Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Breakfast Malfunction and a Discourse on Tipping

While in San Francisco recently I returned to Canteen for Sunday brunch. I had written about Canteen before, praising their blueberry pancakes. I sat at the counter and was handed the menu. The waitress explained that the new menu had not yet been put together and that there were certain changes. She told me that instead of the omelet with corn, chantarelles and a cheese the name of which I can't remember, they had an oyster-mushroom omelet. That sounded good, and oysters were in season, so I ordered it. When the omelet came I dug in with my fork and took a first taste, discovering that the center was cold, so I sent it back. The cook put the plate in the oven. Several minutes later the waitress returned the plate to me. The center still was not expecially hot, and as I tasted it there didn't seem to be any oysters. The omelet had corn, mushrooms and a creamy white cheese. "I think I got the wrong omelet," I told the waitress. "I ordered the oyster-mushroom omelet. There don't seem to be any oysters."

"Not oysters," the waitress told me, whose native language, I think, was not English. "Oyster mushrooms. You've heard of oyster mushrooms?"

"Yes," I said. "I know oyster mushrooms, but you made it sound like it was an oyster and mushroom omelet." The first part of the problem was that she had placed equal emphasis on the words "oyster" and "mushroom." If I were talking about oyster mushrooms I'd have put the emphasis on "oyster." And what she really should have said was that the oyster mushrooms were replacing the chanterelles in the original omelet she said they didn't have. "I'm going to send this back and order something else," I said. She hesitated for a few seconds, looked annoyed, then gave me the menu again. There was an item called "The Big Pancake," which included strawberries and vanilla. "I'll have the pancake," I said. I waited a while, and then I was presented a plate that had poached eggs in Hollandaise sauce. "I ordered the pancake," I said, my tone of voice betraying my annoyance.

"Oh, I thought you said 'the Benedict,'" the waitress replied as she took the plate away. The cook apologized and told me it would be just a few minutes.

The pancake was great--a big eggy thing with a light vanilla cream and strawberries inside. It reminded me of a cross between a thick crepe and a Dutch pancake. It ranked with the wonderful French toast of my previous visit.

After I was done the waitress handed me my check with no apology. I wasn't comped on anything or offered any extras.

Now I'm usually a reasonably generous tipper, but in this case I decided that my only recourse was to stiff the waitress. Granted, part of the blame lies with the owner of Canteen, I think. It's an esteemed, somewhat high-end place, despite its humble digs, and there's no excuse for a server with such poor communication skills at a place like that.

I can't think of more than a handful of times in over thirty years of heavy restaurant patronage that I've left no tip. In a system where we're stuck with tipping, I think one needs to put a positive spin on the practice.

Sure I find tipping an annoyance. I’d much prefer service charges to be included in the cost of a meal, like in Europe, where you know up front what you’re paying, where the German word for tip is “trinkgeld” and the French word “pourboire,” a little something extra to buy a drink, not to pay the rent. In European countries servers are paid a living wage; in the U.S.A. tips form the major part of a waitperson’s living wage. So we’re stuck with tipping.

In the context of a tipping economy, I contend that tipping reasonably well, when appropriate, is actually a bargain, what I'd call a "social bargain." In New York the standard tipping range is considered to be 15-20%. Restaurants that add a service fee for large groups usually take the middle and round up to 18%. In New York City, doubling the tax will yield a tip of just under 17%. For normal, satisfactory service, my policy is to tip in the neighborhood of 20%, rounding up or down. For service that stands out, I tend to make sure to round up from 20%, and often lean toward 25%, which is hardly extravagant. Occasionally, for really outstanding service, I'll leave more than 25%.

A good tip doesn’t cost that much more than a standard one, and the benefits, as far as I'm concerned, outweigh the cost. First of all, consider that on a check for $100 an extra 5% is $5. If you can afford $100 for a dinner for two (or one), $5 won’t break you. It will, however, likely be noticed and appreciated by the server. You may be remembered warmly next time you visit the establishment, and you can feel good about contributing to the fiscal well-being of the person who made your meal memorable, or at least helped to make it enjoyable.

I once went to lunch with a group of coworkers and when it came time to settle the bill one of them announced “I don’t believe in tipping.” What a ridiculous, self-righteous rationalization for being a scummy cheapskate. The rest of us tried to reason with him, but he remained adamant, and we had to make up the difference. I refused to go to lunch with him after that. I secretly hoped that, in his case alone, our boss did not believe in bonuses.

What about bad service? Opinions differ, and every case is different. If an incompetent server is clearly a novice I try to have some compassion and leave 15%, maybe a tad less. But in the rare, egregious case (I felt that my experience at Canteen was one of those cases), I figure anything between zero and 15% is, for the most part, pretty meaningless; it's still a tip and the server is as likely to consider you a cheapskate and a bastard as to think he or she was at fault and is being fiscally chastised. Of course, it's important to remember that some service issues are the fault of the kitchen, not the serving staff. A good server will do damage control in these cases, and can save a tip from going too far south.

If you’re cutting corners, eat at home, or eat out less frequently. But if you can afford to eat at a restaurant, don’t try to cut corners when it comes to tipping. A good meal in a good restaurant should make you feel good. As long as we’re stuck with tipping, tipping well, or at least fairly, should make you feel good too.

That waitress at Canteen, however, didn't deserve a tip.

* * *

Today's Sunday Times Magazine (The Food Issue) has an interesting article about tipping, with a focus on one restaurant, The Linkery, in San Diego, that has not only replaced the tip with a service charge (as some other high-end restaurants have done), but actually prohibits additional tipping. So, what happens if the service sucks? I guess you have to have a confrontation with the server or talk to the manager.


Blogger Richard said...

You say the tipping standard in New York is 15-20%. Are you implying that it is different elsewhere across the country?

I am too insecure never to leave a tip even if the service is horrible.

Over 30 years ago, when I taught at LIU in downtown Brooklyn, and so I often went to Junior's Restaurant across the street.

I don't recall how it started, but I always got the same waiter at the counter and I would always give him a huge tip and he would bill me for less that what I had ordered. Later I heard this was a common practice at low-end restaurants, diners, and coffee bars.

It's unethical, right?

1:17 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

I don't really know what's now considered the standard tip in other U.S. markets, but I think cities like NYC & SF led the creep up from 15%.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

To answer your other question, I'm no expert on ethics, but I have nothing against redistribution of wealth.

4:10 PM  

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