Dishin' That: Napkin fetish and other 'Stupid Human Restaurant Tricks'

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As adults, we tend to glaze over the dining idiosyncrasies of our immediate family and closest friends. Behaviors once thought odd are now common occurrences we no longer pay attention to.

Take for example, my friend’s mother, who insists she sit with her back to the wall while dining out.

“I learned it from my grandfather who wanted to see who came in and out,” she shared. “When I was a child, a lot of people owed him money and he thought if they could afford to go out to eat, they could afford to pay him back. No one owes me any money, but I still like to sit that way.”

Someone I work with has an Uncle Frank who requests two extra napkins whenever he orders a meal.

“I need three napkins,” he routinely says to the server, “One for my lap, one to tuck under my chins and one for the sweat on my brow. It’s hard work to eat all this good food.” My colleague’s Uncle Frank is borderline icky, but the family no longer notices what she refers to as his napkin fetish.

While some public dining quirks stem from practicalities, most of the wackiness can be chalked off to human nature. One friend calls the parade of stories “Stupid Human Restaurant Tricks.” While not exactly accurate, the stories do keep servers snickering at the end of the bar, which is the closest thing we have to a water cooler.

Not always amusing, some of the “tricks” are sad. The friend who coined the phrase told me a doozy.

“I have an older lady who comes in by herself and eats at the counter,” he shared. “As soon as she orders her food, she makes the sign of the cross and prays really loudly. We’ve gotten used to that part, but then, she reaches into her handbag and pulls out a dyed-blue rabbit’s foot on a little key chain. It’s the grossest looking thing I’ve ever seen and she puts it right next to her plate. I keep thinking she’s going to forget it someday, but she hasn’t yet.”

Then, there’s the “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” example.

“My ex-father-in-law and his new wife always make a reservation for four people, requesting one of just three booths,” said a friend who works at a small, high-end place in Boston. “Inevitability, the other couple can’t make it for some reason or another, and those two scammers sit in a booth intended for parties of four to six people. My ex-father-in-law knows my days off and never comes in when I’m working, thank God.

“The ‘wait until your entire group has arrived to be seated’ policy doesn’t work in this bistro because it’s so small,” he explained, as if reading my mind when I asked how this foolishness could happen more than once.

“Then, the owner stepped in and trying to remain calm, asked the couple to please call ahead next time if they know their other party isn’t coming, no matter how last minute. I heard they acted surprised.

“Months went by, and one day, we see their name on the (reservation) books,” he continued. “Sure enough, they walked in alone, got seated without question and ordered drinks. Then, the new wife pulls out a cell phone and calls the restaurant, telling the owner the other couple wasn’t coming. He comped their meal and asked them never to come back.”

Finally, another co-worker told me about her Boston sports-loving father who always brings his Red Sox seat cushion with him, no matter where they go to eat. “It isn’t like he has back problems, or is paranoid of germs on a chair,” she said. “He’s been dragging that thing around since the 2013 World Series.

“The big battle now is we’re all going on a family cruise,” she continued. “My mother said she refuses to go if he brings that thing with him. Honestly, I don’t think mom’s going to win this one. It isn’t just a quirky restaurant thing. It’s gone way beyond that.”

Peas & Q’s

Q —  “Why don’t people dress for dinner anymore? I’m tired of seeing flip-flops and collarless shirts at expensive restaurants, and I’m only in my 30s.” — Martha M., Scarborough.

A — Aside from cultural fashion trends, which shift often, I have ideas, but not a solid answer. However, I agree that it’s lovely to get dolled up to go out to dinner, especially for an occasion of importance.

That said, I’m opening this one up to the readers. What do you think about a required restaurant dress code? Where do we draw the line between comfort and dressing like a slob?

Bring it, people.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.