Notes on Dining, Part I

As we come to the close of another Restaurant Week here in New York City, I realize there are a few points that ought to be made to the general public. These points operate along the lines of getting along better with the people you come across, by accident or design, every day. They’re also designed to inculcate a deeper perspective on your own actions, however minute they might appear to be, and how they affect others, particularly those who are in your power.

I realize that this is a big city, with a long and exotic tradition of ruthlessness; that minor indignities are suffered by everyone in every job; and that one can go only so far to be gentle with the feelings of others without sacrificing the possibility of meaningful expression. All that said, however, there is far too much discourtesy shown to people in “service” industries. Everybody has his or her own equivalent to what I’m about to say, so you shouldn’t feel left out, or attacked. Instead, consider this a brief memorandum outlining a few basic ways that, without sacrificing any quality of experience, you can create quality in the lives of others.

(Deliberately omitted are childish lessons like “say please and thank you.” You know to do that. If you aren’t doing it, pay close attention to the following.)

The first is the most important, and it regards tipping. Tipping is, for many reasons, a difficult subject. The first thing to remember is that tipping is simple economics. As with anything else, work results in money. If you want the oil changed in your car, you pay a certain amount, say, $40. If you also need your fuel line cleaned, you pay more. Probably a lot more. $200? (I don’t have a car.) That’s because the mechanic had to do a lot more work.

The same equation applies to tipping. The more work your server does for you, the more you need to tip. This applies to all scales within a service situation, from getting you slices of lemon or lime for your water, to spending ten minutes discussing the best vintages of Barolo. If you want more service, it’s only fair that you pay your server more. Many people, I’m sure, are already bristling at this suggestion.

Complications arise quickly. More expensive restaurants generally have better service, and a higher level of service is to be expected. Since the food costs more, your tip (which is figured according to a percentage of the bill) is going to be higher. It is true that servers benefit from this. What many outsiders to the business do not take into account are other factors involved in how a server makes money. For example, better service requires a larger staff. Since tips are shared among all service employees (including many people you will not even see while dining), servers at more expensive restaurants have to share their earnings with a larger pool, leaving them with a smaller portion.

In addition, expensive restaurants typically have fewer seatings per night than less expensive restaurants. This is due to the number of courses, the preparation time of the food, and other factors. Therefore, while your bill may be $200 instead of $50, you may very well be the only party to sit at that table all night, whereas a cheaper restaurant may seat three or four parties there that night. Do the math. 20% of $200 is $40. 20% of $50 is $10. Multiply that $10 by four seatings… $40. The same. What’s the point?

To assume that servers at expensive restaurants make more money than others is a mistake. Those well-spoken, polite, and affable servers are working just as hard as the diner waiter bustling about in front of a hot kitchen. You just don’t see it. (Of course. It’s hidden for a reason. Do I need to say “duh”?)

This is especially important for diners at expensive restaurants to understand. I work at a three-star restaurant that has been ranked #1 in New York City more times in the last ten years than not. This is an expensive restaurant. We will call it ABC. To show you the structure of the difference between working there and working at a neighborhood bistro in Brooklyn (XYZ), allow me to quote a few numbers. My “section” at ABC (the segment of the dining room that I serve while I’m there) is usually four or five tables. At XYZ, it was at least seven, and in frantic moments as high as ten. At ABC, I may only serve ten people in one night, while at XYZ, I may serve fifty.

Each individual diner at ABC therefore represents a greater portion of each server’s final earnings for the night. If you take issue with your server, and leave a poor tip, your tip may constitute 10% (or higher, if it’s not a busy night, which many aren’t these days) of your server’s earnings.

Lesson: while you are totally within your rights to leave a poor tip–if the server makes big mistakes (brings food you’re allergic to after you already mentioned it, spills something on your white fur coat, etc.), he or she will understand–you ought to consider how drastic an effect that poor tip will have on a person who has come to work in order to provide you with a nice lunch or dinner, and will perform many menial tasks in order to do so. If your service–NOT your food–was decent, then leave a good tip. If you’re eating there, you can afford it, and it makes a big difference to somebody who was nice to you.



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