Is the term "doggie bag" still used in the US and UK, and is it common to take home what you can't finish? What is the most appropriate way to ask for leftovers at restaurants to take home?
Doggie bag is an American expression and custom. Though it is a a regular practice in US, at an informal level, it might appear unusual in other countries to ask to take home your lunch or dinner leftovers. From my personal experience I have never seen it in the U.K., while I have often seen it and done myself in the U.S. A box for this (the food) please is a common neutral way to ask for it.
A bag for leftover food that a customer of a restaurant may take home after a meal.
The modern doggie bag came about in the 1940s. With the United States engaged in World War II, food shortages were a fact of daily life on the home front—and for the sake of economy, pet owners were encouraged to feed table scraps to their pets. But thousands of Americans also dined out at restaurants where such frugal practices went by the wayside because eateries didn't offer to wrap up food as a standard convenience. In 1943, San Fransisco Francisco (whoops!) cafés, in an initiative to prevent animal cruelty, offered patrons Pet Pakits, cartons that patrons could readily request to carry home leftovers to Fido. Around the same time, Hotels in Seattle, Washington provided diners with wax paper bags bearing the label "Bones for Bowser." Eateries across the nation followed suit and started similar practices.
However, people began requesting doggie bags to take home food for themselves, much to the chagrin of etiquette columnists who were quick to wag their fingers at the practice. "I do not approve of taking leftover food such as pieces of meat home from restaurants," Emily Post's newspaper column sniped in 1968. "Restaurants provide 'doggy bags' for bones to be taken to pets, and generally the bags should be restricted to that use." These attitudes have since softened—especially given increasing restaurant portion sizes—and most modern diners don't feel embarrassed when asking their waiter to wrap up a remaining entrée for human consumption.
However, if you do plan on taking table scraps home and actually feeding them to your pet, please read the ASPCA's hit list of foods your furry friend should avoid. Also, be aware that the doggie bag is more of an American custom. If you're traveling abroad, be sure to bone up on the dining habits of wherever it is you're visiting. The last thing you want is to be in a strange land and let people think your table manners are for the dogs.
The doggie bag from an international perspective:
- In the UK, it’s totally legal to ask for a doggy bag, but almost never done. A survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) showed 25 per cent of diners were too embarrassed to ask, with 24 per cent wrongly believing the practice was against health and safety policies.
- In South Africa, it’s very much the done thing. Restaurants will usually offer you a doggy bag before you even ask. And some get fancy in how they present your leftovers. You might head home with your leftover steak wrapped in the body of a tin foil swan…
- In much of Europe, like the UK, asking for doggy bags is frowned upon. Again, it’s not illegal, but Europeans do expect you to eat everything that’s on your plate at that particular meal. Also, serving sizes don’t tend to be as enormous. In Stockholm, Sweden, in an effort to get more people asking for doggy bags (surveys showed 80 per cent were reluctant to ask), the Stockholm Consumer Cooperative Society (Konsumentföreningen Stockholm-KfS) made an informational video offering tips on how to make food last longer and to cut waste, featuring Swedish rap star Dogge Doggelito.
- In America, it’s legal and happens all the time. Stats from 2002 show 91 per cent of Americans take leftovers home at least occasionally, and 32 per cent do it on a regular basis. Mostly because serving sizes are too big and people know they can get two meals from one.
- In China, home to about 20 per cent of the world’s population, taking home and reusing leftovers is very common. Readers tell me there’s even a special term for a “leftovers stirfry”.
I have lived in the UK for my entire life (currently 30 years), and this is the first indication I've ever heard that the practice is a 'foreign' custom, or that it is in any way unusual, although the specific phrase may be euphemised depending upon the formality of the context.
As a general rule, I would say that if it's the kind of restaurant that you feel you need to dress up for then the phrase should probably be avoided. Other answers give some good suggestions for alternative phrases, although specifically 'to-go' is never used in the UK; it would be understood, but would stand out as US English - 'to take away' is the best idiomatic substitute.
In all but the most upmarket of establishments I'd be extremely surprised for the request to be denied (so much so that I may well take offence). Most places I've eaten in will actually make the offer themselves, because the custom in England is typically not to ask for things but to hope that one's wishes are implicitly understood, and the staff tend to know this. If it's a restaurant that also offers take-away as a matter of course, this is almost guaranteed.
(If the restaurant staff is asking, they will almost certainly not use the phrase themselves though.)
Yes - It is still common in the UK. I hear it a fair bit, both in Edinburgh and in London. I have never actually heard anyone use any of the other phrases listed in the other answers, but a doggie bag is understood when requested by restaurant staff, and in fact is suggested by some if it is obvious you are enjoying a meal but will not manage to finish it.
From my personal experience I would say that in the South-East of England the term doggy-bag is well understood and used in a descriptive sense (e.g. "I took a doggy-bag home from the restaurant") but in restaurants themselves the term is rarely if ever used by waiting staff, "bag" or "box" being preferred.
I was in a party offered a "doggy-bag" in Bangor (Northern Ireland) and no-one seemed surprised by the term so it may be in common use there, but I couldn't possibly say for sure.
I went to a restaurant last Friday and asked for a "doggie bag." Taking left overs home from a restaurant is common. Very common. (At least here in NYC). Often times people order more than they can realistically eat in that meal. Reasons for this include wanting to try something new, or to have small servings of different things, and wanting left overs for the following day.
Asking for a "doggie bag" is more informal, a little more personal; asking to have it "wrapped-up" or for "take-out" is a little more reserved.
If you know the waitstaff, or have had a pleasant rapport then doggie bag may be used. It's a "wink,wink" sort of statement. If the interaction was simply waitstaff/patron then asking for the left-overs to be "wrapped-up" would be more appropriate.
To specifically address the practice (or lack of it) in the UK...
The last time I went to America (as a teen, 10-15 years ago), my parents cringed every time waiting staff offered us a "doggie bag". They thought the practice was a little gross, and my impression was that they were embarrassed that the serving staff thought they were or might be the sort of people who would take leftovers from a restaurant home with them.
That doesn't mean every British person will think of it this way - and, indeed, as pointed out by other answers, serving staff in the UK (especially in tourist destinations that get a lot of Americans) may well be used to the idea - however, if you are dining with other Brits I would probably suggest you don't ask for a doggie bag just in case.
Times it would definitely not be appropriate:
- any fancy restaurant, or possibly even medium-fancy (they would probably honour your request if they could find a suitable receptacle, but it would be a major faux pas)
- when eating with people with whom you have a business or professional relationship, e.g. at a work do, even if the setting isn't fancy per se
- any "all you can eat" or buffet place. You're paying for what you can eat in one sitting, not to keep you going for the next week. (I imagine these places would have rules against it - they usually have rules limiting how long you can stay so that you don't come for lunch, stay for dinner, but only pay once.)
I'd ask for a to go box, foil, wrapper, etc. If the experience was horrible I might regress to calling it a doggie bag. Then I'd remember the experience was horrible and leave it on the table as I left as to passive aggressively express my displeasure. (At this point I'd also be wondering if they spit in my food.) Since it never will intentionally go to a dog, I've never called it a doggie bag.
I do not hear the term doggie bag except at a handful of old restaurants that focus on old people with old menus, old buildings, bad lighting, and old decor. Places where they might even think that gluten free foods are for diabetics and visa versa.
You'll hear the term often at places that actually have bags with dogs printed on them. It's been ages since I've seen one of these.
I'm in a medium sized US city on near the West coast.