I often dine alone at restaurants because I personally find it to be more convenient and tasty than preparing my own food. On occasion, though, I find that I have to temporarily leave the table in order to visit the restroom. Even though I might only be gone for a few minutes, if the timing hits just right, it can happen that my table has been cleared because the staff thought I was finished eating and was not planning to return. (One could also imagine having to take an emergency phone call, and going outside to do it so as not to annoy other diners.)

Generally, I am mostly finished eating by the time that the urge hits me, so it definitely looks like I have abandoned the remaining food on my plate—but I haven't! I plan to return and finish, just as soon as I take care of this emergency business.

The consequences of this happening include losing the uneaten food that remained on my plate (which seems like a waste to me, both financially and otherwise) and causing the restaurant staff to think that I've skipped the check (left without paying the bill). This results in awkwardness all the way around.

When you're dining with others, this is simple. They know your intention to return, so they can just tell someone who shows up and tries to clear the table. But when you're dining by yourself, the table looks abandoned, and there's no one to convey your intent.

What can I do to indicate to the restaurant staff (e.g., a busser responsible for cleaning tables) that I have only temporarily left, and that I plan to return and finish my food? How can I convey that I am still eating?

I've thought about leaving some personal effects on the table to indicate my plan to come back. Obviously this isn't foolproof—the restaurant staff could assume that I just forgot my personal effects—but a bigger problem is that someone else could steal them. For example, I could leave my phone, but there's a good chance that it won't be there when I return. I have tried leaving my credit card to convey both that I plan to return and that I haven't skipped out on the check, but that isn't ideal either, as someone could easily pick up my credit card and walk off with it while no one is watching.

Anyone have other suggestions on how to indicate this simply yet effectively?

  • 2
    If you don't get useful answers here, try Interpersonal Skills instead, which is intended for questions about etiquette and communication. I'm sure there are (probably outdated) signs that communicate "I'm not finished yet" with a waiter, if they understand these signs.
    – Elmy
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 9:40
  • What's even worse is when you return, someone else is sitting in your place. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 9:56
  • If you want to leave a personal effect, an old pocketbook is a good option. You could even leave it open at a specific page to indicate the temporary interruption. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 19:24

5 Answers 5


When dining alone at a restaurant, how can you indicate you're coming back when temporarily leaving the table?

Simply put a note on the table that you will return momentarily. Some restaurants do have cards already made for such occasions such as: Do not disturb, customer will return. There are several places that do this where I live with pre-made signage for one’s convenience.


I've thought about leaving some personal effects on the table

As you already guessed, it is not a good idea.

However, waiters are usually around all the time, so you can just address one of them (preferably the one which attends your table) that you leave temporarily, and you will return. And that you expect that the table should not be cleaned.

  • 1
    You could also ask them to communicate that to the bus-staff as well. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 15:16
  • @BrettFromLA: I do not understand what you mean. I do not even understand if you are direct or sarcastic (no offense either anyway).
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 5:23
  • 2
    I'm being sincere. My wife waited tables a long time ago, and has explained to me something I never really noticed: in many restaurants, there is one person who takes your drink order, another who takes your food order, a "food runner" who brings the food to your table, and a "bus person" who clears away dishes at the end of a meal. If you tell one of those people, for example the person who took your food order, that person should tell the bus person and maybe even some others who have been assisting you (in case those others occasionally clear dishes too). Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 15:01
  • Aha! That kind of bus :)
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 15:38
  • 1
    I couldn't think of anything :)
    – virolino
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 18:25

I leave the cutlery in the "unfinished" position to indicate, well, that I have not finished the meal.

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I also leave a personal item of no value to others, such as a pair of spectacles.

If the waiter clears a place that has a plate with uneaten food, and cutlery signing the "unfinished" message, go and see the head waiter and complain.

  • 1
    I believe you are also supposed to leave the napkin on the seat and not on the table. This may be only in US though.
    – pboss3010
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 13:46
  • 5
    This could work if everyone knows this style of visual communication. However, I have never seen this before, and there is a chance that the server or busing staff have not seen it either. Even if they have seen it, they would have to be certain that the customer also knew the message they were sending with their cutlery position, and that they sent it intentionally. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 15:15
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    @BrettFromLA if you are dining in a restaurant which uses untrained staff, then of course anything can happen - including the food. I've been in places like that, where for example they remove the plate while I am still eating, and I don't go back. Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 15:48
  • 5
    While the cutlery position and napkin-on-chair are both CORRECT, I’m afraid these are the dining rules of another era that mostly won’t be recognized by many restaurant staff.
    – M.Mat
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 17:54
  • 1
    Indeed. Customs are changing—not for the better I’m afraid, when it comes to the customer service sector. What about a note you keep in your wallet saying you will return shortly? Otherwise, speaking directly to waitstaff is what I do when dining alone.
    – M.Mat
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 17:59

When I must leave the dining table, I get the attention of the waitstaff to tell them my intentions. This is easy as they are more attentive to me at the beginning of the meal (What else can I get you?).

During the meal, attentive waitstaff want to know, "How is everything, and is there anything I can get for you?"

Near the end of the meal, the waitstaff also want to know, "How was everything, and is there anything I can get for you?" They also want to be paid so they will look for the opportunity to present the bill if you are "finished with your meal."

At all other times, merely raising your hand will immediately summon waitstaff if they don't immediately respond when you turn your head to get eye-contact with the staff.

In addition, you can use the tableware and settings to indicate your brief interruption(s) by putting your dinner napkin (serviette) beside your unfinished plate in a furled (cone-like) shape. Alternately, place it on your chair. You can also indicate that you have not finished by arranging your tableware neatly on the plate at the same time.

To indicate that you are finished with your meal and your plate is not empty, do not arrange your tableware neatly and cover your plate with the serviette. When the tines of the dinner fork are turned upward some take that as to mean, "I'm not finished" whereas when pointed downward indicate, "I'm finished."

If you plan to step outside during your break, inform the host/hostess (the person who brought you to your table), the head waiter, or the restaurant cashier who would be only too glad to pass on the information about your return.

Understandably, if you have not made a reservation, are unknown to the restaurant, arrive alone, and are headed toward the door (to make a call, yeah, that's it, to make a call) near the end of a meal, you may be asked to settle the bill before you step out.

Bon appetite!


While the existing answers here cover most of the cases, and usually would work, I would like to add another idea.

Sometimes, you have to leave really fast, and can't find/arrange a note in time, or even call for a waiter or look for one.

So my life hack is simple: ask someone sitting close to you to watch over your table, and in case a waiter arrives, tell the waiter that you left to the restroom (or urgent phone call, or just that you left) and you'll be back shortly, so no need to clean the table and no fear or a "runaway customer".

We're all humans, so if you explain nicely the situation, this should work just fine.

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