Steam Table Etiquette

Sign in the entryway at Niki's West

One of the most miraculous inventions ever is the steam table. For those of you not familiar with this giant of gastronomical gadgets, let me explain. The steam table is a long, stainless steel contraption filled with hot water to keep bins of food warm, palatable, and at the ready for the hungry throngs who will pass before its sneeze guard, stomachs rumbling and mouths watering.

What you may not realize is that the steam table commands certain etiquette. There is a method to the madness of providing an endless array of all things fried, casseroled, breaded, broiled, baked, oh…and, of course, steamed. Some establishments are fairly rigid in their expectations that you adhere to the protocol, such as Niki’s West, where an ordering faux pas might just get you passed over, and some are more lax, such as Ted’s, where the nice ladies behind the buffet seem endlessly patient, but you should nonetheless always be on your best.

What, you may wonder to yourself, does etiquette have to do with a steam table? A lot, actually. There are rules – sometimes written, sometimes just understood – but rules at any rate that must be adhered to in order to maintain the integrity and the function of the steam table.

  1. Always keep the line moving. No matter how interesting your companions’ gossip may be, no matter how much you want to know what happened on Young and the Restless, do not become so enthralled in conversation that you fail to move ahead with the line. The people behind you will become restless, start coughing and shuffling in a veiled attempt to snap you out of your oblivion, and eventually will give you an exasperated tap or nudge. The beauty of the steam table, you see, aside from its ability to provide about a million delicious choices at any given time, is its efficiency. Do not, for any reason, no matter what Wanda did at the bridal shower after mimosas and before petit fours, fail to keep the line moving ever forward.
  2. Plan ahead. A menu will always be posted, somewhere. It is your mission to find said menu and make your choices. If you are lucky, like at Niki’s, there will be a menu and the line will make several passes in front of the steam table. You should take this opportunity to assess the menu items. When you get to the trays, however, your decision must be made. When you are acknowledged, do not waver. Do not stammer. Proclaim your choices in a clear and concise manner, and then refer to Rule 1. Your plate will find you on down the line when it is ready for you.
  3. Children do not get to choose. Refer to Rule 2 and discuss the menu options with your child ahead of time. The steam table does not constitute window shopping for food. This is no time for a “teachable moment.” Furthermore, all the choices will break a child down faster than the prize counter at Chuck E. Cheese’s. No one wants to be in line behind you and little Bitsy when y’all get into a standoff because you want her to have broccoli and all she wants is macaroni and cheese. God forbid it escalates to the point where she throws herself to the floor in a hissy fit. Avoid the embarrassment, the reproachful glances, the raised eyebrows. Tell her what she wants ahead of time, get it for her, and keep that line moving!
  4. Get off the phone. The people behind the counter have been there since the early morning. They are hot. They are harried. They will be standing there long after you have finished your coconut pie and third glass of tea. They deserve your attention and respect. Get off the phone and give it to them. Nothing on that phone is so important you can’t take a break to order your meat and three. If it is life or death, you shouldn’t be standing in line at the steam table anyway.
  5. Make sure you are dressed appropriately.If you wish to worship at the Altar of Steam, you must dress for the occasion. Now no oneexpects you to don your full Sunday-going-to-meeting attire just to get lunch, but you are, after all, out in public and should be suitably clad. I defer to Niki’s again for their bold statement on the proper attire. Please refer to the photo. Take it to heart. Cover what should be covered, make sure your ‘do is done, and head on out for some finger-licken’ good lunch!
  6.  Don’t forget to tip. You may think that since you had to stand in line and carry your own plate, you don’t have to tip. My friend, you thought wrong. The nice lady who had unloaded your tray, kept your glass full, removed your detritus, and fetched you pepper sauce and extra butter is every bit as deserving of a tip as anyone. Be generous. Be more than generous.

The steam table – a Southern institution, a wondrous creation, a meat-and-three miracle. By following just a few itty, bitty rules, common courtesy really, you too can revel all up in it. Just remember to save a slice of pie for me!