Tips on Tipping: How to Talk About the Dining World's Biggest Debate

The polarizing debate facing the dining world is tipping. Should restaurants eliminate tipping altogether? What is the fairest way to pay waitstaff? Here's a handy guide to the brouhaha. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The polarizing debate facing the dining world is tipping. Should restaurants eliminate tipping altogether? What is the fairest way to pay waitstaff?

Everyone from chief restaurant critic Pete Wells of The New York Times to Slate and Esquire has weighed in on the topic, with some going so far as to call the practice an "abomination." Obviously, the debate isn't whether or not to tip at all—it's whether a more fair system is possible and/or desirable. Below, find the main points of the debate.

The Service

Pro-Tipping: Tipping is the only way to show a waiter that he or she did a good job. Frank Bruni would agree with this. And it's also one of the few effective ways to make it known that the server did a bad job. If you got rid of tipping, then no one would be rewarded for great service and punished for bad service. A waiter who spoke to Foster Kamer for a Gourmet article in 2010 admitted that tips were a motivator: "I just like the feeling of being tipped out at the end of the night. It’s a great feeling. It’s the feeling of being rewarded." 

Anti-Tipping: Leaving generous tips does not mean people will treat you better in the future—that only happens to celebrities, big spenders, and regulars, explains Pete Wells. On the subject of fairness and whether tips really reflect good service Well, along with Esquire, points to a recent study from Cornell University which found that female servers, especially sexy female servers get better tips and that white servers make more money than black servers regardless of service.

Our Tip: Unless you are a sexy, white female server, you sort of have to side with the anti-tipping crowd on this one. If tips were taken out of the equation, you could still talk to restaurant management or write a terrible Yelp review about a poor dining experience. 

The Waiter's Wage

Pro-Tipping: Waiters make virtually no money, and tipping (in cash) is the only way they can actually earn a living. There are waiters who make killings, with anecdotes of servers making as much as $75,000 a year. CNN has reported that becoming a waiter at a restaurant like Per Se can be statistically harder than getting into Harvard. And many waiters, as Kamer pointed out in Gourmet, prefer tips to a higher fixed income.

Anti-Tipping: Jay Porter, a restauranteur who ran a tip-less restaurant, wrote in Slate that his staff loved getting regular pay: "Software engineers, marriage counselors, bridge builders, you name the profession—in almost every industry, it's expected you'll be able to do your best work if you're not constantly distracted by compensation issues. Why don't we want that for restaurant servers?"

Our Tip: We'll go with Wells, who writes that "irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory. The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we."

The Cost of Eating Out

Pro-Tipping: If you get rid of tipping, prices will go up. "If restaurants paid their workers significantly more and took us off the hook for tips, they’d no doubt transfer the expense of those higher salaries to us, in the form of higher appetizer prices, higher entrée prices, steeper wine mark-ups, maybe even flat cover charges of some kind," wrote then Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni in 2009.

Anti-Tipping: Paying more for my salmon would make me feel better knowing that the person bringing me food is being paid a living wage.

Our Tip: If you're going to a restaurant you should, at the very least, be informed of the federal tip credit. Slate's Brian Palmer writes: 

The federal “tip credit” allows restaurants to pay their tipped employees as little as $2.13 per hour, as long as tips make up the shortfall—which turns a customer into a co-employer. Although federal and state law requires restaurants to ensure that tips bring employees up to minimum wage, few diners know that. 

Let's be honest, though: As healthy as this debate may be, America is not getting rid of tipping just yet. This isn't Europe. And though there are restaurants, like Sushi Yasuda in Manhattan, that have done away with tipping, there are millions of restaurants that haven't and won't. Until that changes, if you are going to a restaurant and being waited on, always tip at least 15 percent, regardless of how you feel on the debate.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.