The Secret Waiter Trick You've Never Noticed

Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo credit: Library of Congress

The next time you’re seated at a white-tablecloth restaurant, study your waiter carefully. Watch how he glides purposefully about the room, or how she gently sets a steaming plate of escargot before you. Watch the other waiters in the room, too. Notice anything out of the ordinary? They’re always moving in the same direction.

At least they should be, according to Ezra Eichelberger, a Culinary Institute of America professor of hospitality and service management.

"With classic French, Russian, and English service, the plates are set from the right and food is served to the guest from the left," Eichelberger explained to us. "And since you’re coming from [the guest’s] left, you keep going in the same direction—counter-clockwise. It’s more efficient.”

That said, many modern restaurant managers prefer their waiters to move clockwise, perhaps because of table layout or the menu’s peculiarities. It’s also easier for waiters to keep track of their tables when they move in a clockwise direction.

"Every seat has a number," said Eichelberger. "So if you go clockwise, you can count those seats as you go around to make sure you’re in the right place, instead of having to count backwards."

"We say it’s fine either way, so long as it’s consistent," he added. The practice typically extends to all the tables in a room; at a four-star restaurant this writer visited recently, the effect of all the waiters moving among the tables clockwise was like observing a Victorian-era waltz.

Rules regarding the direction of service have been around since the late 1700s, Eichelberger said. “That’s when we really started having more restaurants.” The best part about the nifty trick? When done correctly, you won’t even notice it; the restaurant, says Eichelberger, simply appears to have “a better flow.”

Mind = blown.