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Must we give larger tips on bigger checks?

  • a

My husband and I are planning on dining at Alinea in Chicago, and I got to thinking about what the tip might be on a meal that will cost close to $800. I just don't know if I can bring myself to tip my usual 20%. We have eaten at some pretty pricey places (Charlie Trotter's, Avenues, for instance), and I never quailed at the tip before - but really! Shouldn't there be a cut-off point? The funny thing is that I used to be a waitress (at Arnie Morton's parent's place - which in the 60's passed for fine dining), so I'm sympathetic to waiters in general - but now I'm an architect, and in my profession, in many cases, the bigger the construction budget the smaller the percentage that the architectural fee is based on - so for a smaller job it may be 15%, but on a large multi-million dollar job it may be 5% or less. The fee is still a larger dollar amount, but the percentage is smaller. This reflects the fact that though there will be more work required for a larger project, it won't be, say, three times as much, so the fee percentage shouldn't be three times as much, either.

So to get back to tips - shouldn't the same philosophy prevail? I know a waiter at Alinea has a much more demanding job than one at, say, Chicago Chophouse, and must present a much more polished and sophisticated image, but does he really deserve a $160 tip? Isn't $100 just fine? I am usually such a generous person, and love to reward a good waiter with a good tip. Maybe I'm a closet cheapskate. Maybe the genetic influences of my Scottish forbears are finally making themselves evident. Advice please?

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  1. As at most ultra fine dining restaurants the servers have very small stations so their gross reciepts at the end of the night are not as great as say someone who works at a Mortons or Capital Grill where you might have a very large station. The tip question is always sticky on this board and I would expect a large number of posts. But let me ask you this, if you take a cab for a long ride do you tip more or is there a cut off there? You are still chewing up the cabbies time.

    1. f
      Former Waitress Too

      You are not thinking this issue through.

      I am happy that you are now an architect, but really, if you can afford to spend the $800 for the meal, now you are going to quibble over the gratuity for the team of people that brought it to you? That's tacky, IMHO. You must remember that the waiter must tip out to a list of others in the restaurant, and that varies from place to place. He also must declare a percentage of tips on his sales. I realize that is not your concern and we'll soon have the proper wage vs. tipping discussion raging here.
      Times have changed. Please, tip your server generously, but tip as you normally would, as the service deems you do so. If you've received excellent service, tip accordingly. If not, You may be questioned by a distraught manager asking if there was a problem. And, you'll sleep better.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Former Waitress Too

        yeah, to expand on that point, a nicer, more expensive restaurant typically has a much larger staff and you shouldn't think about it as just giving one server $160 because that server has to tip out several others, more, perhaps, than at most other establishments. The food runner(s) need to be tipped out, sometimes whoever fills your water or if someone covers for the server and takes your dessert order while your server is otherwise occupied, or if you order a Screaming Viking and the bartender has to specially bruise your cucumber, the bartender needs to be tipped out, then there's the whole sommelier issue...

        1. re: Former Waitress Too

          As my dear husband always says as we give a tip, it means more to them then it does us. We are dining at a fancy place where they work...if we can afford the meal, we can afford to treat them as they deserve.

          1. re: Former Waitress Too

            I do have strong feelings about tipping vs. proper wages and frankly cannot understand why a restaurant that can charge $800. for a meal cannot afford to pay its staff properly. Having said that, I try, whenever possible, to leave the tip in cash rather than charging it as I understand that credit card companies deduct a percentage of the charge as their fee. I always want to be sure that the waitstaff is not penalized -if there is a fee - for having the tip added to the credit card charge.

            1. re: mshpook

              Everything you tip the waiter goes to the waiter, they don't get docked because it's on a credit card. Where I work, I go home with my cash tips, while I get my credit card tips by paycheck. This is largely because the restaurant is not inexpensive and the vast majority of our guests pay on plastic; the managers would have to dole out lots of money nightly if we were to get our tips in cash daily.

              Most restaurants run on very thin margins. After you have bought the food and drinks, paid the rent, and paid the cooks, there isn't much left over. We could build the server's wages into the cost of your meal (and indeed some places do), but then your 800 dollar meal at Alinea is going to set you back at least 950, which is how much you were going to tip anyway if you tip properly.

            2. re: Former Waitress Too

              I fail to see how leaving less than $160 is tacky. I tip 15% in upscale restaurants, 20% in moderate places, and as much as 50%+ in very inexpensive places like diners.

            3. Good Lord. We ate at Alinea for $280 last summer. You must be planning to go all out!

              2 Replies
              1. re: danna
                Niki Rothman

                That's OK, Dana, no harm done - as you can see, they always remove anything that's political anyway. This is supposed to be a party. Life is a cabaret my friend, so come to the cabaret...come hear the band, start celebrating! Right this way, your table's waiting!

                1. re: Niki Rothman

                  Cheers, Niki, and Happy Weekend!

              2. If you can afford the meal, you can afford to tip properly. Period.

                5 Replies
                  1. re: DanaB

                    Agreed. If you're planning to spend $800 for dinner, than an extra $60 shouldn't be such a big deal.

                      1. re: DanaB

                        That isn't the point. Of course they can afford the tip. They could also afford a 50% tip. Does that mean they pay it!?

                        This person is simply inquiring about what is reasonble, and doesn't deserve a hostle response. As she pointed out, it is *very* common in other fields to base the fee on a sliding scale. Real estate commissions tend to be 6%, but as the price of the house goes up, many times the commission rate goes down. This person is simply inquiring as to whether a similar practice is common in high-end restaurants.

                        1. re: Darren

                          and the answer is: no. If you were to throw a large meal for 20 or so people... something like a grooms dinner, in an upper scale restaurant, the chances are that the restaurant will add 18%-20% gratuity on for you, because that is the standard.

                          YOu also have to consider that people who WORK at restaurants where the bill can be upwards of $800 have probably worked damn hard to get to that point in their career and correct me if I'm wrong, but people like architects who with more experience get higher end jobs and therefore increased salaries over time.

                      2. So give 15% if you usually give %20. 15% is fair. But your tentative plan to cut a $160 tip down to $100 is not fair. If you are the kind of high roller who can afford an $800 dinner, then you can afford $120 for the, no doubt well-earned tip, which is $15 percent of it, so your whole attempt to justify yourself with this post would would only be saving you $40 on your $800 meal. You say you're an ex-waitress. Do the right thing.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Niki Rothman

                          I don't agree that by cutting the tip down to 15%, the o.p. will be doing "the right thing." As I see it, it's not any fairer than her original intention to cut the tip down to $100. When it comes to the highest caliber restaurants, I think it has now become customary to tip at least 20%, of course, presuming the service is of high caliber. The only reason for reducing the tip in any restaurant is if there are serious lapses in service.

                          1. re: RGR

                            Being unfamilar with what's standard tipping procedure for the tax-cut set, I'll have to bow to your exprerience. I've always tipped 15% and if the service is unusually great I throw in an extra five bucks - but then I don't remember ever spending more than $50 for my own meal.

                        2. Think of it this way... you are not planning a meal that will cost $800, you are planning a meal that will cost $960. Plus tax, if any.

                          Another thought... at the handful of meals I've had at this type of elite restaurant, by the time it was over I was so happy with the service experience that I was glad to give the staff the full tip.


                          1. Drink more wine and the tip will be less painful.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Scagnetti

                              wisest suggestion yet! ;)

                            2. Okay! I'm sure this discussion will rage on, but you will now be preaching to the converted. I think you are all quite correct - it should be 20%, no matter what the bill. I hadn't taken into account (as I should have) all the people whom the waiter has to give a cut to. Maybe someone mentioned it, but it also dawned on me that a 24 course meal at Alinea will take 4 or 5 hours of a waiter's time, and I should tip accordingly.

                              Thank you all, for putting it in perspective for me.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: Akatonbo

                                TWENTY FOUR COURSES?!

                                My God in Heaven. I don't think I could eat even a bite of each course and not stay full!

                                If you're going through 24 courses (and several changes of flatware and glassware and dinner plate and charger and whatnot), yeah, you should tip your usual percentage.

                                (This was an interesting spin on the more usual "why do I need to tip 15% on my $800 bottle of wine", by the way... thanks!)

                                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                  The courses *are* each a bite, by all accounts.

                                2. re: Akatonbo

                                  Wight on! Make sure you post your report on your region's board. The experience sounds amazing.

                                  1. re: Akatonbo

                                    I'd actually take the other extreme and say it should be MORE if the bill is going to be very expensive. The waiter has to pay the same tax whether you leave 20% on $10 or 20% on $1000.


                                  2. I apologize upfront for being contrarian but i disagree with a few of the comments, but heh this is a discussion board.
                                    I too would have a hard time leaving a $160 tip on an $800 dinner. I would also have a hard time with the $100 number. I would probably stay in the 15% range ($120) at a dinner with this cost.
                                    I also bristle when I see comments of, "if you can afford the meal you can afford the tip". I still believe in maximizing value and paying for services rendered. Unlike others I cannot fathom paying the kind of money many of my breathren on this site pay for wine, but heh go for it and enjoy.
                                    I would also hope (pure speculation on my side) that the high value added service (server) does not split the total tab on a pro rata basis with the water and bread helpers. I would also hope that the server might have a lesser number of coverage (if that is the case, again an assumption) while the water and bread helpers can cover a greater number of tables, helping the water and bread helpers make a decent living.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: jfood

                                      I take it you never worked for tips or as a commission based salesperson

                                      1. re: jfood

                                        I join you as a contrarian. It must be my frugal old-school family. I simply cannot see the difference between pouring a $100 bottle of wine and a $1000 bottle of wine.

                                        So I guess it's good that I won't be eating any $800 meals or drinking $1000 bottles of wine anytime soon. You can find me over at the Taqueria. I will be at the counter.

                                        1. re: Snackish

                                          Yes, don't go out and order $1000.00 bottles of wine

                                      2. I give the same answer as when asked about tipping on wine. If you can afford the meal, you can afford the tip.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: dinwiddie

                                          And if you can't, don't go! Stick to Hot Doug's. ;o)

                                        2. f

                                          Not larger tips but ... Any restaurant or catering facility will certainly add an 18 - 20% tip to the bill and never ask you what you feel is proper and that is for even a small group of say 6-8 people. I see it all the time on the menu, don't you?

                                          1. Depends on how many people in the dining party. $800. for two people...100 is fine. (Former server here). $800.00 for a table of 4-6, 120.00 $800.00 for a table of 8...20% for sure.

                                            That is my take on it. I gave great service to a party of 10..the guy who paid the tab ended up with too much fine wine in his gut.... and left me 5%. Now the gratuity is added ahead of time for large parties....this is partly why.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Melly

                                              I can not DISAGREE with you more strongly. 100 on 800 are you kidding me? If you drove the Mass Pike the length (120mls) rather than 60mls would you pay the same toll?

                                              1. re: Winemark

                                                Hey..just my take on it. I worked in a small, very fine dining establishment. We didn't share tips with anyone except the bartender and the busser. I made a very good living. If I were to wait on TWO people..and they spent 800.00 on the product, I would indeed be pleased with 100.00.

                                            2. Hi all. I am the co-owner of Alinea, and thought it would be interesting to note a few things on this thread.

                                              First, you should tip whatever you feel is appropriate for the service you received, wherever you are eating. There is no right or wrong if you tip based on the service you receive.

                                              Tips at Alinea have averaged just over 20% of the total bill excluding tax with remarkable consistancy... week to week, day to day, month to month, that seems to be the average no matter how you look at it, with a very low degree of variance. I believe this is higher than at a typical restaurant by a good margin, and I hope it is because patrons feel strongly about their service experience.

                                              Tips are pooled and distributed to the service staff (and just the service staff)based on a point system. Captains and sommeliers receive the highest percentage of the tip pool, back waiters and runners receive less. Unlike a typical restaurant that has one server per table, each dining room has a service team responsible for all of the tables in that room. The service staff numbers about 20 people for 65 seats, not including two hostesses.

                                              The waitstaff start their day at about 1PM doing sidework -- cleaning, setting their stations, folding napkins. They have pre-service meetings to go over the guest list for that evening, the seating arrangements, and all new menu items and wine pairings. They are tested on re-tested on their food and wine knowledge daily, and there have been times when Chef has sent home a server for not knowing even an obscure ingredient in a plating (meaning: no pay for that day). The point is, they are doing much more than simply putting plates on a table. Most nights they leave at about 1 am.

                                              One poster said "I do have strong feelings about tipping vs. proper wages and frankly cannot understand why a restaurant that can charge $800. for a meal cannot afford to pay its staff properly."

                                              Our food and fixed (non tip) labor costs on an $800 meal run pretty much the same percentages as a meal at a middle end restaurant that charges $50 for 2 people. That is because we have a much larger staff per diner... including 18 chefs, an office staff, etc. Our floral budget is larger than most restaurants' advertising budgets. It is not correct to think that an expensive meal equates to greater profits for the restaurant, or the ability to forgo tips as the main means of income for the service staff.

                                              There is one way around this dilemma: we could move to a service charge, as done by a handful of restaurants in the US and most everywhere in Europe. Most diners find this distasteful, and I can understand why... they no longer feel like there is incentive for good service.

                                              However, the labor laws in the U.S. regarding service staff are quite exacting. For example, a chef at Alinea might work 90 hour weeks and make about 40% as much as the top waiter, who works fewer hours. The chef is also a skilled worker... just like the waiter... but he does not come in contact with the patrons and does not have a hand in service.... and therefore Cannot by law receive any of the tip pool. The only way to change these inequalities in pay is to charge a mandatory service fee inclusive in the cost of the menu. At that point, the restaurant may put everyone on a salary / bonus system akin to a workforce at, say, an accounting office. Amazingly, because the restaurant has to pay full FICA to the entire staff now, it actually costs the restaurant MORE money to do this... ie, the profit margin GOES DOWN. So just when patrons think the restaurant is trying to goose them for more money, the reality is that the restaurant is trying to bite the bullet and create a more equitable pay structure. I am amazed that in the press reports I have read about the service fees at restaurants like Per Se that the press has not understood this not insignificant point.

                                              I do not believe Alinea will move to this structure any time soon... but it is worth noting that the Tip Pool is a complex issue not just for patrons but for the restaurant as well.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: nkokonas

                                                Thank you for the thorough exposition! If I win the lottery maybe I will come visit your restaurant (just kidding, I'm sure not all tabs run $800...)

                                                I don't dispute that I may be in the minority on this one, but I personally would love to see all places go to a flat service charge like "most everywhere in Europe". I don't find it distasteful at all. There is still a strong incentive for good service: if the service stinks, I won't be coming back! And if other diners feel the same, the place goes under. That should be sufficient motivation. I haven't experienced generally poorer service in Europe... in fact quite the opposite.

                                                Also, since I know that at many places other people besides the waiter will be getting tipped out, who may be doing a great job, I can't bring myself to give a poor tip even when I don't like the waiter's service. And, I have no idea if they are overloaded with tables, having an off day etc. So I end up giving ~20% anyway even if I feel the service is bad (I have given less for outright objectionably rude service, but that's different) and I think a lot of people do the same. So it doesn't seem that there is an effective incentive system tied to tipping as it's done now, anyway.

                                                Just noticed the age on this thread... still getting used to the new system...

                                                1. re: nkokonas

                                                  Thanks for your informative response. I appreciated Akatonbo's reply in the middle of this thread in which he noted that a meal at Alinea, at least the grand tour, can take four or five hours (my excellent meal took five +). Our party of six must have been waited on by at least ten people, with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of fuss or pomposity.

                                                  I can understand the argument for reining in the tip percentage on an extraordinarily expensive bottle of wine, but not for an expensive dinner like this that involves so much work by so many servers. In our case, at least, there was no table turn. Compare this to a steak house with two or three turns, and you can see how a waiter at Alinea might not make out any better financially.

                                                2. I agree with cheaping out after dropping a wad. When you go to Morton's, would you NOT tip on the full price of a steak? And if you just ordered a burger, would you only tip $3 because McDonald's has burgers and they cost way less?

                                                  And then do you quibble at the Opera costing more than a show at the Vic, because they're basically both just singing?

                                                  A server at Alinea is to waitering as a couturier is to a quilter, as Streisand is to one of those American Idol fops, as a Louboutin shoe is to Payless.

                                                  They are at the top of their game, and waiting on a table there is a demanding job. They don't get the 3 turns or 5 table section. And the deserve your respect. Not your second guessing. I'm sick to death of this nouveau-riche, "let them eat cake" argument.

                                                  Don't do the time if you can't drop the dime.

                                                  or as my dad says: Go big or go home.

                                                  $800 dollars???? And you're worried about what? Please.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: maggie

                                                    Have you actually read the entire thread? Akatonbo said that she understood the posters point and totally agreed with giving the appropriate 20% to the server, whatever the amount of the bill is. I don't think there is any need for being insulting and rude...

                                                  2. Also, times have change in terms of tax treatment. The IRS assumes a certain percentage of tip income based on the sales ticket pre-tax. So, it that ticket is higher, the tip should be commensurately higher, else you screw the server vis-a-vis the IRS. Before the IRS did this, it was more purely between the server and the diner.