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Tip: Can you separate the waiter/waitress service from the overall experience?

In theory, the restaurant tip is for the waiter and waitress, but I wonder if we follow that guideline. Last week, I went to Famous Dave's and my waitress was nice. She gave me a basket of free BBQ chips for sampling the BBQ sauces :) She probably thinks I am a first timer because I looked confused, but I have been there several times.

The barbecue, on the other hand, was not so great, worse than my average experience at Famous Dave's. At the end, I gave her a tip at 15% for my lunch, which I think is the average.

Now I wonder if I should have tipped her more because she was nice to me or should I have tipped less because my overall experience at the restaurant was not so great.

Imagine these:
If you have one of the best tasting and best enviromental dinner with an average waitress, would you pay her a big tip?

If you have bad tasting dinner but with a good waitress, would pay her a big tip?

What do you think?

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  1. For me personally, the tip is all about the service and or server...
    So if the food is bad, but the server tried hard - I will still tip big.

    In fact, even if the service was bad, (Ie - a long wait or a forgotten drink) but I feel the server still tried hard and was genuinely nice and apologetic - I still tip big.

    If the service is fantastic but from a server with a lousy disposition- I still tip big, but maybe not AS big as I would for someone I liked!

    1. I tip for the service, not the food, but there are a few ways those factors affect one another. If I'm unhappy with my entree, does the server try to make things right? Does she keep me posted on my order if the kitchen is running behind? Is she receptive to requests to turn down the music or the air conditioning? If yes to all, then even if I'm ultimately unsatisfied with the food or the pace of the meal or the atmosphere in the restaurant, I'll know that the server was still doing a good job, and tip as if everything were perfect.

      1. NYC waitress here.

        I can't answer your question for you since what you do with your money is your choice, but I can tell you how tips work.

        The people working in the kitchen- dishwashers, prep cooks and line cooks, are paid an hourly salary and are not tipped.

        In NYC, front of house service staff make below minimum wage, so our income is based on tips, not on our low hourly wage. Most restaurants pool their tips. That means at the end of the night, every server and bartender's tips are added up. Each front of house employee gets a percentage of the pool- servers and bartenders get the highest percentage, followed by runners and bussers.

        The thing is, if your food tastes bad, a low tip won't make it to the kitchen at all. Same hold for a great food experience. We don't regularly talk to the kitchen staff about what we earn in tips.


        1. I absolutely tip on the level of service and not on the quality of the food. If I have a terrible meal but a good server, they get a good tip. The server isn't responsible for crappy food, the server is responsible for making sure I get good service. Likewise, if I have a great meal (or a bad meal, for that matter) and crappy service, they won't be getting the same tip as the quality server.

          1. The waitress had nothing to do with how your food was prepared or how it tasted. If she gave you what you felt was great customer service, then it is always nice to acknowledge that by throwing in extra on the tip. If the food was not up to par, letting her or the manager know so that they could try to make it right would have been the way to go.

            1. I should clarify. I know what tip should be. I am asking if people can consistently follow that ideal. Most of you picked the cases where the waiter or waitress tried hard and you would pay a good tip despite the overall experience being bad.

              What about the other way? What if your overall experience is great, but you have a very average waiter or even a bad waiter, would you tip below average? Let's say you have the best steak in the last 5 year and the music was great and the atomspher was nice, but the waiter was unresponsive and slow and whatever, would you give a <10% tip?

              8 Replies
              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                Probably not, because I'd be in a good mood. Unless the waiter was out-and-out nasty; then all bets are off.

                1. re: small h

                  No, I don't mean way out nasty. I just mean slightly below average. That get back to my very original point. It seems people are saying that we should just tip above average in either case. Well, there is a math problem here. You cannot tip "above average" all the time. You will likely tip 50% of the time above and 50% of the time below.

                  People are telling that I should tip above average when:

                  (a) food is good and the server is good
                  (b) food is bad and the server is good
                  (c) food is good and the server is bad

                  only left with

                  (d) everything is bad

                  How often can everything goes bad? Math does not add up.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    <Math does not add up.>

                    My math adds up thusly: I tip 20% in most situations - 9 out of 10 meals, say. And less or more the rest of the time. I think when people say they tip "above average," they mean for the world, not for them personally. See: Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.

                    1. re: small h

                      Thanks. I am thinking about on a personal level.

                      When do people tip below their own personal level?

                      Afterall, I am thinking about the logic behind tipping. If a person is very wealth and very geneous and like to tip between 25-40%, then he/she will be well above average for rest of the world. This person may say he tips above average (compared to the world) all the time, but that give no insight of the thought process or rationale of tipping. It simply tells me that this person can afford it and probably very wealth. I am not trying to understand who is wealthy.

                      I guess I am trying to ask a question in the line of: For what occasions, would you go out for an extraordinary meal?

                      I were hoping for answers like birthday, anniversary, promotion... for their own personal extraordinary meal. Not so much as in a wealthy person have extraordinary meals (compared to the world) all the time.

                      So small_h,

                      When do you tip below your own personal average?

                      P.S.: What Lake Woebegon?

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        < When do you tip below your own personal average?>

                        I am honestly racking my brain on this one. It's rare, because I'm not that demanding. I do remember a brunch a few years back at French Roast in Manhattan, when the waitress

                        1) served me the wrong drink, and then took 10+ minutes to bring me the right one (you know when I *am* that demanding? noon on a Sunday, waiting for my damn Bloody Mary).

                        2) brought our plates out of the kitchen, then set them on the bar and had a lengthy chat with a pal before finally wending her way to our table. the eggs had cooled considerably by the time they reached us.

                        3) did not refill coffee, or bread, or bring the check, or return the check, in a timely fashion.

                        I tipped 10%. And she asked why, so I told her. And that was that.

                        1. re: small h


                          Thanks. So you tip based on the service, alone (mostly). That is what I am trying to learn. Good to know. I tend to tip based on the overall experience. I know it is not the way it should be, but when I objectively look back, I think I do that. To be honest, I think I also tip based on my own mood at the time. Let's say I am very happy going out with a bunch of friends and having a lot of fun, I tend to tip more. If I were depressed and unhappy, then I tend to tip less. I am not saying people should do that. I don't do it purposely. I am saying that I ended up doing so. In other words, I am not a great professional tipper.

                          :) I were a very good professional TA though when I were in school. I graded them solely based on their answers indepedent of my mood or my overall attitude toward the students. I just need to bring that professionalism to tipping now. Very tough. :)

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            if the food is good and the service is bad, i tip based on the service. which for me a bad tip is between 10-15%.

                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  Probably not...

                  For me the only reason for me to tip poorly would be if the server was really terrible...but I don't mean by making mistakes - that I could forgive as long as the attitude was fine...
                  my definition of terrible would be someone who was unprofessional... as happened to me recently while dining alone the waiter was not only condecending, but unknowledeable, and then he blatently ignored me in favor of a group of young girls - ugh!
                  The whole time I was ready to completely stiff him, but in the end I left a very avereage tip.
                  For me this was pretty good since I normally over tip!

                3. The tip should be directly and only related to the quality of service one gets.

                  That being said, it seems very often that poor food quality and poor quality of service, for some reason, go hand-in-hand. It's been a long time since I've had a really astoundingly poor service experience (one that would result in me giving 15% or less rather than the normal >20%) and I can tell you that the food involved was nothing to write home about.

                  The only rational way to deal with poor food quality is to speak up -- immediately -- and if the first person who hears your complaint seems not to "get it," move up the management chain until you're either satisfied or you've made the decision never to come back. But don't take it out on your server.

                  1. Let's get one definition out.

                    Average = Total/occurence.

                    Most of the time we tip average -- by definition. Sometime more than average, sometime less than average.

                    We cannot tip above average all the time. It is impossible.

                    I am reading that most of you tip above average most of the time and sometime average and very rarely below average. I don't think this statement is plausible.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                      You seem to be a mathematically inclined person, so I'll give a math-y explain why it is plausible. In focusing of average=total/occurrence, you have decided to focus on the mean. The mean would only be a good measure of average if there is a normal distribution, and you seem to be assuming that people's tipping behavior is normally distributed. The problem is, people here are telling you that their tipping is NOT normally distributed, most of the time they tip higher...thus the distribution is skewed. This is going to affect how things are interpreted. Speaking for myself, 95% of the time I tip 20%, regardless of food or service. At most 5% of the time I tip 10-15%, because the service is truly atrocious (food or overall experience doesn't go into the equation at all). If we were to compute my average as the mean, it would in fact be true that I tip above my own average most of the time, since I tip 20% almost all the time, and my mathematical mean would have to be under 20% because it would be dragged down by those few times I tip lower. At any rate, the consensus here seems to be that we tip on service rather than overall experience. This may not be true of the general population, but chowhounds are a special breed. :)

                      1. re: Nicole


                        Thanks. Yes, you are correct. It is probably not a normal distribution or gaussian. It has a tail to it. Now, I think it is the other way, I think most people tip at a certain standard amount say 20%. In some occasions, they tip higher to 25-30% because they are very happy. Only in very rare occasions would they tip below that standard 20%.

                        Really. Just ask your friends. Ask them how many times they gave a tip above their typical tipping rates in the last year and how many times they gave a tip below their standard tipping rates. I bet the above number is much higher than the below number. Thus the tail is on the high side, which means most of the time these people are tipping below their average :)

                        I wonder maybe I should have focused on median as opposed to average?

                    2. I just re-read this and perhaps have not made myself clear.

                      I do want to admit that there *are* portions of a diners' experience that are more ambience-related but are still somewhat in the hands of one's server. Making sure the candle's lit; the flowers are in order, etc. is part of it. Making sure burnt-out light bulbs aren't in one's station are another (also, if the lighting is left on "extra bright" a server perhaps should say something to whomever controls the light levels).

                      Hereinabove was a story of a server who, in plain view of the customer, laid the customers' plates on the bar and had a chat with a co-worker. Egg dishes, no less, which I'm sure were gross when they got to table -- cold. That's just absolutely unacceptable, for a lot of reasons. I'd frankly have told the manager what happened and would have asked to have our meals re-made.

                      Then there was the time we ordered a couple of appetizers and a couple of entrees. One of our appetizers was a dish of mussels in red sauce. The sauce was so delightful we asked for a coffee cup -- so we could pour the sauce out of the pot the mussels came in and drink it with the aid of a spoon. My wife and I could hear the server complaining to her co-workers something to the effect that "if they wanted a soup course they should've ordered one." She received 10%; merely because I felt bad about the busser and the bartender who were depending on her tips, too.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: shaogo

                        Wow. So you are saying that you would have given an even lower tip than 10% for that statement?

                        Yes, I think you guys have made excellent points and I know I should only tip based on server performance but sometime other things get to my mood, then it get to the tip.

                        I am not a moody person, but mood does affect when I think back. I think I gave generous tips when I celebrated with my friends for doing well in my exam or landing on a good job. Absolutely unrelated to the servers and I tipped them above my average simply because I were happy.

                        Once I had to intentionally control myself for not tipping too well. A waitress were somewhat flirtatious and touchy (as in brushing my shoulders). Were I happy? Sure, but then the South Park episode taught me that she was probably looking for a good tip. At the end, I gave her my standard tipping rate. I were that close of giving a high tip, but then I would be silly. :)

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          RAISINS!!!!! That was a good episode. : )

                          I generally base my tip just on the service. I've had an instance where the restaurant deliberately tried to serve me the wrong dish because they screwed up the order. I got pretty pissed (and wrote a letter to the owner). However, I still tipped my usual because I couldn't be sure whether or not I should have laid the blame on the server or the kitchen staff. I left the restaurant with a bad taste in my mouth -- but I didn't feel it was right to penalize the server for it.

                          I'm pretty understanding if it's something the server cannot control -- eg. being slammed, understaffed, etc. And I'm very forgiving if they're new on the job. But what I detest most are servers who think they're prima donnas or those who have attitudes or just plain lazy. But I find it rare that I encounter servers like that. In my recent memory, I only recall one instance where I left less than my usual. The server completely ignored me even though I kept trying to make eye contact with her. Would have understood if it was a large party, but it was only a party of two! Have no idea why she did that -- maybe she was making a play for my husband or maybe she assumed he would pay the bill so she would pull off a RAISIN. Or maybe she thought I just wasn't interested in drinking and eating at the restaurant. I don't freakin' know. But needless to say, I wasn't very happy.

                          1. re: Miss Needle

                            Miss Needle,

                            Thanks. Yes, that was the one. Poor Butters. There is a technique to it and South Park got it right. I am serious. The hand is not on top of the shoulder, but at the back, but not all the way back. You don't pad the shoulder, like patting a buddy. You brush it. It was exactly like South Park said. I watched the episode just 1-2 week prior to that, so I almost laughed because of the similarity.

                            I doubt your waitress were trying to pull a raisin on your husband, that trick only works on a lone diner. Maybe because you were giving her too much eye contact, and she mistaken you for being "interested" in her, you know. Honestly, she probably just thought you two are not interested in drinks. Not sure why, but...

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              As a woman, I don't think I've had that technique performed on me. Oh, that's so funny how she did that technique just like on South Park. I've dealt with waiters who try to be charming (kind of like Fabio from Top Chef). No brush on the shoulder but a small touch of the elbow may happen. Doesn't result in a larger tip from me, but I'm sure there are other women who will tip more, especially if he's cute.

                              Funny thing was that she acted like DH was the only person who would be interested in drinking and eating. She kept acting like I didn't exist which is why I tried to make eye contact with her only at that point. It was really strange. Actually, now that I think about it, this isn't the first time something like this happened. DH wears a wedding ring and I don't (I work with my hands a lot and don't like to wear hand jewelry). I joke with him that everybody probably thinks I'm his mistress. Maybe the waitstaff thinks that as well and thinks he's fair game. Or maybe they just assume that the man will make all the decisions for the woman so they will only address him and ignore me. Oh, whatever. Luckily, I would say that 99+% of my server experiences are positive.

                      2. Yes, I can and just did 2 nights ago.

                        Was at a restaurant I've visited three or four times previously because I like the ambiance --' 40s decor & big band swing music, widely separated tables, plus tasty, well-prepared food at fair prices.

                        We took another couple -- had a longish wait for our food, but our food server was attentive during the wait and the four of us had a good chance to chat .. . not a problem.

                        Unfortunately, when the food order arrived -- 4 cold but overcooked NY steaks, not 3 NY + 1 rib eye as ordered, cold veggies, & cold mashed potatoes missing the promised cheddar & bacon.

                        Manager came over to check on us, heard our comments, and said she'd get the food replaced. We deferred because we knew the kitchen had already closed & said we'd come back some other time. She didn't charge us for our food or appetizer, apologized and didn't mention that the chef was not in the kitchen until I inquired what happened to their usual good fare.

                        We tipped the waitress (it wasn't her fault the kitchen failed in its mission) and will give the restaurant a second chance.

                        1. Yep, we do it all the time. We normally tip 20%, but unlike many, I have no qualms about taking the tip down to 10% if the service was bad. It doesn't matter to me how bad the food was, or if things went wrong, or even if the service wasn't all that smooth and professional as long as the server genuinely seemed like he was trying. However, a server who is indifferent, or dismissive, or sullen, or rude will get a lower tip--even if Thomas Keller sent out the food. Luckily, it's rare I encounter waiters who are bad enough to make me actually ding them in the tip department.

                          1. Or the opposite. Good food, good service, but horrible waitress. Back in college frequently went to a local Mexican restaurant. One time we saw our waitress once. She took our order and never appeared again (not the norm or the restaurant). Server/busboy (not a waiter) brought our drinks and food, checked up on us, and found someone to bring us our check. Basically everything that the waitress was suppose to do. After meal was over my friend refused to leave a tip for the waitress and instead found the server/busboy and gave him the tip.

                            2 Replies
                              1. re: viperlush

                                jfood has done that on several occassions and tells the MOD on the way out.

                              2. Interesting question. I guess since the wait person is getting the tip (or are they, I can't remember anymore when the chef and dish washer gets the tip too), I will tip my usual generous tip.

                                If the food is bad, I'll give it another try and then won't go back.

                                If the service is bad and the food is good, I'll give a less than generous tip. If the service is bad the next time, I won't go back.

                                A bigger question: why does an owner hire bad wait persons? I can never understand that.

                                1. The OP poses a question that makes me glad I'm a European and that in many countries tipping is not really expected. And, perhaps more relevently to this particular thread, we have in increasing number of places in the other countries that simply add a discretionary service charge to the bill instead of a traditional tip being expected.

                                  Reason why I'm glad? Well, it's because it's the whole experience that decides whether I've had a good time, not just a single element. So, it's important that the cleaner has cleaned. It's important that the kitchen staff (not just the actual chefs) perform well. It's important that the service is good ("good" as in how I define "good", of course - which may be different form how someone else defines it). Our customs mean that all the staff get rewarded for doing their job.

                                  I look at it like this. One of the things that pisses me off is when there's an inordinate delay between courses. It can spoil an evening (to the extent that I am likely to delete the service charge completely in extreme cases). But I don't know where the fault lies - is it with the server who forgot to put the order in earlier or is it a fault in the kitchen? Was the kitchen overwhelmed with orders - perhaps suggesting that it's management's fault in taking too many booking s for a particular time.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Harters

                                    I look at it this way: Last time I checked stats on the survival rate of restaurants, about 90% fail within the first year; by far the highest rate of failure of any business.

                                    I tip according to the overall experience. It may not be the fault of the server that the food is of below average quality, but it is the responsibility of owners to make sure that the overall experience is good. You send a message, albeit indirectly, when you tip according to the overall experience.

                                    It's kind of a Darwinian process, which is not always pretty. But it does work. If you give NO tip for bad service and nondescript/bad food (appropriate IMHO), then the establishment fails, which is as is should be. If you give a lower tip for bad food but good service, then the server (who is good) seeks employment at an establishment that serves food that is up to the level that is commensurate with their level of service. It's that simple, or should be. Any business is as good as its lowest common denominator (LCD). If that LCD is too low, then the business fails.

                                  2. i guess you've never been a server. the food quality has nothing to do with the serving staff. i always tip based exclusively on service. sometimes you can't tell though if the kitchen is slow or if the server didn't put your order in on time, in that case they tend to lose a little if we wait extra long and they don't make up for it. but otherwise it's based entirely on their service.