Westchester County Dining: Tipping at Restaurants

When I’m at a restaurant, I tip 20 percent on the whole bill, tax and drinks included, and it’s not because I’m grand, it’s because I feel that it’s the right thing to do. My husband (who has WASPier antecedents) finds my behavior repellent. “You’re grossly over-tipping,“ he says, as though he’s found me tucking twenties into waiters’ shirt pockets with a wink and a lingering pat on the bum. He takes 15 percent of the whole bill (tax included) and rounds up to the nearest dollar. In most cases, the difference between our tips is only a couple of bucks.

Turns out that we aren’t the only people that bicker about tipping. Check out dining blogs like Chow, which are filled with heated tipping arguments. The breakdown is that under-tippers are cheap and (and mortifying to dine with), while over-tippers are wasteful and prompt accusations of “buy yourself something nice” boorishness.

How do you tip at restaurants?  I’d love to know. And while I’m waiting for you to finish your spousal argument, I’ll offer EDP’s guide to the ways diners tip.

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No Tip, or Tips of Less Than 15%. We’ve all  seen the Reservoir Dogs and the diner sequence with Mr. Pink, who objected so articulately to a system that left restaurant owners depending on customers to pay their staff’s wages. Mr. Pink’s solution was not to tip at all, a solitary act of defiance that punishes the waiter and not the system. In addition to the Mr. Pinks, there are diners who withhold their tips as a means of expressing criticism. The table not ready at the time of your reservation? Was the waiter too busy to attend you? Did the meal take too long to arrive? Was the food not right? No or low tip. What these diners don’t realize is that none of these dining problems are under a waiter’s control. Rather than punish the messenger, it’s better to email the restaurant with a well-reasoned, detailed list of complaints. In fact, you might even score a free meal.

15%, Excluding Tax and Alcohol. Not tipping on tax I can sort of understand, but not tipping on alcohol is an odd way to justify cheapness. It takes just as much effort for a waiter to help a diner select wine, fetch glasses, uncork, and pour the wine as it does to grab a plate in the kitchen and drop it onto the table. Plus, the bartender who mixes your cocktail will probably be paid out of waiter’s tip. Alcohol is part of service, and should be represented in the tip.

15% – 20% of Restaurant Week/Groupon/or Other Deeply Discounted Tabs. This one drives me apey. I believe waiters shouldn’t be punished because their employer is participating in Restaurant Week or Groupon. I think diners should estimate what a meal would cost under the restaurant’s usual prices and tip accordingly. In most cases, the difference will probably amount to only a few bucks.

Double the Tax. I like this one, especially if you round up to the nearest dollar, It leaves a greater than 15% tip and it’s easy.

18.9% Tip, Including Alcohol. Turns out that this was the average U.S. tip in 2008. One wonders if this is because 18 percent is the middle-of-the-road percentage on those debatably offensive/handy tip calculators offered on the bottom of many restaurant checks. Are diners picking 18 percent and just rounding up?

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20% Tip, Including Tax and Alcohol. I think that this is where most former restaurant workers end up. It’s easy to calculate and is generous without being showy.

25% Tip. In a recent furor reported in Grub Street, the insidious Eater, The Daily Mail, and CBS, a mysteriously sourced item in a local San Francisco newspaper claimed that “’high-class’” restaurants were banding together to raise the standard tip to 25 percent. This story is generally thought to be hooey, but it’s a fact that a few restaurants would like to eliminate tipping entirely.  At Union Square Café, Danny Meyer valiantly tried to eliminate tipping by building his staff’s payroll into his restaurant’s prices. The efforts failed, but a non-negotiable, 20% service fee is automatically added to tabs at Thomas Keller’s Per Se.

To be honest, I wish that tipping would simply go away; I loathe doing math. Plus, I think the system is tough on the restaurant workers whose income relies on the vagaries of a discretionary fee. A couple of years ago, at the height of the recession, New York Times writer Frank Bruni reported that tip percentages had gone down although overall restaurant tabs had not. Turns out, 20-percent tippers were scaling back to 17% – which left one waiter at a high-end restaurant earning $60 less per shift, $300 less per five-shift week, and, by extension, $1,200 less per month. Of course, the WASPy husband was offended; he did that math and deduced that this server earned more than $500,000 per year (which made this waiter, for all his complaining, a One Percenter). But the question seems to be, are you prepared to see 20 percent higher prices listed in your menu in lieu of tips?  Do you like to retain control over the tip? Or do you prefer a stealthy, non-discretionary 20-percent service fee tagged onto your bill?  What’s your take?

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