This can be something of a sticky subject. Some people tip automatically, some tip based on service level and circumstances, while others simply refuse to tip at all. Are there hard and fast rules for tipping? Not exactly, but there are commonly accepted guidelines. Just understand that these are the common practices here in the US. Tipping customs in other countries can be radically different.
Let’s take a look at expected tipping practices in a variety of different restaurant settings.
Full Service Restaurants
These typically include restaurants in the middle to middle-high end, that provide fully prepared meals in a sit-down setting, with full wait service from the staff. In these kinds of restaurants, it is typical to tip the staff between 15% to 20% of the amount of the final bill.
Naturally, there can be significant variation in the amount of the tip, based on the quality of the establishment, the service provided and of course, the food.
Buffets and Other Self-Service Eateries
Generally speaking, tipping is neither required nor expected at low- or moderately priced buffets, especially when they are true self-service arrangements. But it’s not uncommon to leave a few dollars for the people who clean the tables (since buffets can also be messy affairs). And some amount of tipping is well advised at buffets that offer limited service, such as drink refills or continuous table clearing.
At high-end buffets, tipping is often expected. Like full service restaurants, tipping in the range of 15% to 20% is common, and may even be added to the bill automatically at upscale hotel brunch buffets.
Tipping isn’t generally required at bars, but if you want to get served at a crowded establishment, it never hurts. You should expect to add 10% to 15% of your bar tab to the bill if you sit at the bar for drinks. Alternately, you could tip $1 per drink for beer and wine, or $2 per drink for mixed drinks. This is well advised if the drinks were ordered while you were sitting at the bar waiting to be seated at your table.
You should also pay for your drinks and tip the bartender before leaving the bar, that way the drinks aren’t added to your food bill.
This can be complicated, especially if you don’t have the budget for upscale restaurants. After all, since virtually everything is a lot more expensive in upscale establishments, the tip will be proportionately higher as well. The conventional advice is that if you can’t afford the tip, you can’t afford the restaurant so it’s best to be prepared for the higher tip.
The tip range is the same as it is in moderately priced restaurants, 15% to 20% – it’s just that it will be calculated on a higher base bill. For example, a 20% tip on a $250 dinner bill will be $50.
You may also have ancillary tips in a high end restaurant. For example, if there’s a coat attendant, be prepared to leave a tip of at least $1 per garment. Ditto for a restroom attendant – $1 per visit. You can leave anywhere from $1 to $5 for valet parking, but I sometimes imagine that my car will get better treatment (and less damage) if I tip at the higher end.
If the restaurant has a wine steward, you should expect to tip that person 15% of the cost of the wine. However it’s perfectly acceptable to tip 10% on particularly expensive wines.
Be Careful When You’re In a Group of Six or More
Any time you go to a restaurant (other than fast food) in a group of six or more people, be aware that many establishments add a tip to the bill automatically, and it can be anywhere from 15% to 20% of the bill. If you add a tip on top of that, you may be unknowingly leaving a 30% to 40% tip!
What makes this practice even more disturbing is that notification of the automatic tipping policy usually appears in the fine print at the bottom of an otherwise complicated menu.
It’s not that automatic tipping is in any way evil – quite the contrary – large groups do require more staff resources than smaller groups. But if you don’t know about it, it will raise the cost of your restaurant bill substantially and for no good purpose – especially if you aren’t particularly pleased with the service.
Tipping for Take-out Service
Tips for take-out service really depend on the extent of the take-out. If you are picking up food at the establishment, no tip is expected since no services were provided. However, if the meal is being delivered to your home, you should fully expect to pay a tip of 10% to 15% of the base cost of the food.
No, the delivery person isn’t bringing the meal directly to your table, and won’t be there to refill your drinks or handle additional needs. But delivery people are using their own vehicles to make the delivery and that’s a hard cost to the driver (no, Domino’s doesn’t provide company cars to their drivers – only the neon sign that goes on top). All expenses of the delivery are borne by the driver. That makes the tip even more important that it is in a sit-down establishment.
If the driver has delivered during a rain- or snow-storm you should add a tip of greater than 15%. In that situation, the delivery person has put him- or her-self at some risk in order to deliver your meal to your home.
Tipping for Bad Service
So far, we’ve been talking about how much you should tip for satisfactory service. But what you do when the service is bad?
There are two schools of thought on this:
- Leave a small tip, or no tip at all, or
- Leave a full tip, and make your concerns known to management.
I personally favor of second approach. The reason is that a restaurant is a multifaceted operation; the fact that something about your meal was unsatisfactory may not in any way be the fault of your server.
For this reason, it’s important to identify the source of the bad service. Was it the food? Was it the atmosphere of the restaurant? Was it a general lack of cleanliness? All of these are the fault of the restaurant, and should be taken up with management. Hopefully, they will respond either by cutting your bill, adding a free dessert or drinks to the meal, or giving you a gift card for a free return visit.
Cut the tip only if the actual service provided by the server was poor – allowing for the fact that delays could also be the fault of the kitchen and not the server.
In defense of wait staff. Some people categorically refuse to tip. They feel that it’s the job of the restaurant to properly compensate their servers. The reality however is that that is not how the restaurant industry works in the US. The typical server is earning a base pay of just $2.13 per hour, and that’s mostly an IRS allowance to make sure that withholding taxes are paid on their tip income (Translation: the server usually doesn’t get a penny of that money). Regardless of whether or not you consider tipping to be a fair practice, the servers income is based entirely on the amount of tips that they receive. If you don’t leave a tip, your server will be virtually uncompensated for the services he or she provided to you.
Please keep that in mind when you are either tempted to withhold a tip for poor service, or are against the practice of tipping entirely.
Tipping for Especially Good Service
If you receive especially good service, it’s always a good idea to tip in excess of expected norms. This is especially true if you go to a certain restaurant on a regular basis. Larger tips will be recognized by the staff, who will then work extra hard to make your dining experience even more pleasurable.
In a real way, leaving larger tips for better service is an opportunity to reward better performance. We should all strive to do that in any business interactions that we have, even outside of restaurants. It ensures that the improved service will continue.
How do you handle tipping in any of the above situations – especially if the service is poor?