Ask the Critics: Can I Take Leftover Food From Another Table Once the Party Has Departed?
Here's the second installment of our new feature Ask the Critics. (Find the first installment here.) If you have a question for Sarah DiGregorio or Robert Sietsema, please send it to email@example.com
Seth G. writes--
My girlfriend and I are having dinner at WD-50, and there's a rather uncomfortable drama going on at the table next to us -- a couple in the throes of a breakup, it seems.
Their entrees arrive and the man simply sits there silent and reserved, staring at the floor, and not touching his food, a beautiful Wagyu flat-iron with coffee gnocchi and coconut sauce, one of my favorite plates that Wylie has ever produced. The woman eats her entree, calls for the check, pays, and then they get up and leave. But the man's entree is literally untouched. His fork was right where they put it to begin with. His appetite was gone, I guess, given the situation.
My question: At that moment - they're gone, food's paid for -- that Wagyu flat-iron is a great dish, and neither of us had had it that night for our entrees -- could we have reached over and snagged it? Swap one of our now-empty entree plates with it and act like nothing happened? Or should we wait for the waiter to come clear the table and say, "Hey, he didn't even touch that, we won't let it go to waste." -- or would it be weird to even ask that? It seems like we'd come off a bit grabby by asking.
As we're kind of regulars at WD and didn't want to risk a faux-pas, we didn't do any of the above, or say anything implying we'd eat it -- we just noted to the waiter that it hadn't been touched, and what a shame, so if anyone in the kitchen wanted it we could vouch it was cootie-free.
But could we have? Just curious. Or is this more of a "Dear Abby" question?
Next: Robert Sietsema's response
Great question, Seth. I can see several problems with simply snagging the steak.
To begin with, once you got it, could you eat it fast enough that no one on the staff would notice you had it? Remember that the crime you contemplate involves two phases: stealing and then eating, with eating presumably taking longer than grabbing, in spite of the butter-tender meat. And what if your waiter noticed and, thinking she'd neglected to put it on the tab (or simply to punish you), charged you for it?
There are plenty of other issues, too. Let's begin with the simplest. How do you know the distraught dude didn't touch his Wagyu? Since WD-50 is one of your favorite places, presumably you were enthralled with the food part of the time, or just engaged in pleasant conversation, and unable to monitor the other table full time.
While you were going to the bathroom, he could have hocked a loogie on it, cried onto it, or simply dawdled with the meat in some aimless way with an already-used fork or even his hand. My point is that, once the steak's in his personal territory, there are many things he might have done that you might not notice, yet would have made you think twice about eating it.
Moreover, your analysis of the situation is skewed by the fact that you think you were witnessing a drama that had, you hoped, killed his appetite. Yet, his companion finished her entree with gusto. The conclusion I'd come to is that you don't really know why he didn't eat it. Maybe there was a bug crawling on it, and he being rich, didn't care to make a fuss. Or maybe the smell of the meat was off. I know these are far-fetched speculations, but so is the one that conjectures that a guy leaves an expensive and delicious cut of meat behind because he's displeased with his dining companion.
Another issue: I'm quite familiar with WD-50 (it's one of my faves, too), and it's not the kind of room with intimate nooks shielded from prying eyes. As a matter of fact, anything you do in that big open room is likely to be spotted by other diners. So ask yourself, "Could I stand the embarrassment of being observed," which is akin to having a stranger see you pull a half-sandwich out of the garbage.
Indeed, the other diners don't know that the steak is pristine and untouched, and will probably think you're some weirdo, or maybe a freegan. Of course, it also depends on how fast you can get your hand out of your pocket, dart it over there, and pick up the steak.
But let's say you're impervious to the disapprobation of your fellow diners. What if someone on the large staff spots you? Are they prone to look the other way, based on the idea that they see it all the time, and they obviously don't want to offend a regular customer? Well, that's probably the case, unless they, too, covet the steak for their own, and are ready to charge over and object, which would double your embarrassment.
It's certain that the health department has a rule that you can't re-serve food to a second unrelated diner, which prevents restaurants from reusing the contents of bread baskets, open sauce boats, and the like. So the idea of asking a waiter if you can have it is certainly out, because simple health regulations prevent him from assenting. Not only from standards of hygiene, but decorum as well. In other words, once they've granted you the free piece of meat, what's to prevent other diners from asking for similar leftovers? We're talking dining-room anarchy here, my friend.
So the crux of the thing is, does your hand move as fast as a card sharp's? Can you keep on eye on other diners and waitstaff, too, while you're pilfering? And are you ready to accept the consequences, whatever they may be, if you are apprehended? Not sure exactly what those consequences would be, but they run from a withering gaze to a stern admonition to outright expulsion from the restaurant.
That said, if you can get around all these objections, are really, really hungry, and value that delicious steak more than your fleeting reputation among strangers--I say, go for it!
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