Ask ELV: A Tempest Over Tippling Tipping

The two sides of the American tipping coin have made a deal with the Devil that operates to the detriment of the American restaurant customer. – ELV

Dear ELV (aka Dad),

This came up last night and might make for a good “letter of the week”. We figured we weren’t the only ones to have this conundrum.

We ate at a really nice restaurant last night, one we had been to twice before (used to be the best in the area until downtown upped their game). Since it was for our 10th anniversary, we also splurged on a bottle of wine ($150 Chateauneuf du Pape). This might be a normal bottle for most people, but this was definitely a outlier for us.

Bill came: $210 of food, $150 wine plus tax.

Several online forums and columns discussed many different options and the consensus was clear: there is no consensus. Some places also mentioned tipping the sommelier, which never occurred to us.

Tipping options broken down:
20% of everything: $72 tip
15% of everything: $54 tip
20% food, 10% wine: $57
20% of just food: $42

We ended up leaving a $60 tip.

Advice appreciated!


Your Loyal Staff


ELV responds:


Is that what I pay you for???? To go around like some profligate son flaunting your social status and mindlessly filling your piehole with overpriced food and elitist, unpronounceable beverages made by smelly foreigners in some faraway land???

“Really nice restaurant”? What’s wrong with a good old American restaurant with real American food? Made by American corporations right here in America? Not good enough for you?

And what did my grandchildren have to eat — the usual gruel? — whilst you and missus were spending their inheritance on your fancy schmancy poulet a la this and carpaccio de Trevisio that?

Obviously, we’re paying you too much, and we’ll address that issue later.

To answer your question: Tipping is, ipso facto, STUPID. The rest of the word LAUGHS at Americans for continuing this dumb-ass policy that exists only because a) restaurant owners don’t want to pay their employees a living wage, and, b) waitrons love the immediate gratification and tax-dodging opportunities the system provides them.

These two sides of the American tipping coin have made a deal with the Devil that operates to the detriment of the American restaurant customer.

That being said, until common sense prevails (or a consumer revolt happens), we are stuck with this petty, dishonest, uncomfortable, nonsensical system that bestows an expected gratuity on a person (or doesn’t) depending on the whims of individuals , not according to any hard and fast rules…or any sort of actual contract.

(It amuses ELV that the service industry has not-so-subtly convinced the dining-out public that 18-20% is now the “standard” tipping amount, when, for most of the 20th Century, 10-15% was the norm.)

All that being said, we can proudly proclaim that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, and something in the $60-$70 range is exactly what we would have left — although at a high-falutin’ joint like the one you describe, eighty bucks wouldn’t have been out of the question either.

As for tipping the sommelier separately: that custom, along with splitting the tip among the captains and the waiters, has gone the way of the tasseled menu. And since most restaurants in America the Beautiful (and the beautifully stupid), now pool their tips, handing a double sawbuck to the somm doesn’t have the same “merci beaucoup” effect it might have had 20 years ago. That being said, it’s still a nice gesture and we suggest doing it on occasion, especially if you intend on returning and want to be remembered by the staff.

Now, GO FEED MY GRANDCHILDREN….and we’ll discuss your salary and bonus when you deign to leave the snobbish confines of your elitist, parvenu, east coast existence, and venture to the wild west so we can visit with them at the ELV homestead.


5 thoughts on “Ask ELV: A Tempest Over Tippling Tipping

  1. “The rest of the word LAUGHS at Americans for continuing this dumb-ass policy”

    Actually, throughout much of Europe the service staff have over time come to expect a tip – albeit a much smaller one – if the quality of the service was good. Times they are a changin my friend, there are components of America’s tipping culture that has sadly been exported.

    Good article otherwise!

  2. All told I’m of two minds on this as I received some truly shit service when in England in July – service that still guaranteed the staff the added Value-Added Tax no matter how negligent. On one hand I appreciate that most places in Europe pay their servers well without the need for post-meal math, but on the other I sort of like the possibility of ‘rewarding’ good service with more and penalizing a spot like Alize with less…

  3. Michael: Sorry to poker holes in your theory but….

    1) VAT (Value Added Tax) does not go to the server. Thats a tax that the government keeps, and it has nothing to with your perceived value.

    2) At establishments where the service is good they do expect tips in most of Europe, albeit not as as high as we tip in the states

    3) The service is typically better in high end European restaurants than you will find it in most higher end American restaurants. And this occurs through much of Europe even though European servers get a much smaller tip that has become customary in the USA, and this tip is certainly not required. Better service comes when you can hire better staff; better staff become possible when they have pride in their jobs and/or they are paid well. In America the good pay comes from tips, in Europe the good pay comes from the staff’s wages + anything extra they get from tips.

    Now please allow me to get on my soapbox : There is certainly something wrong with our system when a tip has become a hidden tax for what should be the same equivalent service elsewhere in the world. I think the auto-grat policies in place at some restaurants are a step in the right direction, but the proper way to solve this problem would be to increase prices by 15-20% and incorporate the cost of labor into the items sold. But as we all know this would hurt the restaurant due to perceived price increases even though they would likely be exactly the same price as before – if not slightly lower. A consumer would rather spend $25 on a dish and leave a $5 tip for a total of $30, they would be turned off by a price of $29 with the labor costs already incorporated. The average human brain perceives the cost of taxation of daily expenditures as a related yet separate cost rather than incorporating the tax in a VAT as they do in Europe. If an item costs 20 with 15% VAT in Europe, this means the tax has already been added to the price, and the actual item is really 17 + 3 Tax. This example shows us that the real problem is caused by the perception of the American consumer, the unwashed masses are to blame for allowing the continuation of an ever exploding tipping culture gone wild. If we were able to change consumer behavior (which would probably never happen) and change business standards to include service changes and taxes in the cost of the items sold, then we still have the issue of taxation inequity. Labor is of course taxed for tips, but if the price of labor is included in the dish then the fees reserved for labor compensation are also taxed as business income. These are the two true reasons why our tipping culture remains.

  4. I was never even offered the opportunity to tip in London or Paris. Not once. They run the card, you sign your name. I’ve also dined at most of the Michelin 3*s in the US, London, and Paris and taking that as the ‘highest’ of the high end found little difference in the quality of the service save for rare exceptions.

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