, and I’m grossed out by the thought of taking my boxed-up leftover food into the bathroom with me for safekeeping.

I’ve tried informing my attending waiter that I’m going to the bathroom and will be right back, but often the person clearing my table is another restaurant staff person who just walked by—plus it’s embarrassing to announce to my poor waiter that “I’m not leaving, I’M GOING TO THE BATHROOM. AGAIN. FOR THE SECOND TIME IN AN HOUR.” This is a comfortable conversation for strangers to have! I’ve tried “marking my spot” by leaving personal items at the table to indicate that the table is still occupied, with mixed results: At one restaurant my backpack was stolen while I was gone, and sometimes my food gets cleared from the table around the book/glasses/coat/etc. I left sitting there.

I’ve started waiting to use a bathroom until after I leave a restaurant, which is physically uncomfortable, or I’ll eat out only when a friend is with me to guard my food, or I’ll just order my entire meal to go. But I miss eating out alone with my book. What should I do? Should I carry a sign that says “I’LL BE RIGHT BACK, I’M IN THE BATHROOM” to put out on my table at restaurants?

Thanks,
Back In Five Minutes

Dear Back In Five Minutes,

Isn’t it so much easier at bars? Slap a coaster or napkin on top of your drink—the pre-digital “brb”—and you’re good. Hey whippersnappers, you kids still know about this trick, right?

Not so easy in a restaurant. I personally wouldn’t clear someone’s table if they’re not there, unless there was not a scrap of food left on it or I see a bunch of napkins had been wadded up on top. Better to just wait until the person’s back and ask whether they’re through.

But alas, we can’t all be blessed to sit at a Salty table.

I would have suggested the informing-your-server route, as well as the leave-your-book-open-at-the-table route, but you’ve already struck out with those. I assume you’re not leaving your silverware in the “I’m done” position; it used to be back in my day that crossed silverware meant you were still working on your food. This is outdated, just like I’m beginning to worry my hairdo is, and it seems like these eager vacuums posing as restaurant servers just want to pick up as many plates as possible, regardless of your fork and knife arrangement.

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You may have to resort to unconventional measures. You could also try putting a coaster or napkin on your drink to signal you’ll be back, but it doesn’t seem these bussers are especially well versed in subtlety. I actually don’t think your idea of writing up a little business-card-sized paper that says “Still working, thanks!” is a bad idea. It’s clear; it’s fairly discreet; you can keep it in your wallet. If sitting at the bar at a restaurant is an option, that might help too? I wonder if the bartender wouldn’t be a bit more observant, since you’re sitting right there, and would be less apt to snag your plate.

If I was you, I’d get to work on some cute cards that read: “Back in 5 min., please don’t clear.” Actually, mine would say “Back the hell off from my food, buster,” with a border of barbed wire. But you do you.