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Jun 28, 2009 06:46 AM

Service/tips - UK vs US

There are so many posts on this board about service, and so many about tips - and most of these posts are from US posters.

I am in the UK. I do not really notice service unless it is appalling; I have no gripes about plate clearance or bread, or water... and the issue of tips is a non-issue. Servers get paid at least the minimum wage and anything I leave as a tip is an optional extra.

So I'm wondering whether the (apparent) US fixation on service is due to the way it is paid for? Would people care so much about whether their glass is refilled or their plate cleared if the price of service was included in the price of the food?


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  1. no. i want good service. it's one of the reasons i go out to eat

    1. Peg

      Like you, I live in Britain and am used to our way of tipping and, of course, the different styles in mainland Europe.

      I suspect most north americans would argue that their way of tipping ensures good service but, when I read the posts on CH saying that folk almost invariably tip 15%, even when service has not been too good, I'm doubtful whether that's the case. The serving staff know they're going to get a reasonable tip, even when they're crap. I've been visiting the US on holiday for nearly 30 years and, following local customs, tip at 15 - 20%. Have to say, I don't see any better service than in see in the UK or the rest of Europe.

      I eat out regularly in the UK and don't feel that I see poor service - at least not related to the tip. Good restaurants tend to have good service, poor restaurants have poor service often. Like you, I'm interested to read the fascination that many posters here have with tips - and, as you say, tipping for us is a complete non-issue. I like the service charge (what americans I think call an "auto gratuity") in preferance to a standard tip and, depending on type of place may leave this in cash or pay it on my card. I also know that there are places, such as pub eateries, where tips are rarely given or expected and am equally happy with that.

      I would like to see the UK follow the French route where service, etc is included in the menu price and nothing else is generally expected. That way, I feel staff are respected as employees and properly rewarded in salary - and, of course, you get excellent service. Pretty much similar in Spain where I would normally only leave a few coins by way of a tip.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Harters

        I agree that the French method is preferable.

        In MY opinion, and I stress the "my", the problem with the American method is that it ccan only work if everyone is of the same mind when it comes to rewarding service. But we're not! If you read the many many many threads on this site about tipping, you will find that a number of people say things like, "Oh, but servers work for less than minimum wage so I have to tip!: Or, "I used to be a server and I know how hard it is so I always tip." And the reality of the original idea behind the "American method" of tipping is that servers would be made aware of how well they're doing at their job through tipping and work harder for greater tips across the board. In that regard, the U.S. system is a total failure in most restaurants.

        My experience is that in "full service" restaurants, as in table cloths, proper place settings at seating, cloth napkins, etc., there is rarely a problem with service, so tips are earned and seem to be carrying the message of approval or disapproval quite well. But drop below that line, and (again, MY opinion) restaurant serving staff is not at the professional level, the job is something that many consider temporary, and there are far too many that just plain don't give a damn.

        The French method puts the onus of telling staff when they are not up to par directly on the restaurant owner's shoulders instead of diners. Seems to me most employees, regardless of career field, listen to the boss a lot more intently than they listen to "passers by," which is what most diners are.

        Do I expect things to change? Sure. Soon as Hell freezes over. And we're just finishing a week of triple digits here in Dallas... <sigh>

        1. re: Caroline1


          I entirely agree that our methods in Europe correctly puts the onus on the employer. If I am disatisfied about the service I will tell the owner/manager. Similarly, I will speak to give praise as in a meal last week at a mid-range place in the UK. Serving staff were almost certainly part-timers and, no doubt, earning around minimum wage. I was happy to leave our "going rate" of 10% but also took time to tell the manager how good the service had been - provided efficiently and with eye contact and a smile.

      2. What exactly is the tip standard in the UK? (Does nobody leave tips except for extraordinary service, or just limit it to a pound per entree or what? I've not dined alone over there except for takeaway from the counter at chip shops etc.)

        My .02, which doesn't presume to speak for every Brit, is that partly many Americans may be more outspoken about service matters overall, as part of more openness in the culture.

        I'm American. Several Brits in my immediate family talk about how reticent they and other Brits are to bringing up the issue of poor service - or sending something back. They've witnessed plenty of less than accommodating server attitudes ranging from indifferent on down, and if the attitudes get really bad they just don't go back - but there's some expectation they'll encounter this kind of thing and resolutely bear it as if it's nearly a tradition - a kind of 'misery loves company' on the part of the server, or at least a server who 'can't be bothered' to care how the food arrives or how the guests are accommodated.

        Brits in the family have also expressed what I can only describe as amazement at the friendliness and helpfulness of some servers in American restaurants. Indeed, they're almost suspicious of it (not quite) - it's confounding. It's been a revelation to them that there are different cultures with regard to what is considered acceptable service there vs. here. (Particularly in attitude but also in getting the correct order and preparation, etc.)

        These are educated, intelligent, cosmopolitan Brits. And I'd hasten to add that when I've been over there, I've had some terrific restaurant service just as good as in the U.S. I've run into one or two abominable examples too, the exact likes of which I've never seen in the U.S. and made me want to kiss the ground here.

        In talking with the Brits in the family, I do hear some affirmation of that general trend of evolution being underway in British restaurants and that may extend to service attitudes. But that part is not a revolution. (I don't know if it's a history of class structure or some more complex Zeitgeist that accounts for the service attitudes. I saw some similar in Central Europe. And in each case, I was with a bunch of polite, kind Brits - it wasn't a case of 'they serve Americans differently'.)

        7 Replies
        1. re: Cinnamon

          The "going rate" for tips is 10%. Tends to be a bit higher in London than the rest of the country and, also, a bit more in high end restaurants (where, these days, it will usually be an addition to the bill as a "service charge" - something I like to see). I'm talking here about "proper" restaurants - I would not dream of tipping for food served in a pub or cafe, nor would it be expected.

          As upthread, I am never reticient about praise and rarely about complaint. From time to time, I have had a bad experience and have not complained as I felt that the problems were so endemic to the restaurant that it would be a pointless exercise. This may be the sort of experience that your relatives have mentioned (although two of my all-time bad meals about which complaint would been totally pointless were in America - once in New York City; the other some arsehole place in Virginia). Of course, on occasions, reticience has been forced upon me by an inability to express myself sufficiently well in the local language. It is many years since I have been served food so bad that I've felt a need to send it back (excepting, of course, that I've eaten vile food as returning it would have been pointless).

          As a general rule, I agree that we Europeans do not look for (or particularly want) friendly service in the way that I suspect most Americans would think of as friendly service. Take my order, bring me cooked food in a reasonable timescale and then go away - that'll do me fine. My mark of a good restaurant is how unobtrusive the service is, not how friendly - I do NOT want anyone coming to check if "everything is OK" - I'll tell them if it isnt.

          1. re: Harters

            Thanks for the tip info. Your assessment jibes very well with what I've found among Brit relatives.

            1. re: Cinnamon

              Without wishing to hi-jack Peg's thread too much, I'll expand a bit further if that's OK.

              I'd suggest there is a dislike of tipping in the UK which has grown over the years and I count myself amongst the dislikers. France and Spain are major tourist destinations for us and we see the different patterns. In France service is always included and a further tip is not generally expected. In Spain, a few coins suffice. I do not see service being better or worse in those countries than I see in the UK or, indeed, in the US (where I also visit as a tourist fairly regularly.

              Put bluntly, the restaurant industry is the only industry where there seems to be an expectation that an additional charge is made for the services of the person selling me a product/service and then delivering the product/service. I would not expect to tip a sales person if I was buying a bed, nor would I expect to tip the folk who deliver it. These are integral parts of buying a bed (or meal).

              That said, I understand that these staff costs need to be met. My preference is always for the Frenchs system where the menu price is the complete price you pay. Failing that, I am more than happy for restaurants to show a additional service charge on the bill (I think north americans call this an auto-gratuity).

              Failing that I am sufficiently "old school" to leave the 10% going rate tip (in those places where it's reasonably expected that a tip be left) but suspect that I am becoming increasing rare in even doing that. For example, I was recently at a place about an hours drive away. Nice restaurant in a large village - three courses for £25. The next table was a party of five - I overheard the full bill, including drinks, had come to £150. The guy paying the bill asked for £5 to be added as a tip - around 3%.

              Slightly off-topic, but in a related manner, it used to be the case in the UK that a 10% for taxi drivers was usual. My brother in law tells me that it is now rare for ny tip to be given. I suspect restaurant tipping is fast going the same way and it won't be too long before tipping ceases altogether at low en places and that others all operate on the service charge principle. It'll be great step forward for UK dining and the our restaurant industry, IMO.

              The best service I have had recently was at Hibiscus, a Michelin two star place in London. It was all but invisible. I was given a menu; food order was taken; sommelier helped my wife select her wine - and that was really the last words that anyone said to us until "Good night. Hope to see you again". Delivery of the meal was faultless - speech was unnecessary.

              1. re: Harters

                I would say to some extent, Americans appreciate understated service too - few want a gee whiz golly what can I do for YOU today?!!! On the other hand, I think the norm here is a little more interactive and a 'sullen' service experience would go over worse here than in the U.K.

                But I don't tie the interactivity - much of it anyway, at least not among good waitstaff - to the expectation of a tip that wouldn't be present in other countries. I think the interactivity thing carries through to the no-tip type of quick-service restaurants in the U.S. and other merchant experiences, vs. U.K.

            2. re: Harters

              I agree - we (Brits) don't want GREAT service - we want INVISIBLE service. Certainly not cheery, friendly service.

              1. re: Peg

                I do find, on these boards, among Americans, that there are, not surprisingly, different expectations about service. One poster might say that service at the place was cold and unengaging, while I was thrilled at the service there because, as you say, it was invisible. To me, perfect service means that the server is cognizant of and attends to the needs of my table at the right time, and otherwise is invisible. I don't mind if someone is a bit friendly, but the last thing I want is to be engaged in chat etc., or overfamiliarity.

              2. re: Harters

                I completely agree and I am forever baffled by the tipping threads, especially with what seems to be the general consensus among Americans about how tipping less than 20% means you're a rotten, stingy, not-to-be-trusted human being! Where I'm from (in Argentina) is similar to the UK (where I live). We tend to tip around 10% but this turns to zero or a lot less if the service is bad. Tips are optional and a bonus, not an obligation by any stretch.
                It also makes me uncomfortable to think servers are trying to suck up to me so I'll leave them a bigger tip. I expect reasonable service but I concur with the rest of the Brits in that I am not interested in them being 'pally' with me and harassing me with questions about the food or re-filling my glass. I want to be left alone to eat my food in peace and have a conversation with the people I'm with with as little interference as possible.

            3. none of these replies seems to answer the original question, which was very specific, and not just about tipping trends in different places.

              i answered already, but will do so again, more explicitly

              i would, and do, care as much about the quality of my service when i am in a place where tipping is expected, as where service is included in the price of the food. i expect good service.

              6 Replies
              1. re: thew

                Do you NOTICE it more? I mean, do you watch out to see what the service is like so you can gauge what the tip sould be?

                1. re: Peg

                  no. in the US where the tip is integral to the server's pay, i assume i'm giving a good tip, unless the service is really shit. i don;t have to watch out for it, as it is apparent when it happens.

                  1. re: thew

                    I am with thew on this. I don't monitor the level of service to decide on the tip. I presume I'm going to leave 15%. The service would have to be intentionally hideous for us to not leave 15%, the kind of situation where it's so bad you feel obliged to call the manager the next day and tell them what appalling situation happened. (I can't recall having had any of those, actually.)

                    If the service turns out to be just amazing and the server went out of their way to actually be really helpful, upon reflection while leaving the tip, I'll kick in extra. But it's not something I monitor or 'think about' during the meal.

                    1. re: Cinnamon

                      I think, therefore, that the contributors so far are all pretty much agreed on things, in spite of our different national tipping methods/levels and cultural differences.

                      We want/expect good service. Tipping is generally a non-issue . We generally tip at our going national rate and don't think about it, unless service is really lousy.

                  2. re: Peg

                    I think it has everything to do with cultural expectations and nothing to do with the tip. Even though there is no tipping in Japan, poor service is simply unacceptable. When I lived there, I'd probably be more shocked by poor/indifferent service than I am in the US, just because it's such a part of the culture there. The service I received at McDonald's was just as good as the service I received at a full-service restaurant. Here in the US, I do expect differences based on the quality of the restaurant.

                    1. re: queencru

                      i think poor service is unacceptable everywhere. i expect good service, wherever i go.