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Tipping in restaurants [moved from Pennsylvania board]

I'm having a vacation in Philadelphia in March. Can you advise me about tipping in restaurants - what's normal, how much for exceptional service etc?

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  1. Why would you think Phila is different than any other big city? Unless you are from Europe, I'd just tip the way you normally do in the city. Personally, I tip around 20% for good service and adjust up or down from there.

    1 Reply
    1. re: dinwiddie

      Thanks for the advice ... yes I'm from Europe, Scotland where tipping isn't quite as formal as in the USA.

    2. I agree with Dinwiddie....20% is basic, unless the service is REALLY poor. One thing I use to judge my tips by is how often my soda is refilled. It's an inexpensive drink with free refills. If someone is paying attention to me, they're going to notice when it needs refreshing and that I like lemon in mine. Rarely do wait staff refill, so rarely do I give more than 20%. It's the little things that count with me. By the way, my hubby is a waiter and knows my standard, and he's aware that there are others who feel the same way.

      1. In big cities you will rarely find someone going around refilling sodas. I don't think I have ever seen it: not in NYC, not in Philadelphia, nor Boston, nor DC, nor Seattle, SF, LA, CHI. Maybe in diners?

        3 Replies
        1. re: chow_gal

          i agree. i've never worked in, and don't recall dining in, a place that gives free atomatic refills for soda. a second refill of coffee, yes. maybe some chains?

          1. re: hotoynoodle

            I think it's great to be so generous and wouldn't discourage you, but just wanted to add that a server at an inexpensive restaurant, which would have a smaller staff, has fewer people to share tips with...

            (this was meant as a reply to Kater but I put it in the wrong place!)

          2. re: chow_gal

            It honestly depends on which "big city" you are talking about. Phoenix restaurants from high end to mom and pop regularly give free refills on soda and iced tea. I can probably count on one hand the number of high end restaurants in Phoenix and Scottsdale that DON'T refill soda glasses (not to mention iced tea) as part of their normal service routine.

          3. As the other posters have explained, tipping in Philadelphia is very much like tipping in any large American city. The norm is 20% and people do tip more than that if the service is very good. There is, however, a range and some people tip as little as 15% -17% for good service, while others routinely tip 25% unless they are displeased.

            The tip will usually not be included on your bill unless you are dining with a large group of people, usually the number 8 is chosen to define a 'large party'. You can add the tip to your credit card or tip in cash. Do whatever is most convenient for you.

            If you are unhappy with the service you can reduce the tip, but it seems that people have trouble agreeing how low is too low. There are people who will leave $0 if they are deeply unhappy with the service and that is one of your options. I think that most diners tend to leave from 10%-15% when they are not happy, while some will even go down to 5%. You are not at all obligated to leave a good tip (20%) for an average to lousy server.

            Another thing to consider is the price range of the restaurant. When we go to a very reasonable ethnic restaurant or a rural spot where prices are very low, we always leave more than 20%. The disparity between food prices from upscale spots to inexpensive ones rarely would justify the tiny tips that servers at cheap restaurants would receive if you stuck to the 20% rule. So if they're good, they may get as much as 50% depending on the cost of the meal.

            I hope this is helpful.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Kater

              I heartily second your last point: at cheap places, 15-20% can be miniscule. I remember my dad emphasizing this particularly for breakfast, which is often inexpensive, but often involves many trips to refil coffee. His pet peeve is people who don't tip the breakfast waitresses enough.

            2. Really? Do they refill coffee? I admit to not eating in many fine dining places, but have eaten at the Broadmore in Colorado Springs and they did refill my soda. Normally, when traveling, my philosophy is to eat as inexpensively as possible and save the money for other things. Money only goes so far, and my tummy is the last place it needs to go.

              2 Replies
              1. re: PamperedPatty

                Refilling a soda would not be the norm, proactively offering another one would be the mark of a good server. Coffee is generally refilled at moderate restaurants and even at some high end restaurants but not the way it would be at a breakfast spot or in a casual dining atmosphere. The expectation would tend to be that you have a single cup of coffee with a dessert and perhaps a drink as well. Lingering while enjoying dessert and/or drinks is going to more acceptable in any large city than lingering over coffee refills because the restaurant would like to seat another party at the table once you're finished a leisurely meal. And remember you'll have lots of options of nice clubs, pubs and coffee houses to adjourn to after your meal.

                1. re: Kater

                  Ooops, Kater....et al, I miswrote myself when I said, "refill my soda." I did mean, "replace" it with a new one. No, I've not been anywhere (chain or fine dining) that took a glass and refilled it. Thanks for the correcting, Gang!

              2. pretty much anywhere in the US, tips are given on all sit-down meals. 15-20% is a standard range for "normal" service. i give 15% only in situations where i am disappointed, perhaps something has gone wrong or perhaps i simply felt the server made little effort to be personable and professional. 15% was once the standard, but things are shifting and now it is a very no-frills tip, and perhaps a sign that something was sub-par. in the case of more serious offenses, i might tip 10%, but if things are that bad, you should really already be speaking to a manager and perhaps getting a portion of your meal comped. most of the time i tip 18-20%, for service that is up to par and competent, and for service above and beyond the call of duty, really something special, i will give more than 20%.

                enjoy your trip to philadelphia, and make a point to check out some of the best ethiopian food in the US.

                1. I don't agree that 20% is the norm. From what I've read (recently), the norm is more like 17-18% and people adjust up or down from there. I don't think it's a coincidence that many, many restaurants automatically add a service charge of 18% for parties of 6 or more. They realize that this is the norm.

                  Personally, I always leave a tip. If service is poor, I will leave 10% and say something to the owner or manager or host on the way out. This accomplishes more than leaving nothing.

                  I also do not tip on the tax. I've always thought that the government should pay restaurants for collecting sales tax but that's another topic entirely!!

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ambrose

                    restaurants settled on 18% because it's the average. not so high as to tick off the 15%-ers, and not over what the 20%ers leave.

                    1. re: ambrose

                      20% is really the norm. A number of food critics have said it, it's all over a ton of boards, plus it's quite easy to calculate.

                      I don't tip on tax and I tip minimally on wine, but I'll go up to 40% at times on fantastic service.

                    2. What about buffet restaurants, where the waiter brings you drinks when you are seated (and assiduously refills your soda as the meal progresses), removes empty plates, and brings your check and fortune cookie at the end? I have been told that a few bucks are adequate for a tip, certainly not 20%. What do you all think?

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Gin and It

                        I take my son to a couple of these type of restaurants (much better than fast food, but still fast and a few of them really do have good quality food) and I always leave 20%. You certainly don't have to and it's not standard. But those people are usually immigrants and they work really hard.

                        1. re: Kater

                          I know what you mean. Most of them don't have much more than "restaurant english". In my town, I think they bring the waitstaff up from NYC in a passenger van for their work week.

                        2. re: Gin and It

                          I tip 10% at buffets or counter-service places.

                        3. There is a lot more variation in what the base you are tipping on, than between 15% and 20%.

                          $80 meal
                          $30 bar tab
                          $10 tax

                          15% on meal is $12; 20% is $16.....but if you do it on food and bar:
                          15% on meal is $16.50 and 20% is $22.
                          so, chowhounders, I am more interested in what the correct base for the tip is rather than whether it is 15% or 20%.
                          Any input on this issue?

                          2 Replies
                            1. re: peterboy

                              I generally leave 20% of the food + bar amount. I don't tip on tax.

                            2. As you, the OP, can presumably see, 15-20% is obviously the norm, and there is no norm as to whether it's pre or post tax, etc. Tipping "minimally" on wine is not standard anywhere I've ever been in the US, though with a very expensive bottle, the server would have to be pretty churlish to be unhappy with a slightly reduced percentage on that.

                              As for bar tabs, once you plant your butt at a table without having paid a bar bill separately, normal tipping rules apply. A little strange and not at all logical, but since when is logic a necessary component to societal customs and practices?

                              One thing to keep in mind as you read this thread and visit the US: most of we Americans are pathologically afraid of publicly being labelled "cheap," even unspokenly. We also tend, as a general rule, to believe we're in an economic class higher than we are. So tipping is often a matter of conspicuous consumption here. I'm not going to get into a long debate about it (so flame away if anyone likes), but if the OP has never been here, he should be aware of the not insignificant subtext.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: MikeG

                                Thanks MikeG, very handy advice ..... I tend to lean on the generous side and on vacation certainly live above my normal economic class and means, especially when it comes to eting, and now tipping. Cheers.

                                1. re: elgordo

                                  By way of explanation on American tipping customs: American servers receive an extremely low hourly wage and make a living off of tips. I mention this because my European friends and relatives, coming from cultures with minimal tipping, sometimes feel like they're being ripped off if they a leave 20 percent tip. They don't understand that if you don't tip for decent service, you're not just being stingy, you're withholding a server's pay.

                                  By the way it seems like a lousy, lousy system to me. I would prefer higher prices, the restaurant paying a living wage, and optional tipping based entirely on the quality of the service. It's often not the server's fault if the kitchen is slow or a place is short staffed, but the tip is the only quantifiable way to provide feedback on your experience. So if the service is bad you either have to unfairly rip off a waiter or swallow your own disgust. The whole system just seems like a way around income tax, so that servers can under-report their earnings. Either that or a way to subliminally fool us (when we're looking at the menu) into thinking dishes cost less than they do. When you're hungry and thinking with your stomach, you're probably more like to order a steak with a $30 price tag than one that accurately priced at $38 including tax and tip, right?

                                  1. re: Zabalburu

                                    Thanks - the little I knew about reasons for tipping were around low pay. Like you I prefer paying for ameal knowing that staff get a decent wage (in saying that prices here in Scotland are outrageously high for meals, don't understand how visitors cope with this). There still however seems to be a cultural/custom regarding tipping in the USA that either has got out of hand or at best gets in the way of sorting out decent hourly pay rates. But what would I know??

                                    1. re: elgordo

                                      It's hard to sort out what the servers are actually making. In certain areas that fluctuate with tourist seasons, off-season workers make very little. However, when my DH was a server, working dinner shift at a reasonably popular (chain) steakhouse that served liquor meant he brought home significantly more per week -- in cash -- than I did at my day job, which required a college degree.

                                    2. re: Zabalburu

                                      I believe that server wages vary by state. It was my understanding that servers in CA had to make at least minimum wage and tips were on top of that. That is those restaurants that follow the rules. It was also my understanding that servers were taxed on a 15% tip regardless of what tip was actually left.

                                      Irregardless, I always tip a minumum of 15% and then go up from there if the service was above average. I think it's silly to tip on tax, especially when tax is 8.75% in Los Angeles.

                                2. The norm in the US is 15-20% baseline on the pretax amount (gross, not net, of any coupon or discount) for full service dining (buffet service is 10% baseline). Round up to nearest dollar the smaller the amount. If you are comped something, you should include the value of what you were comped in the base, unless you were comped due to poor service.

                                  When I am dining alone, I tend to bump up the baseline by at least 5%. And I also tend to tip upwards of that if I spent a full turn at a table (1.5-2 hours) but ordered only one course (in a restaurant that serves multiple courses), because the server lost an opportunity for income. But I wouldn't consider those conventional norms.

                                  1. I am basically in line with Karl S. percentages on 15-20% baseline, but i use the total with tax instead of pre-tax. Why, pretty simple, I always forget.

                                    Likewise I go up if, it's a busy night and:

                                    - Eating alone at a table (2-top or higher). A jammed single table does not get the surcharge
                                    - Do not order wine
                                    - Order only an entree and stay at the table for 90-120 minutes

                                    If its a slow night or i am there pre-rush I do not usually round up for these since this is Opportunity Income versus Less Income for the server.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: jfood

                                      Agreed. The only reason I mention pretax is that waiters should not base their expectations on postax and aggrievements on pretax. Pretax is the longstanding norm.

                                    2. Pretax was the norm because it's the ony logical and rational basis. Tax is tax. It's not a charge or a fee. Strictly speaking restaurants don't (as all businesses are usually quick to point out) "charge" taxes, they "collect" them.

                                      One might more rationally ask why (sales/service/use) taxes are not charged on tips - since every other aspect of restaurant dining is taxable. My "bill" from the restaurant is the total of what they are charging me for eating there. Tax is then added on and turned over to the State. It is not overhead, it is not a business expense - indeed, legally, it never "belongs" to the business at all but is simply in their temporary possession.

                                      Deeming post the post-tax total to be the "new" basis for tipping is, IMO, basically part of the conspicuous consumption phenomenon I mentioned before.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: MikeG

                                        Tax is charged on tips, just not to the consumer- it's charged as a rate of pay as all tips are required to be reported- thus the server should be paying tax on his tips as a part of his w-2 filing.

                                      2. I normally tip 15-25% depending on service, however is it okay to barely tip when service is really, really horrible?

                                        I had dinner with SO at a Japanese restaurant and was almost finished. A large party came in and made this big deal about being seated right away with no reservations. With so many empty tables in the back they wanted ours so they can combine it to the larger group.

                                        So the waitress was hovering, making remarks to the manager (loud and clear about US), telling the large party that they were waiting on us (pointing and all), and gave us looks rushing us to leave. We were so mad! The bill was $52 something, we left $53 flat and never returned. Good luck complaining to the Manager when they are also rude.

                                        Would you feel guilty about the 50 cent tip?

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: willwork4food

                                          It is ok to barely tip, on the condition that you bring it up with the manager if possible, but in this case I wouldn't feel the least bit guilty.

                                          1. re: jpschust

                                            Yes, where the manager is visibly colluding with the bad service on the part of the waiter, no further communication is required, but one might very audibly complain for effect....

                                        2. Hailing from South Beach the unofficial "tip already included" capital of the country and perhaps the 1st place in this great country to add an auto gratuity(for our euro and latino visitors originally) but now for the US tourists who we'll never see again and don't feel obliged to tip.

                                          Since when did 20% become the norm? I always thought 15% was the norm and 20% was an acknowledgment of good or better service? Even more for exceptional service. Many places down here include the standard 15% (PRE-TAX), but many have bumped up their auto gratuity to 17 or 18%.

                                          My question is this: Is there some unofficial rule for wine bottles? I remember reading somewhere that there is a seperate formula. Not recalling it, I just go with my usual 20% of the total.

                                          I must say, I agree with much that has been said on this post. You stay longer, you pay more. You take up a two top solo, you throw some extra cash. You drink at the bar and they transfer your check to the table-you got to tip on that. Just as you would tip out the bartender if he/she took payment for your bar consumption. On another note, many of the problems are usually not the waiters fault. Obviously, if he/she is rude, condescending, un- responsive, etc then you got a right to lower his/her tip. As for the soda refill comment, some restaurants do freefills many others do not requiring you to request a "replacement". On the other hand, if they are under staffed, or the kitchen screws up that is usually out of your server's control and should be taken up with management as opposed to lowering your server's tip much below the 15% minimum threshold.

                                          That's my 2 cents on this topic for whatever they are worth...any one with an answer to my wine bottle question out there?

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: netmover

                                            Well, the old rule for wine used to be roughly 10% to the wine steward plus a sample, IIRC. That's gone by in most places where there is no wine steward managing that side of the order with the customer, and the wine is now included for tax purposes in the total that the waiter has to report on. Hence, why the norm now is to tip 15-20% on the pretax total inclusive of wine. 20% was first a norm in midtown and downtown Manhattan a generation ago; other dining meccas have followed suit in the past decade or so but otherwise the 15% baseline is still dominant in much of the US, and given that local customs are not well known by tourists, when tourists visit those dining meccas they tend to tip according to their own local customs, hence the possibility for wasted umbrage & indignation on the part of waiters.

                                          2. I don't understand how the percentage went up from 15 to 20 percent. It's a percentage, right? So it can't be affected by inflation.

                                            1. Having worked in restaurants of all ilks for over a dozen years, it's good to see that most of you tip well. While I am very happy to be out of the restaurant biz, I think everyone should have to wait tables at least once in their lives. It is a tough, dirty job. Even in fine dining establishments, the servers end up with other people's food on them, and sometimes worse.

                                              A little more than 10 years ago, the IRS started checking credit card receipts for individual servers and comparing them to what was claimed on their federal tax return. Prior to that, most waitstaff didn't declare tips at all. Nowadays, tipping a server less than 15% can mean that they have to claim more than they actually earn.

                                              The disparity between tipping in a casual versus fine dining venue is exactly what was indicated above. A server at a diner or chain/casual restaurant is turning over tables very quickly. While they might refill sodas, they certainly aren't spending time with you making recommendations form the wine list and possible even offering tastings for glasses of wine. Nor are they bringing you three or more courses plus multiple drink orders. Tip according to the rapport you develop with your server. If you like them, tip over 20%. If they are average, 15-20%. If there was a problem, talk to a manager. (PS: If there's a problem in the kitchen, the server should acknowledge it before you complain and try to make amends.)

                                              1. Mojo you make a good point. The tip factor or the minimum amount of tips an establishment MUST report for a server is 8% of sales. CC receipts over and above that amount could technically be audited and the restaurant could be held responsible for their portion of taxes, remember the restaurant has to match the servers share of tax.

                                                Here's part of the problem with said tip factor, many restaurants require their servers to tip out the bar (usually 1point of sales or 10% of their tips), the busser (could be the same or a little less or more depending on the establishment), the food runner (if they have one usually gets a similar percentage), sometimes the host or Maitre Dee (if a fine dining establishment). As you can see, there is little wiggle room should the server actually get 15% from everyone, which we all know our fair share of cheapskates who refuse to give the minimum. This, not to mention many establishments actually deduct the percentages the CC companies charge for the priviledge of offering their form of payment which with amex can be 3% or more! So, if you tip a server $10 on an amex, 30 cents comes right off the top prior to the aformentioned tip out which can amount to an additional $3! With this example your server only pockets $6.70 of the $10 you added to the amex CC voucher which he/she then must pay taxes on 8% of the sale. Had you left the standard 15% your bill would have totaled $66.66 The 8% tip factor = $5.30 - income tax of 15-28% and as you can see the $10 you just felt good about leaving your server for a job well done equates to +/- half that! Gone are the days when servers are getting the tax freeride they had been afforded in the past .

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: netmover

                                                  I have worked in restaurants for 15 years. And it is true that sometimes the servers have to "tip out" Other members of the staff, but sometimes they don't. I recently worked as a bartender at a restaurant that did not require servers to Tip out the bar. Very frequently, someone would have there bar bill transferred to the table, and tip on the total bill. I would not see any of that tip. The best thing (especially when transferring a bill from the bar) is to simply ask the bartender if he/she will get a portion tip for the service they provided. If not, tip the bar separately, if so, tip at the end to the server. Also in a recent visit to a sushi restaurant, I inquired to the server if she was the sole recipient of the tip, and she told me that she split it 50/50 with the sushi chef. I tend to tip higher at sushi places.

                                                2. I see the general comments have focused on table and buffet dining service. What about the ubiquitous "tip boxes" that are conveniently displayed in coffee establishments and other take away businesses. Do you expect to pay gratuity for someone taking 5 seconds to grab a paper cup and dispensing a beverage? There are times I do, and others when I do not. I don't want ELGORDO to be caught off guard by this in his visit to our service-oriented country.

                                                  BTW elgordo, I'm sure there are many CH'rs out there willing to provide dining recs as well. Bon route!

                                                  4 Replies
                                                  1. re: SanseiDesigns

                                                    There have been numerous separate discussions of tip boxes. It's not the same category, sicne it's not covered by standard US etiquette conventions as it's a relatively recent phenomenon.

                                                    1. re: Karl S

                                                      "standard US etiquette conventions'? Based on the numerous replies to this thread and inclusive gratuities to none-at-all, I do not believe there are standards. I have seen those who can well afford to, and should leave a generous gratuity (i.e. high maintenance) leave miserly tips, and those who dine out as a rare treat on a tight budget leave a very generous tip. I don't understand how one can differentiate service and the associated gratuities. Service is service. When it's good it makes for a nice experience for the patrons involved.

                                                      1. re: SanseiDesigns

                                                        Because tipping is a social convention, specifically treated in innumerable etiquette manuals and the like to which ordinary people, when unsure of what to do, turn for a sense of whether their tipping practices are within or outside convention.

                                                        Servers may want to hold their customers to a different convention. Servers who do so are likely to experience much frustration. It's easier for servers to change their expectations than it is for them to change those of their customers.

                                                    2. re: SanseiDesigns

                                                      Thanks SanseiDesigns - have had really good responses to my many requests for recommendations for NYC, Philly and Dutch County ..... really looking forward to our visit. Gordon

                                                    3. Being a waiter/waitress is a "no-fun" job. Please tip these folks as if they were "you". 18 to 20% of the full bill. If this is unacceptable to you eat at home.

                                                      3 Replies
                                                      1. re: dawnfawn

                                                        Hi dawnfawn - I said further up the board i tend to be generous when it comes to tipping however it appears to be more the norm and expected in USA than here in the UK ... that said eating out is a more affordable pass-time in the USA anyhow!! Gordon

                                                        1. re: dawnfawn

                                                          Well, if the vast majority of Americans who seem to labor under the impression that 15% on the pretax bill is the norm eat at home instead of at restaurants, there will be very many less no-fun jobs.

                                                          1. re: Karl S

                                                            Agreed. A waitress once rolled her eyes when we ordered from the "early bird" menu and later said to a neighboring table that she was glad early bird time was over as she only gets $4 tips during that time. Needless to say I didnt disappoint.

                                                            Dawn, would you prefer we stayed at home and leave you with an empty table?

                                                        2. Philadelphians were rated #1 tippers in 2006 Zagat survey. Here's a bit:

                                                          Tipping: On the question of tipping, the results present a clear contrast between residents of the East and West Coasts. Restaurant-goers in Philadelphia (19.2%), Atlanta (19.1%) and Boston (18.9%) are the nation's most generous tippers, while diners in Seattle (18%), Los Angeles and San Francisco (both at 18.3) turn out to be the worst. Nationwide, the average tip has been going up over the last several years from 18% in 2000 to 18.7% today.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: julesblkjk

                                                            Sheesh. From 18% to 19.2% doesn't seem like that big of a gap. Wish Zagat would disclose the methods and numbers behind that survey.

                                                            You know what they say -- There are three types of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics.


                                                          2. If that survey says anything at all, it says that tipping 18% is the norm.

                                                            2 Replies
                                                            1. re: andytee

                                                              No, merely that's descriptive of Zagat readers, who are probably likely to be at the high end of American diners (not because they are rich but because they love to go out to eat: frequent diners tend to be better tippers over time, from everything I've read and becaue they live in urban dining meccas that have migrated to the 15-20% model as I've noted earlier...). If 18% is average among that group, one could say that it disproves 20% as a norm at all by the same token!

                                                              Ah the joy of ambiguous statistics.

                                                              1. re: Karl S

                                                                Or more definitively the answers that the Zagat surveyees told the surveyer.

                                                                To add to Covert Ops above:

                                                                There are lies, damned lies, statistics and answers to surveys.