When Did Tipping Become a Stick-Up?

ELV note: Have things gotten out of hand over hand outs? Click on the link below to read John Mariani’s article in its original format, or continue after the jump. Either way, wethinks you’ll want to weigh in on what’s going on when it comes to this “gratuity” ….that’s now all but demanded by restaurants and their staffs.


By John Mariani

On a recent TV show a restaurateur told the host that he would never have a problem getting the best table in the house, but that all those out there watching that show were going to have to pony up big time to get even the slightest recognition of hospitality at his restaurants.
He then went on to detail exactly what amounts achieved precisely which results at his restaurants:  “Twenty dollars will get you noticed,” he said. “Fifty will get you a good table. But you’re going to have to pay out a hundred to get a  great table.”

After 35 years of covering restaurants around the  world, I am not naive about how greasing the palm of a maître d’ can work inane little miracles for those who measure their own self worth by what they perceive to be an “A” table. But upon hearing this restaurateur’s blatant statement of just how much the bribes would cost shocked me for its arrant smugness, this in a business supposedly built on service and hospitality. It was the kind of statement that defines the cynic as precisely as did Oscar Wilde–“a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Or, as Bob Dylan observed, “Money doesn’t talk, it screams.”

If restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer has taught his colleagues anything (read his book Setting the Table), the relationship between the guest and staff should be warm, indeed, fun, for all concerned, and demanding–not anticipating–a twenty, fifty or c-note in a maître d’s hand for a table is the exact opposite of all that.  By the same token, if a guest has a delightful evening and the maître d’ helped make it so, then a tip as the guest exits is perfectly hospitable on both ends, especially if that guest intends to be a regular. The fact is that, not only at Danny Meyer’s restaurants but any restaurant that uses Open Table can easily gather summations of guest’s likes and dislikes, and, along with notes taken by the restaurant staff, a profile can be compiled so that the next time he or she visits, the guest will be enchanted to find the staff caters specifically to his likes and dislikes. That is what hospitality is all about, not bribery. And those who frequent a restaurants, as with any other establishment, are going to get preferential treatment simply as a matter of valuing their fidelity.

Celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and restaurant critics, in that order, get good tables as a matter of course; the most fawned over of all? Police commissioners and precinct captains, who need not pay off for the courtesy.  (By the way, the term Siberia, indicating a table is a less-than-appealing part of a restaurant, was coined by actress Peggy Hopkins Joyce [below] in 1931 at NYC’s El Morocco supper club when she was inadvertently shown to a lesser table.)

Of course, people who love to be seen throwing money around are the same people who feel abject ego-deflation if they had to play by the normal rules of hospitality.  I was told that the late plumbing contractor John Gotti, who ended up getting his meals through a slot in solitary confinement,  used to tip the amount of the bill itself, always insuring him of first-rate service. (The fact that he was a vengeful gangster might have had something to do with it.)

Tipping, at least in Anglo-American society is very old, dating back in print to 1755. The first specific reference to a waiter receiving a tip was in 1825.  Since then it has become common practice in Great Britain and the U.S., although until recently it was considered very bad form for a bartender in a pub to take a tip. In the first half of the last century, that is, the 20th, fifteen percent of the bill, before taxes, was the norm; of course, back then–say up until the 1980s–few people ever ordered expensive wines, so the idea of tipping fifteen percent on beverages was ridiculous.
Sommeliers would receive a five or ten percent tip, but only if they did somewhat more work than merely open a bottle. There was also a time, almost wholly gone, when captains and waiters in posh restaurants were tipped separately, five and fifteen percent, respectively, with two slots on credit cards for that purpose, which was a real pain in the neck.  The tips were usually pooled anyway, with busboys and bartenders getting a cut. Maître d’s were given money on the way out.

(By the way, it is a myth that the word “tip” is short for “to insure promptness.”)
Of course, all this is, obviated by the inclusion on the bill of a service charge, increasingly the case in Great Britain, for the reason that their European guests all too often pretend not to know about tipping on the bill because in places like France and Italy, the service charge (“service compris,” “servizio incluso”) was part of the cost of the food itself; that is, if a lamb chop cost $25, about 10 to 12 percent of that cost was for service. The so-called pour boire (“for a drink,” below) was no more than a few francs (before euros) one left on the table, perhaps rounding off the bill.  This was pretty much the case in Europe until the 1960s when Americans en masse began traveling to France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, and, either ignorant of the included service charge or not wanting to seem cheap, added the usual 15 percent tip they would have back in the States–on top of the included service charge.

The expansion of this to just about every staffer in hotels also grew, despite the fact that a service charge is built into the price of the room by law. So Americans would tip everyone in sight until it became routine. I recall many years ago, when informed that Americas were tipping the chambermaids in France (who would be sharing in the service charge), the French travel and food guide editor Christian Millau gasped, “You mean after I pay $500 for a room I have to pay more to have it cleaned?”  So now in Europe tipping has become far more common, even expected, despite a note that it’s included printed on the menu or bill; if it is not, you should ask.

The tinny age of tipping was in the post-war period when maître d’s and captains at French restaurants in Paris, London and Rome could wither an incoming guest with a glance that meant, “You are obviously a nobody, but I might be convinced to seat you if you pay me a wad of money.” Even then it didn’t always work: the imperious owner and host Henri Soulé of the famous Le Pavillon in NYC refused ever to give a good table to his despised landlord, who happened to be Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures.  Cohn threatened to evict Le Pavillon, but Soulé refused to budged and was out the door. (Le Pavillon relocated.)
More distressing was the upward spiral of tipping from the normal fifteen percent to twenty percent–previously reserved for exceptional service beyond the usual call of duty. Today, twenty percent has become the standard, while twenty-five is now the larger reward.  Of course, the show-offs will tip whatever they think will make the waiter or captain love them.  Don’t misunderstand: were I one of the one-percenters on earnings, a public figure like Jay-Z, or a Russian billionaire, I would tip very, very generously too, but these days people feel intimidated if they don’t tip at least twenty percent, even on wine.  Then again, as a restaurateur once told me, “If a guy can afford a $500 bottle of wine, he can readily afford to tip 20 percent on it too.”

So, depending on your spirit of generosity, bank account, or genuine gratefulness, tip what you want; also, do not tip when service has been terrible.  I know this makes Americans terrified that the waiter will run after you in the street or spike your coffee with something unpleasant, but registering your discontent with the maître d’ or owner is at the end of the day helpful to the management, as long as your complaints are legitimate and delivered courteously.

There are still places in the world that frown on tipping as uncivilized and dishonorable–Japan being a paramount example of a country that believes a service person should be paid what he is worth by an employer, not by a guest in his restaurant. And that’s more or less the case  when service is included in a bill. Tipping is almost always awkward, and now it seems always expected. What was once a congenial gesture has now become a requisite, especially when the restaurateur lays out the fees in advance just to get noticed.

6 thoughts on “When Did Tipping Become a Stick-Up?

  1. “Japan being a paramount example of a country that believes a service person should be paid what he is worth by an employer, not by a guest in his restaurant. ”

    I’m an American and have never been to Japan, but agree with this 100%. I tip 20% (because it’s easy math), but would much rather have the price increased and forego this stupid charade. As tipping has become more standard and less discretionary, I’d be willing to bet that service has similarly become more uniform. Tipping only works as an incentive if the service level dictates the reward. If everyone’s tipping the same 20% regardless of service, which I think has really become largely the case, then then tipping has no incentive purpose.

    See also Larry David’s comments about an extra line for additional tipping in the dead black swan episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

  2. I have dined all over the world. I have never paid any maitre d for entrance to or access to a table were reservations were made in advance. I have offered the front desk a twenty or equivilant Euro if I had no reservation and wished to be seated promptly at a resturant that was popular. It does work and you will be surprised how quickly they an find a table somewhere in the room. You might not be in the corner table but it will gain you access. The only times I have been given grief over the tip I left was in NYC, once at an upscale French joint and twenty years ago at Tavern on the Green when the waiter thought my 15% was an insult and said so to my face! The only other was in Paris, when I thought the bill included the gratuity ( it did not) and I was stopped and firmly but politely informed a tip for service would be appreciated and expected. That was at the Jules Vern at the Effiel Tower Three years ago. I distincly recall that in the 60’s and 70’s when Dinner shows were common in Vegas, the only way to get a “good/better” table was to slip the Host some $$$. Otherwise forget about a booth or up close to the stage venue

  3. Thanks for posting this. I’ve been having a hard time with this issue. I’ve spent many years in the service industry both front and back of house and obviously more as a patron. Years ago the argument was, “tip your servers, they get a terrible hourly and really need the tips to get by.” That’s fine to say when the server gets less than minimum wage (like on the east coast) and it may justify expecting a 15-20% tip. However, out here they get a significantly higher hourly. Herein lies my problem. It was well advertised that the server made a terrible hourly but when it was increased why should I still be expected to pay up the same percentage? When the hourly increased nobody said to the customers, “hey, we’re getting paid better now… feel free to tip less.” Can anyone speak to this? Is it true that servers get at least minimum wage and even receive increases to their hourly (ie: raises)? Am I incorrect in my understanding that some of the lifetime servers in this city have been receiving pay increases based on performance and longevity and are probably making very good hourly saleries PLUS the 15-20 they expect from me?

  4. Well done. I love going to Japan as no tip is expected, EVER! And the sad fact is that I go to any eatery in Japan and I get better service than I would get over here, so this “incentive” to provide better service obviously not working, and it is sad that a service industry has to provide some sort of incentive to provide a “service”.

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