It’s Time We (Fully) Embrace the Doggie Bag

Taking leftovers to-go has gone from faux pas to sustainably smart.

take out bag
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

As a food writer, I get to enjoy a lot of free food. It’s a privilege, and a joy, and a major source of guilt. Because wherever there’s a tasting, there’s a whole lot of food waste. But the thought of asking for my barely eaten food to go at such events always feels like a “tacky” thing to do. I often find myself trying to strike a balance between discovering new flavors and saying no to overabundance.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the current attitude surrounding “doggie bags,” or the packaging of leftovers. There’s been a long history of higher-end restaurants scoffing at the idea of taking scraps to-go. Surely, times have changed, I tell myself. There are a lot more important things to fuss over than bad manners.

Yet, even still, there seems to be this slight, residual shame surrounding the practice. Or else I’d have no qualms about tossing an extra piece of table bread into my purse for tomorrow’s breakfast toast. I’d be able to ask for a takeout box without a sheepish grin. I’d leave the restaurant, unapologetically, with the rest of my overpriced bottle of San Pellegrino in tow.

“It’s perfectly acceptable to request a takeout container from any restaurant, even if you are fine dining,” says Christin Gomes, co-founder of Common Courtesy, a lifestyle coaching company designed for millennials. “The only exception to this would be if you were invited to an event at a restaurant or the service was buffet-style.”

Doggie bags weren’t always socially acceptable. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the concept originated in the 1940s. As the United States became involved in World War II, food shortages were common, and pet owners were encouraged to feed table scraps to their animals.

In 1943, San Francisco cafés offered restaurant goers Pet Pakits, cartons that could be requested to carry home leftovers. Around the same time, hotels in Seattle provided diners with wax paper bags containing the label “Bones for Bowser.” Eventually, the practice became a way for humans to secure their own late-night snack, much to the dismay of etiquette columnists.

Given its history, the doggie bag has developed an identity that is distinctly American. “It’s a cultural thing,” says Shaun Hergatt, the Australian-born chef behind Michelin-starred, New York City restaurant, Vestry. “We don’t necessarily do it back in Australia, but the one thing I learned very quickly about America is that a lot of restaurants are quite generous with their portions, and sometimes you just can’t eat everything on the plate.”

Requesting a doggie bag in Europe can seem like a faux pas, especially in Italy, where there’s a strong made-to-order mentality. When asked about the prevalence of to-go containers in Italy, Chef Michele Casadei Massari of Lucciola, an Italian fine dining restaurant in New York City, responded, “I never saw them.”

In fact, in 2009, when Michelle Obama was seen leaving the Roman restaurant, Maccheroni, with a doggie bag full of leftover carbonara, she caused quite a stir. But Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti cited the move as progressive, calling on Italians to follow in her example of curbing food waste.

“The one thing I learned very quickly about America is that a lot of restaurants are quite generous with their portions, and sometimes you just can’t eat everything on the plate.”

France, another country that has a long history of refinement, passed a law in 2016 requiring restaurants that serve more than 150 customers a day to provide doggie bags if requested.

But for Massari, asking to take food home has nothing to do with etiquette—it’s more so about allowing the chef to create an in-the-moment experience for you. “In Italy, we approach the table differently. First we order antipasto. Then we stop. We chat. Maybe we go outside, have a little bit of wine. Then we get back to the table and order the first course, which we call primo. We talk, and more food comes to the table. Other friends are joining,” he explains. “It's not about using the restaurant like your own kitchen because you didn’t have time to cook. It’s about going out to experiment something different.”

The Italian chef honors this approach at Lucciola, allowing patrons the luxury of lingering and serving portions that are measured to move seamlessly with each course. Massari’s wait staff are trained to encourage patrons to order exactly what they are going to eat, paying attention to any dips in appetite. When a party is lost in conversation, they’ll even offer to warm up any food that’s been sitting on the table.

Massari believes that when patrons take leftovers to go, they run the risk of forgoing food safety. Bacteria grow quickly, especially with acidic foods like tomatoes. “How can you have a great pasta with simple tomato sauce—nothing added on top—if it’s not based on temperature, consistency, and freshness,” he says.

Ryan Schmidtberger, executive chef at New York City’s Hancock St, sees no issue with guests taking food home. And if there is a level of decorum at stake, it falls in the hands of the wait staff. “We fully embrace guests taking home unfinished portions of meals but make sure the staff refrains from using the term ‘doggie bag,’” he says.

Of course, the pandemic changed just about every way a restaurant operates, including the packaging of leftovers. “We make sure to ask the guests if they would like us to place leftovers in a container to take home rather than bring the guest a box and make them take care of it themselves,” Schmidtberger explains. “This practice came up more with the reopening of restaurants during the pandemic, but I find it very tacky for a guest to do it themselves.”

Even before the pandemic, California passed a new law establishing guidelines for restaurants to safely allow reusable takeout cups and containers brought in by guests, in an effort to reduce dependence on single-use plastics. Restaurants are often opposed to doing this, due to concerns about cross-contamination, but the bill merely lays out how to safely allow reusables.

kissaki omakase take home boxes

Then there are the restaurants that found new and interesting ways to approach takeout. “I know a lot of restaurateurs and Michelin star chefs who have started to do delivery,” Hergatt says. Kissaki, for example, opened 45 days before COVID hit New York City. The Japanese tradition of omakase is perhaps the most difficult culinary experience to replicate at home, but restaurateur Garry Kanfer saw an opportunity.

“I designed boxes that allowed the consumer to feel like he was at the omakase counter,” he says. “It kind of gave you the same feeling of unwrapping a beautifully packaged box, maybe a shoe box or one holding a handbag, except the box was filled with sushi.” It was the doggie bag re-invented.

Kanfer had discussions with Kissaki’s chef, Mark Garcia, who felt the concept of omakase at home might degrade the restaurant. But the restaurateur invested a lot of money in food-grade, environmentally friendly packaging, and the response was overwhelming. Customers loved the boxes, and the delivery model continues to soar.

As for freshness, Kanfer made sure to limit delivery to a couple miles, which allowed customers to receive their omakase box about 45 minutes post-preparation. “Luckily, cold food travels well,” he says.

Perhaps what COVID made clear is that there are no rules. While some meals are best enjoyed at the restaurant table, having a desire to prolong that experience a little bit longer at home—or to replicate it altogether—should never be regarded as bad taste.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.