Doggie bag etiquette

Whether you’re too full to finish or wanting a midnight snack, leftovers are serious business to diners and restaurants
Wednesday, May 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:42 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Even in today’s health-conscious, diet-crazy society, restaurants continue serving outrageous portions, leaving it up to the diner to decide whether to take home the leftovers. The diner’s decision is not trivial: Doggie bagging has its own etiquette.

According to a survey by American Demographics magazine, more guests are opting to take home the leftovers. The survey discovered that about 62 percent of diners leave restaurants carrying a doggie bag, and 89 percent of them indulge in leftovers the next day. Further, doggie bag requests have increased by roughly 20 percent compared to two years ago.

Some diners are going as far as requesting soup, a nibble of dessert, and in extreme cases, the bread and butter basket, be wrapped up.

So, when are diners taking it too far?

Often times, diners may feel embarrassed or ashamed to request a doggie bag at a more upscale restaurant. According to Renee Enna, a Chicago Tribune food writer, requesting a doggie bag is rarely socially taboo.

“Asking the server to ‘wrap it up,’ lets the chef know the meal was fantastic. I don’t want to leave any of it, but I can’t finish it,” Enna said. “It serves as a compliment, especially at typically upscale restaurants where the chef or restaurant owner is proud of the meal.”

The more expensive the meal, the more likely the diner will be tempted to take home leftovers. However, Chris McD’s and Trattoria Strada Nova, two of Columbia’s more upscale restaurants, report that only about 15 to 30 percent of diners ask servers to package leftovers.

The lack of requests may stem from embarrassment or not wanting to appear cheap. Rocky Galloway, Trattoria Strada Nova’s owner, attributes the few requests to the fact that most of his diners are making an evening out of the meal. This may be true, but more expensive restaurants typically serve smaller portions, leaving little to take home.

Even then, some diners will request the tiniest tidbit be wrapped up if they truly love it.

“I always get the strangest looks from waiters if I ask for my remaining dessert be wrapped up. It is impolite and makes me uncomfortable. If I want to enjoy something sweet later in the evening or the next day, I shouldn’t feel obligated to justify it to the waiter,” MU student Annie Kreutz said.

Most restaurants continue to serve heaping portions. In an age of oversized entrees, asking for a doggie bag has become a way to stretch the meal to make it healthier and more budget-friendly.

“The doggie bag factor figures into how I order. With a choice between a large chef salad or small, I’ll take the large and assure myself of having a nice leftover salad the next day,” said Donna Pierce, a Chicago Tribune food editor.

According to Enna, requesting a doggie bag is considered inappropriate when dining out with a date or businesspeople. One might make an unfavorable first impression or cause a dining partner to feel uncomfortable.

Requesting that a date’s leftovers be packaged and appropriating the doggie bag — since you paid for it — is one situation that definitely violates doggie bag etiquette.

A dinner bought by someone else is a gift, and a date who takes back part of a gift simply because he or she paid for it is committing a faux pas.

The list of doggie bag no-no’s continues. Asking a server for more bread and then asking for leftovers to be wrapped up is unacceptable. Soup, unless it’s packaged really well, should be left behind.

Donna Pierce speaks from experience: “I’d rather do without than ruin an outfit.”

Additionally, diners should turn down perishable foods if they do not plan to return home directly after the meal or when traveling and staying in a room without a refrigerator.

Servers should offer a doggie bag, rather than leaving it up to the diner to make the request.

But, servers should be careful not to rush customers by asking too early.

Although restaurant policies vary, servers usually wrap leftovers in the kitchen, away from the table and the commotion of the dining area. This is a common practice in Columbia’s restaurants, including Chris McD’s, Trattoria Strada Nova, Addison’s and Sophia’s.

Eating out is a luxury, a time for diners to enjoy one another’s company while being waited on. Bringing a box to the table and expecting diners to package their own leftovers can take away from the pleasure of dining out.

The appearance of the doggie bag is a common concern among customers. Typically, white styrofoam boxes are sufficient, but at more upscale restaurants, customers may feel more inclined to request a doggie bag if it is more aesthetically pleasing.

Marnie Roberts, a writer for Restaurants USA, says “upscale doggie bags leave customers hungry for more.”

A creative or unusual doggie bag can become a walking advertisement.

Roberts reported that at BRAVO! Italian Restaurant and Bar in Jackson, Miss., the staff uses specially designed rubber stamps on paper bags to convey the restaurant’s image as one that serves natural, homemade Italian cuisine.

“The theme of our restaurant is handmade food from scratch,” co-owner Jeff Good said in Roberts’ article.

“We wanted our packaging to reflect that.”

Donna Pierce recalls a San Francisco restaurant that wrapped leftovers in foil shaped like swans or crabs. Other restaurants have followed this trend of uniquely designed doggie bags, sending customers home with a lasting impression.

Where to draw the line with doggie bags?

Erin Eveler, a former waitress, recalls the weekly experience she had with a table of regulars, who requested leftovers from each course, including appetizers, salad, entree and dessert, be packaged before moving on to the next.

“I am more than happy to package leftovers, but this group took it way too far,” Eveler said.

“Instead of having leftovers for the next day, they had them for the next week.”

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