Are you done with that? How about now? Now?

Last summer at Houston's in the Westfield Century City mall, the usual struggle to keep a server from clearing my plate too soon had escalated into a full-blown war. When she came to our table for the fourth time and made yet another grab for my plate, I had no choice but to wrap my arm around my half-eaten burger and still plentiful fries. The physical barricade worked, but just barely.

Battle weary as we left the restaurant, my friends and I discussed the anxiety we felt going out to eat in this town if your pace of eating isn't synchronized with the rest of your party. Speedy eaters' plates are almost always whisked away before everyone else has finished, leading those who eat at a healthy clip to wonder if they have just grotesquely shoveled food down their throats. And slow eaters who are inevitably asked "Are you done with that?" three times over the course of a meal can't help wondering if the subtext is actually: "Maybe you should be done with that . . . fatty."

Even restaurants that are excellent in every other way can be notorious for food snatching. A quick survey of co-workers and friends reveals some recent offenders include popular Via Veneto on Main Street in Santa Monica ("At this point, I just tell them when I sit down that we don't want to be rushed," says one Westsider), En Sushi on Hillhurst in Los Feliz (where a friend defended an uneaten piece of salmon sushi from a demure busboy who all but grabbed it from the table while she was sipping green tea), the otherwise delightful Buddha's Belly on Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood and the Cheesecake Factory in Beverly Hills, where a co-worker swears her plate almost disappeared while she was in mid-bite.

Evan Kleiman, host of the radio show "Good Food" on KCRW and the owner of Angeli Caffe, says customers should feel perfectly comfortable telling a server that they are not yet done with their food.

"I'm very aggressive," she says, "I've never stabbed a busboy with a fork, but almost." She also thinks diners who get annoyed at overeager wait staff need to chill out. "Keep in mind that . . . the busboy's focus is to clear away empty, clear away empty. So I think it is perfectly understandable if they err on the side of clearing too much."

As for where to go when you want to be left in peace? A.O.C. in West Hollywood is pricey, but the wait staff paces the meals perfectly. And a recent trip to the always packed Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock found our waitress a little harried, but not asking to clear our table until every last one of us was done. The only problem: We had to wait almost an hour to be seated. But that's another peeve for another time. A.O.C., 8022 W. 3rd St., (323) 653-6359; Casa Bianca, 1650 Colorado Blvd., (323) 256-9617

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-- Deborah.Netburn@latimes.com

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