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Boston Cafe Etiquette


Boston Cafe Etiquette – Sharing a Table with a Stranger

Breakfast Cafe by su-lin from Flickr

Only in the most dire of circumstances should you ask if you can share a table with a stranger. In other countries, it is completely common for others to take up empty seats at your table (even in a restaurant- it happened to me every day in India), often without even asking. But throughout the U.S., the sense of personal space is very strong and extends in a rather wide bubbble. In Boston, that bubble most certainly consumes any empty seats at their table, and probably any standing room near it too!

If someone is at a table by themselves and there are no other seats available, I would usually say that you are out of luck. If you do decide to be brave and interrupt a single cafe goer immersed in their work/reading/facebooking, don’t commit any of these etiquette faux pas:

•    Obtain the free seat by trickery. The other day a girl asked me if I was using the free seat at my table (which was, at the time, occupied by my coat) or if I was waiting for someone. I dutifully removed my items from the seat and then she sat down. With me. At my table. Without being clear about her purpose. There isn’t even an option to say no in that situation, but you can be pretty sure the other party won’t be very happy about it.

•    Be rude to the person who allowed you to sit at their table. If you have asked someone if you can sit at their table, you are giving them the right to ask you to leave or generally not to do other things that bother them. Don’t talk loudly on your cellphone, work in irritating (there’s that personal space bubble again) proximity to them, or talk back to them if they ask you to stop taking up so much space. The manager will almost positively side with whoever had the table first, particularly if that person is a frequent customer (believe me, I spoke to him when I had my squatter incident the other day).

•    Take up excessive (or really any) space at the table. If someone has agreed to let you use their extra chair, don’t abuse their politeness by getting in their way or practically pushing their things off the table with your laptop, coffee, scone, and four textbooks.

•    Chat up the person. If the person you have sat with is by him or herself, they are probably doing something, and you should not abuse their hospitality by badgering them with pointless small talk or get to know you questions. If they decide to talk to you…well, that is the price you pay for sitting at their table.

Most importantly, thank the person when you leave. I offered a seat at my table to someone else who had been waiting along time when I was lucky enough to snag a table and he was polite throughout and very thankful when he left. It *almost* made me thinking sharing a table with a stranger isn’t so bad after all.

Gabi Logan is a Boston-based food and travel writer. On the web, you can find her recommendations for affordable yet delicious food in Boston at the Examiner and The 30 Minute Dinner Party.


Boston Cafe Etiquette – Grabbing that Free Table

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.

Tables and Chairs by etcher67 from Flickr

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:

Tables and Chairs by etcher67 from Flickr

•    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.

Gabi Logan is a Boston-based food and travel writer. On the web, you can find her recommendations for affordable yet delicious food in Boston at the Examiner and The 30 Minute Dinner Party.


Boston Cafe Etiquette – How Long Can You Linger?

How long can you linger?

After Dinner by p!o from Flickr

This is perhaps the most pressing matter of cafe etiquette, not only with your fellow latte-sippers, but also with management. In fact, some establishments have had such a problem with customers over staying their welcome that they have started covering power outlets or posting signs requesting that laptops remain out of site during peak hours (such at Toscanini’s in Central Square and their no laptops at brunch policy).

In my humble opinion there are two basic rules; the first applies also to restaurants. Do not linger after you have finished. This is an annoyance to waiters and hostesses, but smacks of bad taste in a busy cafe. Buying a cup of coffee does not earn you a landing pad for the day. I can’t tell you how many (single!) people occupy entire four person booth seats at Diesel Cafe in Davis Square for hours after finishing their meal.

Now, it is easy enough to make that latte, sandwich, or cup of coffee stretch for hours (maybe not easy, but doable). But is that really a fair solution? I always aim to consume my purchases at a normal speed and when they run out either buy something else or take my leave. That being said, it is highly advised to order more than just a cup of tea if you know you will be staying a while. Few things will earn you glares faster than ordering the cheapest item on the menu and then staying two or three times as long as other customers.

If you are looking for a place to hang your hat (or at least spread out your books and laptop) for a while, here are some of the best spots in Boston for passing a few hours or quality cafe time:

Espresso Royale Cafe (Newbury Street and Gloucester)
Hynes Convention Center – Green Line
One of three cafes in under the ERC/Bagel Rising umbrella, the Newbury location is without doubt the coziest. At high-traffic hours, it can be dumb luck to find a table, but early in the morning or in the late afternoon and evenings, you are sure to have an undisturbed space of your own. Bagel sandwiches are available until two to three hours before closing, and the beverages are supurb.

Athan’s Bakery (Washington Square, Brookline)
What this classy, European-style local is lacking in internet, it makes up for it by being open until midnight. Possibly the only such cafe hours you will find in Boston, but also one of the most congenial settings. The spacious main room gives you a great opportunity of finding a choice table, and the endless baklava and cookies up front will supply you with sweets as longs as you care to stay.

Clear Conscience Cafe (Central Square, Cambridge)
This is not a place you come for the coffee – or at least not the espresso. But the interior is gorgeous, with tons of tables, comfy couches, and homey lighting. The food is quite good, particularly the scones. Outlets abound and free internet is available (though only for one hour).

Gabi Logan is a Boston-based food and travel writer. On the web, you can find her recommendations for affordable yet delicious food in Boston at the Examiner and The 30 Minute Dinner Party.


Boston Cafe Etiquette – A Special Series by Gabi Logan

I despise the cold weather – so much so that each winter I question why I live in Boston.  One of the ways that I deal with subzero temps is warming up at a cozy cafe.  Lucky for me, Boston has many wonderful cafes that are perfect for a casual date, catching up with a friend, or quality time with your laptop.

One thing I’ve noticed about the Boston cafe scene is that it has its own set of rules.  Inspired by the fantastic and wildly observant Gabi Logan, I’m going to publish a special series on Boston cafe etiquette over the next few weeks.

As a freelance writer, Gabi spends a lot of time in local cafes, and has valuable tips on how long you can linger, snagging that coveted table, and rules for sharing a table with a stranger (without driving each other crazy).

Gabi’s first post will go live tomorrow, so in the interim please enjoy her scrumptious cooking blog, The 30 Minute Dinner Party, and her column on Boston’s Budget Meals.