Josh Stevenson, Flashpoint Photography.

Bus to Perfection: Barely Seen, Never Heard

Read your guests' preferences and clear tables unobtrusively.

Ideally, diners shouldn’t even notice it. The best wait staffs swoop in and out, quickly and efficiently clearing tables. But when busing goes badly, it can ruin the dining experience .

The best busing strategies start long before a table leaves. In fact, many experts say wait staff should pre-bus, clearing plates as courses are finished.

“There’s a difference between going to [bus] a table that has a lot of soiled ware on it vs. a table that has a dessert plate and a coffee cup,” says restaurant consultant Jay Goldstein.

Incrementally clearing items also ensures a steady flow of items into the dish room.

However, many fine-dining restaurants clear tables all at once, when all diners have finished a course or a meal. And most will use several servers to clear the items simultaneously, thus limiting the distraction for diners.

The rules aren’t universal, but operators agree that servers must be trained in reading tables.

Olivier Zardoni, executive director of operations at the Sugar Factory on the Las Vegas Strip, says wait staffs should take cues from guests’ body language. A party that’s in a rush might prefer clearing items one by one, while a group having a leisurely meal might appreciate a mass-busing approach at the end of a course or meal.

“Everything is about how you observe the table and the guests,” Zardoni says. “It’s an art.”

There are, however, some basic standards: Wait staffs should carry away items in their hands, not on trays. And employees should only pick up what they can carry so they’re not stacking plates high or dropping silverware.

Experts also advise against using strongly scented cleaners or rags that can become smelly and spread germs. Restaurants with hard-surfaced tables often use disposable wipes.

At Larkspur restaurant in Vail, Colorado, waiters use a team approach to busing. Managing director James Gall says staff training emphasizes basic table maintenance and busing; and when guests depart, only a candle and a water glass should remain at the table.

“We don’t allow dirty tables to sit next to guests that are dining,” he says.

While some stress the importance of picking up plates from a certain side of customers, Gall’s staff clears in the least disruptive way possible, making sure no guests are getting elbows in their faces.

But cleanliness shouldn’t be a focus only at the table, Gall cautions some still let areas around a table grow dirty. Instead, the whole place should be immaculate. All members of a service team should be willing to pitch in with busing. And to show that you value the role of busing, it’s important that those servers aren’t treated like second-class employees.

“It’s important that we recognize servers who bus tables and make them feel they’re an important part of our team,” says Lalo Durazo, co-owner and managing partner of Jaguar Hospitality Group, which runs three restaurants in the Miami area. “If we don’t, they can feel like they’re just doing the dirty work.”