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Should the amount of tip always depend on the total bill?

This semi-related post on minimum tips http://www.chowhound.com/topics/392272 got me thinking.

The standard, default rule is 20% (or maybe 15%) of your total bill is how much one should tip.

But what if you are dining solo, order only one item that is very expensive. Say, for example, a rib eye that is $50. And that's your entire meal. No apps, no drinks, nothing. All the server does for your entire dining experience is bring you your steak. Is that still worthy of a $10 tip?

Conversely, what if 3 people went to the same restaurant, each only ordered appetizers, e.g. fries, and iced teas (that came with free refills). Each of the diners requested multiple refills of the iced teas, and several refills of the ketchup jar and their total bill came out to only $15. Is it right (or fair) that they only tip $3?

Shouldn't this threesome tip more than the standard 15%-20%, esp. when compared to the solo steak-eating diner?

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  1. The high-end is not really an issue, is it? I mean even if you order a $70 serving of cavier, down a glass of ice water and then head for the door, the $14 is not going to make the waiter feel like you were his best tip ever...

    Low end in definitely the area that you have to round up, sometimes WAY up. I'd sorta expect that the party of 3 with the $15 charge for fries and teas would leave at least $2-3 a piece....

    1. ipsedixit, I am the OP on the thread you referenced. You bring up a very good issue and one that I think servers could address.

      As the mother of a teenage girl, I know that these kids can fill a booth for two hours or more with nothing more than 3 milkshakes between them. Should they tip only for the milkshakes, or should they tip also for the time that they spent taking up the booth and minimizing the server's possible turnover rate? In this case, I am very much on the generous side regarding tipping ( as I generally am) and feel that if the venue is busy, it would be nice to tip extra. Much like your fries-and-iced-tea scenario. (jfood, if you're out there, I'd very much like to hear your take on this!)

      As for the steak, I think you should tip the percentage you normally tip. 15%? 20%?

      This issue gets into the realm of the political "each-to-his/her-ability." Is it about the percentage of the dollar amount of what you consumed, or is it about one's taking up seats in a resto, like renting real estate, or is it something else (like, the nature of the venue)? I have no answer for those questions, but I'm so glad you posed this related question.

      Can't wait to hear what others have to say about this.


      9 Replies
      1. re: cayjohan

        How about if you throw in a 75 dollar bottle of wine? I've heard servers complain about people not tipping on the wine, but what's the convention?

        1. re: DropD

          In my experience, restaurants that serve expensive wine hire select servers who have extensive training and knowledge about wine and food. I worked at one fine dining restaurant where we had weekly quizzes on food, beverage, and service knowledge, as well as monthly training / review sessions. We were not paid for this training. In many, many restaurants (especially high-end) your server is not merely walking a steak and a glass of wine to your table. Your server knows everything about those items in order to properly serve and inform you. It is part of the magic of good service - the custo doesn't know everything that is going on behind the scenes to provide a dining experience. That said, TIP ON THE WINE.

        2. re: cayjohan

          Jfood reporting for duty. /:-)). that's me saluting and smiling, cute little guy.

          - I am that ribeye. I have sat at the bar ordered that $50 steak and some onion rings. The bill comes to $60. The runner brought the steak to the service bar and the bartender basically walked ten feet to place in front of me. Jfood leave regular 15-20%. I sat at the bar (or table) and had a good meal, the tip is deserved.
          - Ordering 2 apps for dinner - Sometimes m&m jfood only want two apps instead of an app and an entree, i.e an onion soup and a tomato and goat cheese tart (and yes this has happened). bill comes to $60. the two of us where there for 1+ hours. tip goes 30'ish %.
          - the 3 milkshake example - there is a carve-out to tipping when it comes to teenagers "hangin'" i am not advocating it but it has been around since richie, potsy and fonzy watched waitresses skate their order to the t-bird. The table is basically a toss-away for the server. If you show up, then slip the waitress a few bucks for teen-babysitting.
          - to the OP example of the "loiterers" - it is wrong to leave a small tip if the resto is busy. If it's after school and its an "adder" table to the tip pool then you get what you get (not right but heh can;t win them all). If it is taking up a table while others are waiting then the custo should leave an appropriate amount for the time they spent at the table. It's a resto not a coffee bar at borders.

          So the answer is do the right thing when you have control. and try to do the right thing if its your kids.

          1. re: cayjohan

            For full service dining, at least 15-20% on the pretax total of the bill, including wine. The server will have withholdings done for the IRS based on that, regardless of how many courses you have.

            When I am a solo dinner, I normally raise the base by 5% (let me note that there's *no* standard for this, but I know of other frequent solo diners who do something in the same spirit) as there is a base amount of work for each table, and the server to some extent is getting stiffed when a two-top only has one order. Ditto ordering only one course, especially if I take my time (which I may well do if I am reading and eating leisurely; it's a treat of mine) and do not free up the table for two.

            I realize this may shock some folks on these boards who may perceive me as a hard-ass on tipping standards. But a lot of my focus is on clarifying what is standard and what is not, so that customers can be more confident and servers don't waste unnecessary energy on feeling aggrieved.

            1. re: Karl S

              The IRS is a good thing to remember when thinking about tips. Now that allmost all restaurants have computer systems for ordering etc. a server is held accountable for (taxed) a percentage of their total sales. At some restaurants, particularly those that fear an audit (chains etc.), this can be as high as 18%, thus "the system" assumes that you make at least 18% in tips. For a career server these taxes can make or break you.

              Also, in a resto that serves a $50 steak, the level of skil regarding service is usually much higher....i.e. more is expected of that server and he/she should be compensated based on that level of skill. This isn't to say that a diner server deserves a lower percentage but just that more knowledge (food, wine, menu, service standards) is a part of the job of a high end server.

              Finally, as most former/current servers can attest, a typical 5 hour dinner shift is ass-kicking work. Thus the server usually deserves compensation. I always tip AT LEAST 20%.

              1. re: ashes


                No one is "required" to report income on a 1040 that was not earned and received. And unfortunately as the custo, I am relaxing and enjoying a meal, not worrying about the tax position of my server. So i am sorry that i can not buy into this consideration.

                I agree that the skill involved in higher end restos is different from mid level and is different from a diner and the prices are different. Therefore the percentage multiplied by these different prices lead to different tips. Let's assume 20%, then the server at a $10 diner receives $2, at a $25 mid-level the server receives $5 and the $50 steak server $10. So my point is that the steak server is already benefitting from the higher prices in the absolute dollar of tip, 5 times the diner for delivering the entree. so your "compensated" comment is already embedded in the cost of the food.

                And I would bet that many server would chime in that the same 5-hour shift at a diner is also as you described.

                1. re: jfood

                  I never meant to imply that 5 hours was different at any particular type of restaurant (I've worked mid level chains, hole in the wall tex mex, and high end sushi).

                  Also, increasingly, at least in my "chain' experiences, I had little control over my tax claims because of the automated computer systems. I'm not speaking here as an outsider.

                  But, yes, everyone makes their choice when choosing the price point of the resto that they serve at. And, price point does determine tip if you stick to a 20% across the board rule. Personally, I almost never tip less than 5 dollars unless it was counter service for one.

                  1. re: ashes


                    As you noticed I carefully chase different versus difficult and as you know from experience both are difficult, but for different reasons.

                    My point was that embedded in the $50 steak is a lot more for the server than the $6 burrito, as you know, so the compensation is different as well. I just get a little antsy when I read on these thread about the tax position of servers. We ALL hate paying taxes. To that there is no difference for the pain on April 15th. :-((

                  2. re: jfood

                    I have worked in numerous restaurants, all with varied policies on tip claiming.

                    One such restaurant had strict procedures on the claiming tips of servers. The closing manager would actually adjust a servers tips through the computer at the end of the night if they didn't claim a certain percentage. This resulted in many of the employees recieving a check of $0, after all the taxes had been taken out. What didn't make sense is that none of the other employees (kitchen staff, bussers, dishwashers) that were tipped out never had to claim a dime.

                    I am not saying that a customer must keep a servers tax info in mind when tipping, just be aware that there is also more going on then we all realize.

                    That being said, tips are not just going to the server. When you put down that gratuity it is being dispersed in many different areas. From Sommeliers to dishwashers-they all get a percentage (depending on the restaurant). Usually a server will only walk with over 10-15% of that tip (considering what the original tip was), and some of the time the percentage that they tip out is based on their sales, not on the overall total tips.

            2. I figure that if I tip 15-25% the vast majority of time (and that everybody else does as well) it will all even out in the wash. I'm not going to waste time and energy feeling guilty or trying to intuit how hard somebody works or imagining what kind of lifestyle they lead every time I go out for dinner.

              OTOH if for some reason I cause the server to have to go out of their way (even slightly) to accommodate me I will always tip extra. For instance the other week, I ordered and got my food, and some acquaintances showed up right as I was digging in. They convinced me to join them, when I did, the waitress cleaned off my table and brought me an extra plate (to share). So I threw in an extra 10% on the tip (maybe I was stingy there).

              1. There are times when I order a 7 course tasting or only appetizers or $3 taste of wine or a $200 bottle. If there are no special circumstances (such as waitstaff going above and beyond or I make special requests etc...) I tip my usual 20%. It all evens out in the end.

                1. I have been both the single dish order and the 2 apps only order. ( guilt over portion control occasional grips me). I try to eyeball what a 'typical' meal would be and tip 20ish% on that -- esp if it's a crowded place and I am eating alone at a two-top.

                  I don't feel guilty about ordering just a glass of wine and a steak though, why shouldn't I order the amount of food I want?

                  Those free refill people make me nuts, for some reason, I always think they under tip. And when I peek sometimes, it seems they do.

                  1. When did the rule change? A tip is for good service; and if the service is good, 15-20% has been established (and I'm not sure by whom) as the norm. I always leave 20% or more, including for the wine. Except, anyone who leaves a 20% tip for a $100.00 bottle of wine has more money than they know what to do with. That being said, the kitchen has a lot to do with how much of a tip is left. It's their responsibility to make sure they send out what was ordered. If it's wrong or not up to par, the waitperson must make it right, or get the management to get it right. Truth be told, just because your wearing the uniform, doesn't mean you automatically get 20%. The restaurant business is just like any other business. If you don't do a good job, you might not get paid. Sorry for the rant, but I've had and seen so much poor service lately, it's getting to me.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: CocoDan

                      If you're ordering a $100 bottle of wine and complaining about giving someone making $2.35 an hour 20% for bringing it to you, then your head is on a little crooked in my book.

                      "If you don't do a good job, you might not get paid."

                      Is that the way your workplace operates? In most places, if you don't do a good job you might not have a job much longer, but they're required by law to pay you for the hours you worked.

                      I know this has been said on other threads, but dining out is a luxury. You pay more for luxury and imho, you should be prepared to shell out 20% on your entire bill, whether you saw your server once to deliver your steak or numerous times when they filled your iced tea. Just because you're an "easy table" doesn't mean you should tip less than your customary level.

                      Unless you follow the inscrutible tom porc method, in which case you seem to be able to tip whatever you feel like tipping. ;)

                      1. re: jnstarla

                        I think tipping on wines should be altered depending on the expense of the wine. Personally, I think it's appropriate to tip 20% on a $100 bottle of wine. I've tipped 20% on wine exceeding $100 in the past. However, once DH ordered a $600 half-bottle of wine and tipped the full 20% on that. That's $120 for uncorking and pouring a bottle of wine! And he even shared this wine with the waitstaff there. I think this comes from his teenage years spent waiting on tables. I used to bartend myself when I was younger, but would never have expected anybody to leave a 20% tip on very expensive bottles of wine.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          I *sort of* agree with this. On one hand, $120 does seem pricey for uncorking and pouring a bottle of wine. On the other hand, that $600 bottle is most likely taken care of (by both the restaurant and the server) more carefully than a $50 bottle wine. Plus, if you can afford to buy a $600 of wine, I think you can afford to tip the norm for it.

                    2. pretty much agree with most posts here, with the caveat that there are still a few places where you have great personal service paired with really cheap prices, like some little neighborhood burger places. i tend to tip only based on service i receive in these places (what amounts to 40-50% of the bill), still only 4-5 bucks/meal, with great service, unlimited refills, etc.

                      sometimes i'll go with a friend to a local restaurant with the full intention of just sitting there taking up a deuce for 2 1/2 hours talking and catching up. Sure, we'll split an appetizer or 2, have a cocktail & coffee & tea, ice water with refills. . . i let the staff know what we're up to at the beginning & ask to be seated just kind of tucked away in a non-high turnover area (this is NOT FAIR to do to places that are super-busy). Since we're not in any hurry, we don't care about waiting for food or drinks or refills, or the check, so we're really low-pressure for our server. however, we're taking up real estate, and getting steady attention for refills and checkups, while not ringing up a dinner check that matches other tables, so our server will get a big tip based on service rather than our bill's total. it is never poor form to tip well for the service you receive.

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: soupkitten

                        I'm not sure I understand the whole 15-20% "rule". I live in a small town where there is a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch & dinner. The food is good, but the service is what you'd expect in a small town---not exactly professional. If hubby & I go for breakfast, the bill will likely come to about $12. For dinner, it could be 3 times that. The server doesn't work any harder bringing me my dinner plate and drink than she does bringing me my breakfast plate and juice. Why does the dinner server get three times the tip that the breakfast server does?

                        1. re: Anne

                          Partially because the server is taxed on whatever the total is.

                          1. re: mojoeater

                            And also because social customs - of which tipping is a part - are not linearly logical. They aren't intended to be. In other words, don't overthink it.

                            1. re: mojoeater

                              Quote;"Partially because the server is taxed on whatever the total is." Does that mean that if I overtip---or "round up"---that additional amount goes unreported and untaxed?

                              1. re: Anne

                                nope, the server can still report the tip in their paperwork at the end of the shift.

                            2. re: Anne

                              then why don't you tip the breakfast server the same as the dinner server?

                              people who use this "how much energy does it take to carry a plate" argument seem to always default to the lower tip as justification. Like the 20% is FINE if the bill is only $12 but somehow becomes unfair when the bill is $36.

                              Usually the lowticket meals are staffed by newer servers, who have to work their way up to the larger ticket shifts. Or they take the lower ticket shifts because that's 1/ all they can get 2/ fits with other family commitments in spite of the lower pay 3/ works in with their 2nd or 3rd job.

                              1. re: orangewasabi

                                right--my post above referred to tipping "up" for good service/small tab rather than tipping "down" for same-level service/bigger tab. another reason to round up when tipping for dinner service as opposed to breakfast, though maybe not true in Anne's scenario, is that the dinner server in turn tips out bartender, busser, & food runners, & so isn't going home with the whole tip amount, rather sharing it with co-workers who share the labor of serving you your meal. many/most breakfast shift servers bus their own tables & don't work with a service bartender, so they keep all of their tips.

                                1. re: orangewasabi

                                  Quote:"people who use this "how much energy does it take to carry a plate" argument seem to always default to the lower tip as justification. Like the 20% is FINE if the bill is only $12 but somehow becomes unfair when the bill is $36."
                                  Actually, I was thinking just the opposite. Why does the breakfast server get paid LESS for essentially the same work as the dinner server? If I left a $5 tip for the $12 breakfast, I'd be considered a "good tipper". But if I left $5 on the $36 dinner I'd be considered a cheapskate! For the record, I've always tipped generously. 20 years ago I spent less than 3 months as a server in a small restaurant that only served lunch. I haven't left a (undeserved) bad tip since!

                                  1. re: Anne

                                    i agree with you, i generally tip more at places where the tab is small but the service is great (like breakfast, or the cheap burger joints). a lot of these shifts are covered by middle aged women who have worked as servers their whole adult lives. it's hard work, they serve well and cheerfully, and they deserve to be well-tipped by those they serve.

                                    1. re: Anne

                                      my apologies Anne, I shouldn't have ASSumed what you meant. I learnt a lot from tokyorosa's post though, so don't feel quite so bad for the breakfast servers now.

                              2. I start out with 20%, add more if the service is truly awesome and start deducting if the SERVICE is bad. I try to not take back-of-the house issues out on the waitstaff. YMMV.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: shelly59

                                  I agree with you shelly....I always do the 20%. Usually more if it is a lower priced meal. I have to say though that I have left some "bad" tips, simply because the service was so horrible my five year old son would have made a better server. So instead of making a stink and speaking with someone about how poorly the server was I let that server know how extremely displeased I/we were by leaving a poor tip. This has happend very rarely, and usually come after being completely forgotten about. Not in a sitting chatting forgotten about, but instead asked for a bill and thirty min. later we have to wave down another server to get it. After that the server came out with a lame excuse that he was making an ice cream for us. To me that is where it doesnt matter how good the food was, that kind of service makes me never want to return to that establishment to ever experience it again. But that just MHO.

                                  They way I see it, if you have the money to spend on a $100 dinner, then you need to have the money to tip the $20 tip. :-)

                                  1. re: shelly59

                                    Recently, I noticed, mostly for the sake of math, I was tipping 20% for everyone! What was the point of that, I asked myself. Why should I "reward" (reward being 20%) a good server and a bad server the same amount of money.

                                    So, I am trying to not award based on my bad math skills.

                                    I tip on the entire total even tax. However, I believe that money talks and sometimes managers don't. Lately, I skip the lecture or letter to the manager and skimp the tip. Sorry!

                                  2. Tip at least 15% always, regardless of the quality of the service. (See also: Miss Manners on the subject of tipping.) If the service is bad, talk to the manager. If the service is good, tip more than 15%--UNLESS you take up the table for longer than you would have for a meal, then you should adjust your tip upward.

                                    As a former server who has worked breakfast, lunch and dinner shifts: Servers who work breakfast and lunch make less per table because of the lower cost of the meals--but they turn over tables many times during one meal service and they work through two meals (breakfast & lunch), so they generally make as much as or more money than a server who works the dinner shift in the same restaurant. Since dinner shift servers only work through one meal, they count on the higher cost of the meals and turning over the tables perhaps twice in a shift for their tips. (Hence the: If you camp out in a table, adjust your tip upwards.)

                                    The other nice thing--not related to tipping, really, but perhaps as an FYI--is that earlier shift servers can hand off their tables to the dinner servers who then take over service but recieve none of the tip (because the earlier server has to claim the tip for tax purposes, the dinner server hands it over). Early shift servers get to go home on time most days. However, dinner servers are SOL if their table decides to camp out. They stay, often until well past their quitting time, waiting for those last stragglers to finish up. (Again: If you camp out, adjust your tip upwards--*way* upwards if you stay more than, say, 15-30 min. past the restaurant closing time.)

                                    For tax purposes, servers must legally claim at least 8% of their total sales as tips. (I was one of the idiots who generally claimed 100% of my tips.) At the end of the year, the government looks at the restaurant's sales and the amount of claimed tips. If the amount for the restaurant falls below 8% (due to the servers who claim, say, < 3% per day, which some servers do to get out of paying taxes on a bi-weekly basis), then the government spreads the joy, taxing ALL tipped employees (on the basis of hours worked) for the difference. So: *Someone* pays taxes on the tips, whether they were recieved or not, whether it's the correct person or not.

                                    1. One of my favorite lunch places is a nice, little Mexican place. They have $3.99 lunch combos and of course you get free chips, salsa and their spicy dip. I get water most times because I'm trying to drink more water and less soda. With tax my bill is $4.19. I usually leave a $10/bill because the food is a great value and is very good, they keep the chips and salsa/dips coming, good with drink refills, etc.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                        Janet, you are a dream patron! Probably you get a bit extra (quickly refilled drinks, lots of chips and salsa) in return for your generosity. I'd bet you're a favorite among servers in that restaurant.

                                        1. re: Janet from Richmond

                                          I agree, especially in a situation like that.

                                        2. Great posts, you foodies are almost always great tippers, it is much appreciated!!!
                                          As a lifelong server, bartender, restaurant manager, just wanted to put my 2 cents in.
                                          Most servers make minimum wage, here in Nebraska that's just $2.13 an hour. We assume that our servers make at least 15% and report that amount to the IRS for them, all of that is taxed from the $2.13/hr, making their checks nothing. Literally, we regularly print checks for under a dollar for a two-week period. Also, their health and dental insurance comes out (they are lucky enough to get that benefit with us).

                                          Most servers also tip out their bartenders, kitchen and bus staff as well. For my servers, that adds up to 13% of their tips.
                                          It all adds up.
                                          I always tip at least 20% and much more for great service and personality, even on the $100 bottle of wine. If you can't afford to tip applicably, you probably shouldn't buy it.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: moniqueh

                                            monique, I'm in Omaha! Small world.

                                            We are required (by our owners) to report 13% and I usually report everything, because I feel guilty. My checks are usually under a dollar - not worth the paper they're printed on to cash!

                                            1. re: jnstarla

                                              think most people working as servers & bartenders have those checks for $0.13 that they frame and proudly display. . . at 1st, then paperclip together with intent to cash when it's $3 worth and find when cleaning their desk 4 yrs later! LOL

                                              OTOH it is always fun to go into the bank in the ghetto area where you happen to be living and pull $50 bundle after $50 bundle of neatly taped-up, unwrinkled and faced $1 bills out of your "hello kitty" purse. . . that absolutely REEK of stale beer and cigarettes. the teller's always "EW" and doesn't want to touch the $ until you assure her that you're a BARTENDER, not a really cheap stripper!