My friends have told me that, if I have a special ability with food and wine, it is not a gifted palate, nor an especially deft hand in the kitchen, rather it is the treatment I receive in restaurants despite the fact I am basically destitute financially and not particularly good-looking or well-connected. Essentially, I receive the treatment restaurants give their regular customers, and that is achievable from your first visit to any good restaurant (a good place being one with a vision and a mission beyond making money). This is a series about the behaviors I see as natural, that I guess some do not.
Tipping. I love tipping, and so many people seem to get it wrong: over-doing it, under-doing it, or not doing it. There are some pretty simple guidelines to follow if you want to be the kind of customer restaurant staff will go out of their way for. The best part is, once you internalize these things and they make sense to you, even on your first time in a place, good staff will sense you are cool, and treat you accordingly, because it is more a matter of understanding process then giving money.
In general: Unless it is your first time in a restaurant, and it has impressed you so little that you never intend to return, tip 20%. Not 20% of foods before tax. Not 20% of food, and some other percent on beverages. Leave 20% of the total of the check you were presented, and round up to the next dollar.
It is simpler and cheaper then you think: The difference between 15% and 20% to you is five dollars for every hundred, yet to those involved in serving you it is a crucial difference between a good customer and a bad customer. There is no gray, middle area in the eyes of your server. Although you cannot change the fact that you have been an ass all through dinner by over-tipping, you can ruin the fact that you had a great experience and will be back next week by only doubling the tax (a stupid NYC guideline for cheap people).
Booze: There is no dumber argument in the tipping discussion than “you only have to tip X on drinks.” The fact is there is exactly as much work involved in a server getting a drink as getting a plate. Add to this that wine is often opened and poured by the server and that seldom do entire groups order cocktails together, like they do food, and the reality is there is often more work for the server in handling drinks than food. Water doesn’t even change the check total, in spite of it often being a major factor in a diner’s perception of the service he or she has received.
If you can’t afford a $100 tip on a $500 bottle of wine, then you simply can’t afford a $500 bottle of wine. Sorry, but it’s true. Get a $40 bottle and tip $8, instead. Places employ wine servers at the level of the wine they keep. If you are being served fine wine, you should expect fine wine service from a knowledgeable professional. Once you have gotten it, pay for it.
The night got away from us. Time is also a factor in deciding how much to ramp up your tip. Let’s say in the normal course of service every thing went very smoothly, all was well, and you and your companions have had such a good time that you linger over your coffee and desserts for an hour or so. You have definitely offset your server’s earnings for the night. Basically, you owe him rent on that table. The fact is, your check is not going up and his earnings are going down. The people who should have sat down after you have not even started a check, and all hope is ruined for your sever getting in a third seating, should the opportunity arise. Even at Per Se, where they expect 4+ hours of service per seating, each table is calculated to turn once. Your good time can cost the staff 50% of their expected earnings for that table, that night. If you want the same delightful service that led to such a good time this time, you should value the server’s time accordingly and add it to the tip.
It’s on the house. Suppose you are a regular, or say it is your birthday, or for any other reason someone in the restaurant sends you something with the compliments of the house: tip on it. The server has done the same work he or she would have if your freebie were instead a factor in the bill’s total. The fact is, in most cases you would not have gotten this extra treat without the server. How do you think the house figured out it was your birthday or knew you were a regular?
If giving customers free things costs the servers money, they won’t do it. When I was a bartender, I had a very regular customer I liked a lot that tipped exactly 20% on the bill. When I would buy him back a drink or two it would, in effect, be lowering my tip, so I stopped giving him free drinks. My tips went up, as did his cost of going out. This wouldn’t have happened had he realized the free ten-dollar cocktail he would have tipped two bucks on was probably worth spending five to save seven. I was allowed a certain amount of buy-backs a night and put them where I thought they would benefit the bar’s mood and my wallet the most.
Even if you would have gotten your gratis round without any help from the server, say you are the owner’s wife or a friend of the barista, drop a couple extra bucks. Your friends will have a more successful place if the point person on their staff is not disgruntled by getting stiffed by a friend, for the same work they do for the average Joe, probably more, in fact, because you are a friend of the place.
Over tipping. An exorbitant tip, 35% plus, just makes you look like an insecure tourist, out for a unique big time. Your money will be appreciated, but if you set that precedent it better be something you plan to do every time, they will remember.
Bad service. You won’t want to be a regular at a place with bad service, so it should not be rewarded, but that is not what we are discussing. We are talking about good service in a good place where you want to be treated specially, often. For you, that may be the back of your local pizza joint, or, god forbid, Fridays. The reason these are all percentages and not numbers is that it is a calculation of proportion: the rules apply no matter where you eat out.
So you are saying, “look, I am not looking to get the maximum out of every dining experience. I simply want to tell someone to get me something and have them do it. The truth is, if I could cook I wouldn’t be out anyway.” Fine, I was never talking to you anyway, but don’t then ask me “hey Augie why do they send out experimental dishes for you to taste?” or “how come you get free glasses of $100 dessert wine? No one ever does that for me?” The answer is they know I am very serious about the dining experience, and their first clue was when I tipped $17.31 on $82.69
Tipping for drinks only, in a bar, has separate guidelines. They are: $1 a drink under $10 up to three, $5 for a round up to seven and $10 for everything past that. If you are drinking a beverage that costs more than $12, wine or something probably mislabeled as a Martini, tip 20%.