In France, snubbing someone else out of the next free table is an art form. Here, it is likely to get your very icy glares and a hot drink that just happens to spill on you as your defeated competitor walks by.
To succeed in the most dire of crowded cafe situations, try these techniques:
• Always keep your eyes peeled. This is more important than ordering; you can always go back and get in line for your latte, but if you miss that table that opens up, you might not get another chance.
• Stake your claim early and clearly. Once you see an individual or group begin reaching for their coats or bags, stand near enough to their table to deflect other competitors but far enough away not to annoy those at the table into staying longer.
• Don’t be afraid to defend your territory. If someone starts to move in on your prospective table while you are waiting for the current occupant to vacate, inform that foul-player nicely, but firmly, that you were waiting for the table. I have never seen anyone argue back or cause a scene upon being told this – the person will probably be embarrassed they were caught trying to snake you.
However, under no circumstances should you commit the following gross errors in judgement:
• Put your belongings on a table before the current occupant has finished gathering theirs. Completely rude, presumptuous, and likely to make the person tell you the table isn’t available. There is never any reason to do to this. If they are leaving, they will leave. Let them finish enjoying that small bubble of personal, semi-private space that is their table until it has been fully vacated. If you have staked your claim clearly, no one else will be able to swoop in.
• Ask too aggressively if someone is leaving. If there are no used dishes on the table, it is much more likely that their order hasn’t come up yet, and the individuals at the table (and any nearby who hear your inane request and snicker to themselves) will be less likely to give you their table when they are finished. On the other end of the cafe experience, if someone is standing and putting their coat on, they are clearly leaving. If you ask them as much, they will think your your Captain Obvious moment is stupid and be annoyed that you are rudely rushing them.
• Cut off someone else who was clearly waiting for the table before you. This can result in a calling in the management situation, which can end particularly badly if the person is a regular or others saw them waiting. In other places, it may be completely acceptable, but here in Boston, don’t be surprised if someone tells you that they were waiting for the table first and expects you to vacate, lest a glove-slapping throw down ensue.