Dear Helena,

What is the proper etiquette surrounding “restaurant food gawking,” i.e., people looking at your food as they sit at the table next to you, loudly discussing whether it looks good or not, should they order it, and then when the server comes over, pointing at your dish and asking what it is.

My husband smartly points out that the problem with this is that it breaks down the shared “theater of public space” where you pretend no one is in the room with you and you and your eating companion are the only two people there. At the same time, that other dish does look really good, and is it so wrong to want to know what it is? —I’ll Have What He’s Having

Dear I’ll Have What He’s Having,

You don’t have to pretend your fellow diners—or their meals—are invisible. After all, part of the reason people go to restaurants is to see and be seen. And when a dish is particularly eye-catching, like a Caesar salad that’s assembled tableside, you can hardly help looking over.

Wanting to identify the dish is perfectly understandable too. Now that times are hard and people are going out to eat less, diners are more concerned than ever with ordering just the right thing. If a menu is overlong or confusing, sometimes the only way to find that dish is to ogle what your neighbor’s having.

But though it’s OK to look, staring at people while they’re eating makes them uncomfortable. If you need help identifying a dish, ask the server (avoid pointing if you can). Don’t ask the person eating it. Paul Einbund, a beverage consultant in San Francisco with 20 years of experience in the restaurant business, says: “I would never cross that imaginary wall in between tables, because I respect diners’ privacy. Maybe this comes from living in LA, where celebrities go out to eat and people come up to them and talk to them throughout the meal.” Regular folks deserve to enjoy their dinner in peace just as much as Tom Cruise.

A well-trained server, Einbund says, should notice a conversation between tables and actually cut it off if he feels one group is bothering another. “As a server, I would watch and say, ‘Do I think they’re enjoying that interaction or should I try to minimize it by stepping in between them?’”

There is one occasion when it’s fine to question the diner himself: If the tables are jammed in side by side, and your neighbors can hear every word you’re saying, it’s a little ridiculous to summon the server. Then simply ask the person eating the coveted dish what it is. If he turns out to be a like-minded Chowhound and offers you a considered evaluation, that’s great. If he just says, “I’m having the pig trotters,” don’t demand a full review. Just say thank you and turn back to your companion.

Finally, while you may look through the “imaginary wall” between tables, and even speak through it on occasion, never reach across it. I once heard a couple commenting loudly on how good another table’s cheese plate looked. When the people at the table got up to leave, the couple pointed at the cheese and said, “Do you mind if we have that?” Then they calmly reached over and helped themselves.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

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