A Food Critic's Guide to Better Tipping: Don't Be a Cheapo

This week's "Ask Corby": how to handle the bill in a way that will please your server, your cheapskate relatives, and your conscience


Q. A reader in Canada writes: What is a polite way to ensure the server gets tipped well when someone else is picking up the tab for dinner? I have relatives of a certain age who think a dollar or two is just fine for a tip regardless of the size of the party, the final bill total or whether the restaurant is casual or fine dining.

In the past I have snuck a few bills under my own coffee cup but I was recently caught doing this and chastised for it by a skinflint codger in my family. I don't want to come off as high and mighty or a high rolling hotshot, I just want to be sure the server gets fair compensation for dealing with my cheap-o relations.

A. Tipping is an eternally vexed subject: how much, when, how to withhold while penalizing only the people responsible for an unsatisfactory experience. As Megan McArdle's guest blogger Courtney Knapp pointed out in a succinct guide that paid special attention to the neglected, even-more-confusing subject of how to tip in a bar (she got advice from several mixologists, including the Life channel's own Derek Brown), if you don't like the food, send it back or talk to the manager: Unless a server garbled your order, it's not her or his fault. Though of course, sending food back is a huge drag, for the haughtiness it implies and, worse, the interruption of what should be a seamless and pleasant experience and the tedium of sitting in front of an empty plate while everyone else is stolidly eating what got put in front of them.

And what message are you really sending, even with a tip you consider generous? Eleanor Barkhorn, then-producer of the then Food channel, quoted a Slashfood post:

There's nothing more ambiguous than the 15-percent tip, which could just as well be a "thanks for nothing" grat from a miffed diner who always leaves 20 percent or a sincere show of gratitude from an infrequent restaurantgoer who thinks 15 percent is still the going rate for good service. Only the tipper knows for sure.

I've long thought that the solution is mandatory tipping built into the bill, as I wrote here, after James Fallows wrote about being forcefully struck by the two-sided humiliation and awkwardness of expecting a tip. In China, he wrote, tipping is so unusual as to be possibly insulting. His solution, which I agree with:

Please! Just add the money to the fare—or the restaurant check or the hotel bill—rather than having all of commercial life colored by the haggling / hostile-servile on one end / guilty-paternalistic on the other end institution of the tip.

In an ideal world, service would be a respected profession, one people would enter for a lifetime, or most of it. This is an idea that has long been lobbed, particularly by people familiar with the professionalism of teams in French restaurants. Tim and Nina Zagat, never-frequent-enough Life channel contributors, have usefully taken this up: On a recent trip to Boston to introduce the new edition of the Boston Zagat Survey, Tim's introductory remarks were on this theme. "It used to be that no parent would say to someone at a party, 'My kid has decided to be a cook,'" he said to me afterward. "Now they're practically as proud of that as if their kid was a doctor or lawyer. But they still would never brag about a child's being a server." It was apt that Nina and Tim had chosen the new Island Creek Oyster Bar for their breakfast conference, because, as I pointed out in my Boston Magazine review, the restaurant's real success in what had been a cursed space is the skill of the owner, Garrett Harker, who runs the front of the house, as he has at many other very successful Boston restaurants.

It's time, then, for the social-justice movement that rightly cares about the wages and working conditions of farm and food-industry workers to include restaurant workers too—the ones in high-turnover chains, of course, but also in high-end restaurants. Accounting for service in the restaurant bill so as to pay fair wages across the board is a very logical first step. And a huge one. In a Gourmet Live article that John Hendel summarized, the writer Foster Kamer concluded a history of tipping, as all sensible discussions concluded, with a consideration of mandatory tipping and what it could imply:

But what if everyone stepped back and sacrificed convention for the long-term benefits of doing away with tipping? The extremists' solution would be to put the cost of the food on the menu and for employers to pay fair wages regardless, but a compromise would be an across-the-board service charge...Americans at-large wouldn't get cheated out of due tax revenue. Discriminatory habits would be curbed, and the standard for good service would be equalized. The awkwardness of paying the check would go away, as would some of the obnoxious externalities that come with tipping (like the omnipresent upsell). And the gratuity really would become, in essence, a reward, not an obligatory charge we have to pay regardless of what we experience.

The matter is far from settled, of course. We issued our own call for solutions, which Eleanor summarized here. Like many well-known restaurateurs, including Danny Meyer, readers were split. Time to issue a new call! Write askcorby@gmail.com with your proposed remedies.

Meanwhile: Since built-in tipping, fair servers' wages, and a culture of respect for the profession of serving aren't going to happen anytime soon, here's how you make up for the humiliation of your cheap-o relatives. Whenever you're out with them, get up at some point in the meal once you know what the total is likely to be and seek out a server or manager out of sight of your relatives. Slip him or her some bills to make up for the shortfall you've calculated. Come back to the table and pretend you went to the bathroom when you really checked your emails, like everybody else.

To submit a food, drink, or restaurant advice question for Corby's next column, email askcorby@gmail.com.

Image: Steve Snodgrass/flickr