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!





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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>


  1. imeldadulcich on November 16, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Thanks Arden. I was raised Continental style. Do you think many people/wait staff even recognize these signals anymore?  I wonder..

  2. ArdenClise on November 16, 2012 at 11:48 am

     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.

  3. Meghan on June 23, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    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.

  4. Arden on June 24, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    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.

  5. Ricardo on September 4, 2016 at 9:39 am

    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.

  6. John C Calhoune on December 15, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    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!

  7. Arden on December 15, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    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.

  8. Barry on February 12, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    I appreciate the thoroughness of the response and the directions for the server codes. Thanks

  9. SP01L3R on February 16, 2017 at 5:43 am

    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…

  10. Lore on July 19, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    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.”

  11. Eimear on July 31, 2017 at 10:46 am

    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.

  12. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    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.

  13. Arden on August 1, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    That certainly works Lore.

  14. Curious on September 12, 2017 at 8:09 am

    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).

  15. Arden on September 27, 2017 at 8:54 am

    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.

  16. Unto Ryodi on June 17, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    I lived 15 years in the country that is part of the Commonwealth, not in Europe. Even in the cheapest restaurants they knew that if the knife and fork were at 8-4 position they would not take the plate away. You set them both at 4 oclock and voila your plate was gone. I am amazed in the way Americans eat. Looks like they never used a knife, that fork alone works like backhoe nonstop. And they speak with food in their mouth. Etiquette is something that many people are not aware in here. Just open the door for someone and seldom do you hear a basic thank you. They let them kids run wild in places and rude they are if you comment. Thats my take.

  17. Arden on June 25, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Unto.

  18. Anthony on August 30, 2018 at 10:49 am

    Hi Arden,

    I’m Australian. Born and raised in Sydney. We adhere to the Continental Etiquette when it comes to using cutlery.

    For us the finishing position is with the knife facing inwards, placed to the right of fork with the fork facing upwards. Both in the 5 o clock position. So finishing up we’re more or less identical to the North American Etiquette (I assume the Canadians use this method too).

    I’ve been to Continental Europe and to the UK quite a few times but havent really noticed anyone finishing with the fork placed downwards. If I was a server and saw that I would definitely clarify as to whether the customer had actually finished their meal or not.

  19. Arden on October 9, 2018 at 9:30 pm

    Hi Anthony, I don’t think there is perfect agreement on tines up or down and the exact placement on the plate. But as long as the fork and knife are together in the 4:00 ish area of the plate it’s all good. Thanks for stopping by.

  20. B G West on March 31, 2019 at 4:38 pm

    It is amazing to me that in today’s global community that a universal etiquette standard has not been approach. Especially with the increasing informal mannerism we are displaying in our contemporary world.

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  23. Shaisgrrl on May 25, 2019 at 4:07 pm

    I was born and raised in the US and my parents were both European. I was raised with the Continental style. My parents were appalled at American table manners or lack there of. To see steam coming out of my Mother’s ears all you had to do was hold your fork in an upright position, stab your steak with it (or chicken) and then proceed to use the knife in a sawing motion. Yikes!

  24. trina turner on May 25, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    i learned the continental style of eating while dating the son of an english mom and danish dad in my teens and early 20’s. i subsequently worked at several fine dining restaurants and knew immediately what diners were signaling to me. i still use these signals at dinners out, not many servers understand them. but, i’ve taught them to my daughter who is waiting tables during college breaks at a pretty nice place that attracts wealthy older clientele and she has said that most people over 60 use the signals i’ve shown her.
    it’s good info that even the restaurant owners didn’t share with my daughter, maybe because they didn’t know themselves!

  25. E.M. Serkey on May 25, 2019 at 7:43 pm

    I have misgivings about your advice to take an empty plate without asking. Different people have different opinions of what constitutes an empty or clean plate. For example. if the entree is gone but part of the side remains, or the side is gone too but not the dipping sauce. Some diners like to finish the remaining portion with a spoon, especially of it’s something like a good house salsa. I have also had multiple waiters whisk away a plate with a lovely pickle I was saving for last.( I guess they assumed that I left it while eating everything else because I disliked it, which could not be further from the truth.)

  26. Gael Fraser-Tytler on June 25, 2019 at 9:44 am

    The English / Continental rule according to Debrett’s, is times up when finished eating. Tines are only down while eating.

  27. Gael Fraser-Tytler on June 25, 2019 at 9:46 am

    Tines not times….!

  28. Arden on July 8, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for sharing Gael. Etiquette is not a perfect science and not all etiquette consultants agree on every detail. In the end, I always suggest people do what feels right for them.

  29. Martin Simmons on January 26, 2020 at 7:24 pm

    I often eat alone and I am constantly amazed at how many times I’ll have a good portion of food remaining on my plate, my fork is in my hand with a nice bite of food on it, and I’m chewing. Then the waitress will take my plate away while not asking, but stating, “let me take that for you”. My first 3 replies of “NO” are never heard because I am still chewing, and I must then yell, “NO”! The restaurant is half empty, therefore they don’t need my table or plate & utensils, it’s not even near closing time, therefore they aren’t trying to go home, but for some reason, they think I’ve had enough time to eat my food? After maybe 2 minutes, they are back asking yet again, and I say that I will let them know when I am done. The look on their face makes it clear that they have never heard that reply in their life! I don’t get it!
    Instead of getting upset, I like to have fun. My son & I played a game once in a restaurant where 3 waitresses with nothing to do were hovering about 10 feet away from our table after asking us to take our plates 3 times! We still had food on our plates but would put our forks down and not take another bite. We would even lean back in a relaxing pose. The waitresses would then take a step in our direction to collect our plates and at about their third step we would both pick up our forks and start eating again. We still laugh about that!

  30. J Brown on March 3, 2020 at 6:00 am

    It is definitely ‘tines up’ in the UK, when placing cutlery at the end of a meal.

    You keep saying it is all down to interpretation, experts can’t agree etc BUT that is not the case. There are standards which have been taught for centuries and ‘tines up’ is one such rule.

    Several other posters have also questioned your graphic… I think you need to research this and amend your blog as this advice of ‘tines down’ will generate questions from waiters in formal restaurants in the UK… and the whole point of using the correct positions is to prevent such misunderstandings.

  31. Arden on March 11, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    Etiquette is not a perfect science and not all etiquette experts agree on every aspect of etiquette. However, the prevailing rule is tines down when you’re eating Continental style. That said, the waiter should understand your signal whether you place the tines down or up as long as they are in the right position. It doesn’t matter that much if they are up or down.

  32. Kodagoda B. on January 8, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    I am from Sri Lanka, a south Asian developing country. Have to say, that almost every person from upper middle or a higher class is aware of these rules, here in my country. The waiters do check for these signs before they take away your dish. It is common even in a 3 star hotel/restaurant.
    The blog post is very comprehensive. thumbs up!

  33. Arden on January 8, 2021 at 2:20 pm

    Hello Kodagoda,

    Thank you for commenting. How wonderful so many people know about the waiter codes in your country. It certainly makes dining easier. Have a wonderful day.

  34. Fred on April 4, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    The Subjunctive tense is elegant , clear and efficient. I wish people WERE “better at it”.

    Interesting to read the forewarning about small town and Midwest restaurant staffs. Guess all those unknowledgeable staff I’ve encountered in Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Atlanta’ ands Miami must have been brought in by displaced Midwest owners and operators setting up stakes in those more sophisticated locales.

  35. Roderick on November 4, 2022 at 8:30 am

    It’s kind of like planet Utopia. America is never going to get there. With that being stated, etiquette at the table is like a gentleman’s coat over a puddle of water while walking with a lady. It’s like, why a gentleman walks outside near the curb of a sidewalk and the lady walks inward on the sidewalk (that was back in the days when dirty water in a bucket came out the top floor window). Today, all of this is antiquated.

    I worked for major hotels and restaurants nearly 20 years as a waiter in a damn penguin suit (tux). Best bet is for the patron when finished eating, put the utensils together anywhere on the plate, fork & knife. If the customer is not finished they should just put the fork with tines down on the edge of the plate and rest the end on the table. Simple & not pretty but easy! Bottom line, a good waiter or food service person should be able to make the determination whether the customer is finished or not and rely on their good instinct and experience to know when to pull the trigger. However, the best etiquette and appreciation at the table is, “to insure promptness,” leave a decent gratuity. Thank God there’s no more smoking at the table, that’s common etiquette & less dry cleaning!

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