Is the art of restaurant tipping lost?

Is the art of tipping lost? Photo by Miguel Angel Chong

Photo courtesy of Miguel Angel Chong. Use allowed by CC 3.0 License

H., a waitress at a local eatery (to remain unnamed), approached my table. She checked to see if I needed more water, engaged in our usual chatter, then flashed me the check she had picked up from a party of 12.

The food charge was well into three figures; the amount written in the tip space wasn’t as generous: $10.00.  That’s less than one dollar per person for a healthy tab. Either H. was the worst server this side of Casco Bay (note: she isn’t) or maybe that group predicted Dow Jones meltdowns for a living.

Whether in lean times as the present or past booms, voluntary tipping has been something of a conundrum. In the U.S., servers and wait staff often work for bare-bones wages, and gratuities are their real income.

Largely a European custom reserved for the well-to-do and dating back to the 16th century, tipping hit our shores in the late 1800s. An 1897 New York Times op-ed called it the “vilest of imported vices.” The Washington Post piled on with a description of tipping as “one of the most insidious and one of the most malignant evils.”

The problem was its implied condescension: The mighty gracing the weak. Indeed, early on many American service workers resisted tips as insults to their pride. Eventually that changed.

The protocols of who to tip and how much to give are intricate and can fill a book. Some of the takes, like H.’s offering for hustling at peak hour to a sizeable party, can be paltry. A popular American guideline finds 15 percent an acceptable tip for satisfactory restaurant service.

But not all venues or service quality are equal, nor do all customers wield the same billfold. The eatery itself, including prices and cachet, should give a good radar reading. Yet upscale places aren’t the issue; checks there are large enough to yield healthy tips. However, just because someone wealthy is dining, it doesn’t mean they are generous.

Several friends of mine wait tables locally and share their anecdotes. A few years back, for example, a movie star was in town for an appearance. The dinner tip left behind was 5 percent. Contrast that to a few weeks later; a TV actress dined at that same establishment. Her tip was almost the same amount as the meal itself.

Given such divergence, it seems far easier to erase uncertainty and have gratuities included, as Germans do by adding 14 to 16 percent to menu items. Their servers, though, typically are paid a salary, unlike most of ours. When I lived there, it took me a few months to realize that wait staffs doted on me because I was leaving an American-style tip on top of the listed meal price, something unknown to locals.

But here in the U.S., a typical check for one person in a small diner, might not even hit $10.00, and tips often peak at $1.00 for such meals. Those servers have to work several days to earn as much as their bistro peers make on one dinner table.

Nevertheless, in this tough economic spell, discretion must reign supreme. Tipping is really best left to each individual and his circumstances. On some level, everyone eating out is there to catch a break from something, and they may not have the ability for much largesse, if any.

So even though I haven’t buffed a table in a tavern for more than three decades, I’ve never forgotten how grueling it is. When I can, then, I fork over a few extra bucks. As hard as I’ve been hit by the economy, I can’t imagine it’s as bad for me as for the person bringing my meal.

But those issues can get complex and folks need to decide on their own. If it really starts to seem like a burden, I realize no one is forcing me to eat out. I can always brown bag it, or do better forecasting the Dow.

Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.