Your Serve

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

August 1976By Comments

‘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 say, anything you may give the captain is in addition to, not deducted from, the waiter’s tip.

The waiter who does most of the serving should receive the standard 15 per cent. lf your cocktails are included on his bill, of course include them when you figure the 15 per cent. But if they are billed separately by a cocktail waitress, tip her the 15 per cent instead when you pay her bill. lf there is a wine steward, he, not the waiter, should receive your tip for the portion of the bill attributable to the wine. Unless the wine steward presents a separate bill, which is rare, he should be tipped about 15 per cent with folding money as you leave. Don’t worry about finding him; if he expects a tip he will make himself available.

Busboys should not be tipped. lf you must endure strolling musicians, they should be tipped a dollar if (and only if) you request a song. The same is true for rooted musicians. If you don’t tip, don’t expect to hear your song.

If you go to the restroom and are confronted by an attendant and a display of toiletries, there will also be a dish with some change and a few dollar bills for bait. Don’t feel obligated to tip more than a quarter for these services. A quarter per garment should buy back your belongings from the cloakroom, and you should also be able to retrieve your car for two bits. The doorman need not be tipped unless he hails a cab for you; then a quarter will do. If it is raining or very cold, the person who parks your car or the doorman who hails your cab deserves more.

Should you put your waiter’s (and perhaps the captain’s) tip on your credit card? The authorities who shape our contemporary social behavior—from Playboy to Ann Landers—disagree. The problem arises because credit card companies levy a service fee for the use of their cards. The restaurant pays this fee, which usually amount to 3 to 7 per cent of the check. Some restaurants deduct this same percentage from the waiter’s tip, making him share the credit card burden with them. Of course, the restaurant can always jack up its price to compensate for its expected credit card fee losses, but the waiter can’t. Also, some restaurants do not give the waiter his money until they receive payment from the credit card company, which may take as long as 30 days. For these reasons, many people think it is unfair to put tips on credit cards. In the strictest sense they are right. But if the restaurant accepts credit cards, the agreement between the waiter and the management cannot, in the end, be your concern. The waiter must defer to the convenience of the customer.

There is, in theory at least, an alternative to tipping. It is the “service charge” system prevalent on the continent of Europe and in many other parts of the world, especially those frequented by tourists. A flat fee of 10, 12½, or 15 per cent is simply added to the check for “service.” If the customer chooses to leave a little extra change on the table, the money is supposed to represent a true gratuity and not a payment due. (One of the minor paradoxes of tipping is that in Europe it is considered rude to pick up the copper coins when the waiter brings back the tray with your change, while in the United tales it is considered rude to leave them there.) The service charge system is making a slow but perceptible entry into the scene in Texas, primarily (for reason that have yet to be adequately explained) in Houston. For the present, the danger is that unsuspecting

patrons, basking in a pleasant haze of wine and Irish coffee, will neglect to notice that 15 per cent has already been added to their check, and will inadvertently tip twice. Some of Houston’s better restaurants seem, in fact, to be depending on precisely that error; the service charge is mentioned, if at all, in fine print on the menu and in scribbled penman hip on the check. At one downtown Houston showplace the waiter himself became visibly annoyed when we asked him to confirm that service was indeed included on the check he had just presented; grudgingly he admitted that it was, and he proceeded to ignore us for the rest of our stay. Forewarned, then, is forearmed; scrutinize your check for surreptitious service charges. But a forthright service charge is perfectly fair. If the service was exceptional, you may wish to leave up to 5 per cent extra.

Periodically, efforts are made to outlaw tipping. But the instinct to tip may be a fundamental part of the human psyche—either as a way of showing appreciation or as a way of negotiating one elf an advantage against the competing human throng. Ancient Greeks were buried with coins under their tongues because they were convinced that any soul who lacked the means to tip Charon, the ferryman at the River Styx, would be left on the wrong shore for eternity. More recently the Bolshevik banned tipping a insulting and degrading; for a time the practice was not seen in the Soviet Union, but now comrade taxi drivers and restaurant people make clear they expect to be insulted. And in the early Seventies West Germans decided that henceforth menu prices ought to include service; there would be no service charge added afterward to the bill. What you saw would be what you’d pay. Within a couple of years patrons began to resume leaving coins on the table, and the percentage is now aid to be at 5 or 6 per cent and climbing. 

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