Tipping Point: The Art Of Paying Gratuities At Restaurants

on September 07 2012 6:22 AM

One of the greatest joys of living in a city like New York is the abundance of restaurants available – everything from Alsatian cuisine to the Zanzibar on Ninth Avenue.

While I am no 'foodie,' I do enjoy a wide variety of cuisines and try to go to a new restaurant almost every week.

One aspect of patronizing eateries has to do with the touchy subject of tipping – namely, how much of a gratuity to leave.

I know that wait-staff (as well as bartenders and other service employees) depend heavily on good tips since their hourly salaries are minuscule (far below the prevailing minimum wage). But I have never been certain if tipping was simply a 'courtesy' or the 'law.'

Of course, I always leave a tip – regardless of the quality of the food and service. I especially dislike waiters and waitresses who are “overly aggressive,” that is, in their eager pursuit of a handsome tip, they make frequent trips to my table, asking if “everything is alright,” or if we need “more water” or “more breadsticks,” etc.

As I understand it, a patron is required to pay anywhere between 10 percent and 20 percent (of the bill amount) in tips.

Usually, restaurants will include the "gratuity" or "service charge" at the bottom of the check. Otherwise, they will include the tip amounts “required” based on the 10-15-or-20 percent framework. (Anything above 20 percent would be excessive and even extortionate).

My handy way of calculating the necessary tip is by doubling the tax (oh, yes, I forgot to mention the tax) and that usually is sufficient for my purposes.

Unless the total bill for me and my party does not exceed $200, I always pay in cash (which, I think, makes waiters happy). If I paid the entire bill (including tip) by a credit card, I'm not certain how the gratuity gets into the waiter's pockets (if at all).

When one goes to a restaurant with a large group of people, the rules and etiquette governing bill- and tip-paying can get quite hairy.

If, say, six people (i.e., three couples) go for dinner, when the check arrives, there's usually some chaos and confusion that engulfs the table.

Does every couple pay for what they themselves drank and ate? Or do they split the bill equitably six ways (or three ways)?

What if one of the guests is a millionaire investment banker or corporate attorney and you're an ordinary middle-class fellow? What's the equitable 'distribution' then?

And what about the tip? How much to pay? And which diner pays what share?

In some rare cases, one guest – usually a very well-heeled individual chap – will pay for everyone's bill entirely. Sometimes, this act of largesse actually prompts resentment among the other diners. Most times, it brings gratitude.

I recall an episode of “The Sopranos” in which Tony and his boys enjoy a big dinner at some restaurant in Atlantic City. Christopher Moltisanti (as the youngest and lowest-level mobster in the group) is obliged to pay the full bill – as part of his mob 'internship' ritual.

I think the total bill was something like $1200 – since gangsters usually pay in cash, Chris had to empty his wallet.

Alas, he didn't provide the chief waiter with a sufficient tip – when the aggrieved restaurant employee confronted Chris and his colleague Paulie Walnuts in parking lot, they shot him to death.

I guess that's one way of resolving a waiter-customer dispute.

For the rest of us, we don't have such drastic options.

Tip-paying overseas presents other challenges.

In Europe, gratuities are generally customary, but usually less than what is expected in the U.S. In Europe, no more than 10 percent is necessary, although this depends on what country you are in.

In Asia, the rules of tipping are radically different.

Indeed, in Japan and South Korea, tipping is actually frowned upon. In China (where I have never visited), tips are actually considered “rude” and “insulting”! Perhaps the waiter regards a tip as a negative comment on his or her socio-economic status. The customs in Asia may be changing, though, as they adopt a more American-way of doing business.

In New York, however, just double the tax, pay in cash, and you'll be fine.

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