Your Serve

The waiter has made it through the meal without spilling soup or forgetting a course. How much is that worth?

‘Tipping,” says a former waitress of my acquaintance, “is one of the more interesting games people play. And for the most part, it’s played on a very subliminal level.” You can take few things for granted in restaurant dining, but one of them is the tip: only a bit less certain than death, and higher-literally-than taxes. Deciding whom to tip, and how much to tip them, has been a source of worry for almost every restaurant-goer at one time or another. The finer the restaurant, the more sophisticated the occasion, the more likely are you to experience a form of mild panic. Much of the worry is unnecessary. There are some well-recognized tipping rules which should be known to both you and those who serve you. These, coupled with common sense, ought to see you through.

Folklore has it that the word “tip” originated in eighteenth-century English coffee house , whose patrons were in the habit of slipping waiters a coin wrapped in a note marked T.I.P. —” to insure promptness.” lf true, the story merely illustrates how much a custom can change over time. Instead of a petty bribe for special attentions, the tip now represents payment for services rendered. And though restaurant employees may be acutely aware of the gamesmanship involved in tipping, they can never lose sight of the fact that their livelihood largely depends on it.

Waiters are usually paid less than other restaurant employees who are not tipped. Often they do not receive everything you think you have given them—some restaurants require waiters to pool their tips, others force them to forfeit a percentage of what they earn on behalf of the bartenders, busboys, or even the cooks. Still others insist that waiters surrender part of their tips to the management, which then returns the money as salary in order to meet legal wage and tax requirements.

The tip—or however much of it a waiter is allowed to keep—is a basic element of his income. It is not a “bonus.” Eleanor Roosevelt once found time to write a manual of etiquette, wherein she described tipping as an “unwritten agreement” between the employer, the employee, and the public, by which the public “agreed to make up the difference” between a fair wage and what the employer actually paid in salary. For generations, purists have deplored the whole wretched system, but it persists. (Life magazine once editorialized for a negative tipping system, based on economist Milton Friedman’s negative income tax approach; for cold Brussels sprouts, for example, the customer could extract 25 cents from the waiter, for coffee pilled in the saucer, 15 cents. Tipping is with us still; Life magazine is not.) Consequently, if you still have any lingering belief that you are doing the waiter a favor by leaving him a tip, forget it. He is counting on it; ordinarily he has earned it; and you, in the imperious words of Lady Eleanor, “have an obligation to fulfill your part of the public’s responsibility.”

Fifteen per cent of the total bill, excluding sales tax, is now the standard tip for standard service at restaurants and bars. The old rule of 10 per cent is long dead. Etiquette book from the mid-Sixties show the 15 per cent rule well established then. As long ago as 1965 Emily Post, that formidable doyen of manners, warned readers that “10 per cent is too little almost anywhere, except perhaps at a lunch counter.”

For mild abuse or neglect, the standard percentage may of course be reduced. Likewise it should be boosted slightly for marginal extra effort. But your tip should seldom stray more than 5 per cent from the norm. Only the most extreme provocations-acts of hostility with malice aforethought—should induce you to omit it entirely; the diner who insists on extorting slavish obsequiousness from his waiter as the price for leaving a tip misunderstands what is going on. And, since the tip is a payment for service rendered, gross overtipping is gauche. Twenty-five per cent should be your upper limit: if your delight with the service tempts you to go higher than that, you should instead make a point of expressing your pleasure verbally to the management as well as to your waiter.

The worst confusion about tipping occurs in luxury restaurants, where you will encounter tuxedoed maitres d’hotel, captains, waiters, busboys, cocktail waitresses, musicians, wine stewards, checkers for cars and coats, doormen, and restroom attendants. Who gets what? And when? It isn’t difficult if you just remember that they are there to serve you, not to intimidate you (although they often try).

The maitre d’hotel is the headwaiter who greets you and either eats you or assigns you to a captain who performs this function. He is considered management and, unless you are trying to make an impression on him or book the prize table, need not be tipped. (If he is also the owner he must not be tipped.) In any event, if you decide to go ahead, never try to duplicate the movie scene where the cool guy asks for a corner table and, when he is informed that they’re all booked, smiles foolishly, flashes a wad of green, and asks, “Will this make any difference?” Fold a $5 bill in your hand and pass it to the maitre d’ discreetly before you ask. He will accept discreetly, and there is no need to call attention to what you are doing by such remarks as, ‘There you go my good man, heh, heh.” That will only insult everyone and label you a clod.

A captain who hands you the menu, takes your order, and is never seen again need not be tipped. lf, however, he prepares flaming dishes tableside or does other things that make your dinner more enjoyable, he should receive from $1 to 10  per cent of the check, depending on the extent and difficulty of his special service . He should be tipped on the way out and with folding money only. Needless to

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