Guest Author - Lisa Shea
In a formal restaurant, there is a strict rule for how waiters and waitresses serve the food and then clear the tables. It's good to be aware of how these things happen.
First, the primary duty of a waiter or waitress is to be helpful, invisible and always present. As you can imagine, that can be a really rough thing to do! It is your duty as a patron to make it easy for the waiter / waitress to know when you are ready for another drink, when you are done with a plate. If you keep playing with your food, how should the waitress know to come and remove that plate?
First, the place should always be set when you sit down - that way the waiter / waitress does not need to bother you at all with moving around in front of you. They should bring you drinks quickly, and be available but not pushy in taking your order. It is up to you to choose what you want at whatever speed it takes you.
It is politeness to serve everybody at once. That means if someone orders a dish that takes a long time, everyone will wait until it is ready. You can't blame a waiter for this - this is proper etiquette. Once everything at that course level is ready, they should be brought out simultaneously. That means if a number of people ordered appetizers, they are all brought out together so that nobody is left "waiting for food" while others are eating. The dishes should be served from each guest's right side. The ancient theory here is that guests would carry their swords on their left side, so that the guest could always "face any danger" posed. It was least threatening for a waiter to be on the right.
There are two theories on then removing the plates. One is that it is polite not to interrupt the party at all until everyone is done eating. At that point, all plates should be removed - again from the diners' right hand side - simultaneously. Another theory says that some people eat slowly, while others eat quickly. Those who ate quickly don't mind sitting and talking, but they dislike staring at cold food remnants on their plate during that time. So in that sense, some restaurants remove those done plates as soon as they are done, to be polite to the early diners. There are of course proponents of both theories.
Finally, while a waiter should present a bill early so you can leave immediately if you wish to, the waiter should never press you to pay immediately. You can sit and talk if you wish. The waiter should both be ready to take payment if you are ready to pay - or be ready to offer refills if your aim is to sit and chat. While I usually find waiters that are happy to be patient, I also find waiters that suddenly forget to refill water glasses, ask about seconds on coffee or even ask about dessert once that final bill is brought. As long as you are in the restaurant, you are a patron, and potentially could still be hungry or thirsty. It is the waiter's job to be around in case you want to call him over for a change or addition to your bill.