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Fighting over who pays the bill

I just experienced a situation and would like CHers’ feedback.

My cousins were visiting from abroad. For their last night in Toronto, we went out to a very elegant restaurant. My SO and I arrived first – I told our waiter and the maitre d’ that we wanted to pay for the dinner and that they should not allow our guests to pay. All good, but towards the end of the dinner my cousin excused himself and went and paid. I didn’t say anything but was quite upset with our waiter as I felt we had an understanding with the restaurant over who would pay.

What can I do next time to ensure this doesn’t happen? Is it worthwhile contacting the owner of the restaurant to discuss their policy? I do realize it sometimes puts the waiter in an untenable position.

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  1. Gosh, I wish I have to worry about something like this..most of my family members always try to avoid paying anything.
    Consider yourself lucky.

    I don't think it's worth contacting the restaurant. Just be greatful and send your cousin a nice package of chocolate or something.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Monica

      <<I wish I have to worry about something like this..most of my family members always try to avoid paying anything.>>

      That comment made me laugh! Thanks, I needed that.

      A few times, I can safely say "been there, done that."

      Just love it, when the entire family heads to the restroom, the second that the bill arrives - even if I had every intention of paying it. Sort of funny to observe.


      1. re: Bill Hunt

        I am SO lucky, usually when someone heads to the bathroom after a meal, it is to secretly pay the bill. Thanks!

    2. As you say, its very awkward for the restaurant staff in this type of situation. I think you should just let it go and send your cousin a thank you note.

      1. Your job is to smile and say thank you. I understand that, in some cultures, hosting can become competitive, and I suspect there was some of this going on. My advice comes from a culture where that's not supposed to happen, but where the role of someone who receives a gift is to express gratitude and suppress other less gracious alternatives.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Karl S

          Good point - like when someone compliments you on something - "thank you" is always (IMHO) the correct response. Much better than "this old thing?" or similar.

          I never fight over a bill, though usually do try to work the details out with the head server, beforehand. When someone bests me, regarding the bill, then a very heartfelt "thank you" is my favorite recourse.

          I might put the "stinkeye" on the server, but then will tell them that all is OK, but next time...


        2. I think the only thing to do to make sure it doesn't happen again is to tell your guests directly in advance that it's your treat and that you'll be paying. It's nice to mention in advance b/c then there's no discussion when the bill is at the table, and it avoids putting the waiter in the position of having to figure out competing guest demands.

          7 Replies
          1. re: Cachetes

            I prefer not to tell guests in advance that I am paying, because it may make them uncomfortable and only order cheap stuff. I want my guests to feast on the best!
            During the meal, I find a stealthy opportunity to make it very clear to the server that I alone am paying.

            1. re: Veggo

              Interesting. Because when someone tells me they are paying, it always has the opposite effect on me...

              (You make a good point. When we do this, it is typically with friends who we do a lot of back and forth with, so I think it's less of an issue.)

              1. re: Cachetes

                In some cases, I have observed exactly what you refer to. Once, while hosting some family members at a higher-end restaurant. One in-law was talking about some rather "middle-of-the-road" main courses. I mentioned that I would be paying, and suddenly she ordered a "double" of the Prime Rib @ US $65 per course. OK, I left myself open for that, and it was no big deal. Now, I think that I poured her smaller portions of the Bdx. that I had for the mostly beef mains, but that is life. I guess that she could have ordered 4 8 lb. Live Maine Lobsters, so I got off easy.


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  I was kidding, so that's a pretty funny story about your in-law! Now that I think about it, my sister is the one most likely to host something swanky in our family (her financial situation most allows it), and there are those who see that as an opportunity to enjoy themselves in a way they never would if they were footing the bill. It's not as blatant as your example, but it's there.

                  1. re: Cachetes

                    I understand completely. I can afford much more, than most of our families, and love to host. I also enjoy introducing many to wines that I have had the opportunity to enjoy, and try to make sure that the entire bill comes to me. I have allowed the meals to be split, but the wines have always been "on me." To date, I think that all have enjoyed.

                    Once, my youngest nephew allowed, "My mom comments on how you whip out your American Express card, but then we all really enjoy your wines." That meant a lot, though he was only about 13 at the time. I am sure that the "wine police" will be at my door, in the AM, but so be it.

                    To me, life should be about enjoyment. I'd much rather pick up the tab for a nice meal, and wonderful wines, than spend those same $'s, drinking my great wines, by myself - they never taste so good, as when they are shared. The enjoyment, around the table is all the "payment," that I need.


                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      We've gotten to a point in our lives where "making memories" is much more enjoyable than buying "more stuff" (a la George Carlin's routine). So, paying for a wonderful meal and drinks for a beloved group is a pleasure, and we're thankful we have the opportunity & blessed enough to do so.

              2. re: Veggo


                As usual, a good point.

                One of the things that I appreciate about planning on paying, is that I can then order what I want, without any reservations (not the kind that you secure on OpenTable).

                We often host some groups, where my wife will be paying the bill. She has some constraints on her expense account, and I always honor those. When I want special wines for our table, I work out the arrangements with my head server - the wine bill will be separate, and come directly to me. Then, I get exactly what I want, and no one needs to worry - just enjoy. [Just wish that some of her doctors would act the same way, instead of ordering a 12 year vertical of DRC's! However, that is between her, and them.]


            2. Thank your cousins and tell them next time you go out, its on them again! LOL.

              Seriously though, tell them the next one is on you.

              1. When I've run into this, it is usally when I'm trying to take my Dad out. The solution has been to either contact the restaurant in advnace, or the wiater first thing and explain what I'm doing. Give them a credit card at that time and tell them to add 20% to what ever the tab comes to. That way when my Dad trys to pay, they can say it has already been taken care of.

                1 Reply
                1. re: mike0989

                  Usually, that works fine, but I have encountered some devious guests. I only hope that they also tip as well as I do - since they (the servers) were complicit in the "end-run" with my guest.


                2. I don't think that it's worth doing anything now, but I do think that the waiter mishandled this. I've been in this situation before and the waiter politely stated that sorry, the tab has already been paid for by the host.

                  Perhaps in the future you can be more bold and say something along the lines of "our guests may try to pay but we insist they do not."

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: ludmilasdaughter

                    I don't agree. You can't just tell the waiter you WANT to pay and put him in the middle of it; to avoid confusion you GIVE them your credit card in advance. Very simple. A couple of posters below mentioned doing this, that's the way I do it too and never had a problem. Usually I finalize payment en route to restroom.

                    1. re: Niblet

                      Handing the waiter your credit card in advance with instructions to tell anyone else that the bill was already paid in advance may have worked.
                      In any case I would not fault the waiter. They do their best to be diplomats.

                      1. re: Niblet

                        <<to avoid confusion you GIVE them your credit card in advance.>>

                        Last time that I did that, my server disappeared, and headed to Cancun with my Platinum AMEX card... Had to use a different credit card.


                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          In some of these family situation I might want to head to Cancun with the server!!!

                          1. re: Motosport

                            With MY AMEX card?!?!?!

                            You cad... [Grin]


                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              AMEX = Unlimited credit limit (In your case of course) Meet you in Rio!!

                              1. re: Motosport

                                Instead of Rio, let's do Monaco, instead?


                                  1. re: Motosport

                                    Could be a trap! Check out the lyrics to "Have Some Madeira, M'dear"....

                    2. The question wasn't what do I do with my cousins - it's what about the restaurant? And I certainly would speak with the restaurant. At the very least, you can get some explanation for what happened. When I was in (non-restaurant) management, it's the sort of thing I would have wanted to know about. I think your angle of "I'm not angry, I just want to avoid this in the future if I come back to your establishment" is the way to go.

                      And as a side note - would it be possible that a waiter would do this if the second person trying to get the check gave him a cash gratuity on top of the tip or service charge?

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: lemons

                        Now that we are in the age of modern technology--POS, just having told the server and Maitre D that OP wanted to pay isn't sufficient.
                        The out of town guest didn't need to ask the server for the check from the server's pad. He could ask any employee near a register to bring up the check, saying he wanted to treat and pay the bill. The restaurant Maitre D and server may have acted honorably, while another employee thought he/she was helping a diner do a nice thing.

                        I don't know if the particular POS software allows a flag that tells an employee either, this check is paid, or accept no payment without seeing Maitre D X first. It's too much to expect that a restaurant guarranty not to take money being offered to pay a check. The OP might prepay in the future.

                        1. re: lemons

                          Thanks Lemons - that's exactly the issue. I had told my cousin it's "our treat" and had made it clear (I thought) to the waiter and the maître d' that he might try to pay but under no circumstances was he allowed to do so as we were the hosts. Perhaps I should have left my credit card with them from the very start? I wonder how business people take care of this?

                          With regards to your last paragraph, I hadn't thought about that.... I hope that wasn't the case.

                          1. re: BlueGoo

                            I had one last month - I gave my server my AmEx card before I sat down, and we agreed to exchange winks when I was ready for her to tally up the bill. It worked perfectly. My guest who ALWAYS tries to pay, never had a chance.
                            Bill Hunt did the same to me once in Scottsdale. But be wary of delucacheesemonger, he has a credit card rope-a-dope that he always wins!

                            1. re: Veggo

                              Hey, how do you come off being the "victim" here? I am the all time freeloader, so count yourself as a "lucky dude!"

                              When I do get the "end-run" from a guest, I assume that their "wink," or their "nod," was just better than mine...

                              We were hoping to meet up with Delucacheesemonger, but plans changed too quickly to accommodate - I had visions of dining in Paris with him. Just did not pan out, and I am sorry. Better luck to us all, next time, and thanks for the warning.


                              1. re: Veggo

                                Thanks for the great story. Your posts are quite often amusing, but this one is exceptional.

                                  1. re: Veggo

                                    Yeah, let's see you try to pay in Phoenix. You do not stand a chance.


                              2. re: BlueGoo

                                We've given them the credit card to hold as well, and that has worked. I really don't know how it is at the other end. I think it is okay to call the manager and tell him/her that you want to figure out what exactly is the right thing to do so that it is successful next time. I would just make sure the manager understands that you are not complaining (some manage that well, but others are so busy defending that they don't "hear" what you are really trying to find out).

                                1. re: boltnut55

                                  In a very few instances, I have had MY card handed back to me, with a sheepish smile - someone pulled rank, and I just get over it - though do plot to "get even" next time. Such is life, and I would never make a deal of it - "sometimes, the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't." [Chief Dan George]


                              3. re: lemons

                                Yeah, maybe draw and quarter all the servers involved. Or, perhaps firing them all, and withholding all tips from that night would be in order?

                                Let's just say that some folk are more persuasive, than are some others. While I feel that I have a very commanding presence, I have had some guests, who managed to use their guile, to get the bill away from me.

                                At the end of the day, it is not something that would totally ruin it for me. Stuff happens, and if a guest manages to get the better of me, I just swear to make them pay, later on - maybe with a great Burgundy next time?


                              4. I really can't see any reason to contact the restaurant, because your cousin undermined your intentions?

                                Just leave it be and be thankful you have great cousins.

                                1. Your cousin put the waiter in a pickle and he probably did what he thought was best.
                                  As several others suggested, send s nice thank you to your cousin.
                                  My cheap &^%*$(*^&) in laws have gotten so used to "the bank of dad" taking care of family meals that they never go for their wallets. It took a while for my very generous father in law to accept my generosity at dinner. The rest of the well off deadbeats never go for their wallets. Go figure?

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Motosport

                                    Been there - done that, and understand completely. OTOH, I am not sure that I would have it any other way. I am always glad to share, and try to do so, with few reservations. However, a "thank you" would be appreciated.


                                  2. A credit card in advance might have helped...its the old bird in the hand thing...

                                    I don't know what you should have done, but I know what you SHOULDN'T do: fight over the bill publicly. Once someone has paid, smile and thank them and insist that the next one is on you. Send some nice flowers the next day if you feel really guilty. But don't make a scene there...especially if there are other family members or children present. My cousin and I ate out several times recently in situations where there was a question about who would pay (I was playing "host" since he was from out of town, but otoh his wife was there on business and was entitled to have at least her meal reimbursed). We started to bicker a bit, and then we looked at each other and remembered the sometimes loud and embarrassing "discussions" our own fathers (who were brothers-in-law) would have over checks with our grandfather.....Every family dinner out was bound to end with such an argument...and it WAS embarrassing for those of us sitting on the sidelines. So save your family some future embarrassing memories, ok?

                                    Also, I think its important that if you plan on paying, that you do let your guests know. You can joke about it if you wish "It's one me and I just got a big bonus at work; let's see what we can do to spend it!" But you can't fault your cousin for wanting to be nice. And he might well have gone to pay the bill to avoid the type of scene mentioned above. Not too long ago my husband and I were having lunch out with a large group of his relatives in Florida. They had been terrific hosts: they had treated us to many delicious home-cooked meals and we were staying gratis in the best room of the beachfront motel they own.....but we knew they would try to pay for the meal out as well. So I did the "I have to go to the restroom" trick and stopped to pay the bill on the way there. I knew it was the only way I would be allowed to even see the bill. Of course, this was a spontaneous lunch in a pizzeria after a day of shopping...so it isn't like our hosts had made an agreement with the restaurant in advance....

                                    1. A little more info: Of course we thanked our guests graciously for paying and would never think about making a scene at the table!

                                      Thanks, everyone, for your responses; I know it's a nice "problem" to have. But we really did want to treat our guests and were disappointed when, despite our best intentions and efforts, were not allowed to do so.

                                      I still feel that the restaurant reneged on our verbal agreement to take care of the bill and should have told our guests when pressed, We're sorry, we cannot accept payment from you (or something similar).

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: BlueGoo

                                        Your cousin could have told them a lie that made is plausible for them to reverse course. The last word is the last word, as it were. I would hesitate to ascribe blame to the restaurant here if you did not observe the conversation directly. Competitive hosts can be sly. (Personally, I find it makes for more trouble than pleasure.)

                                        1. re: BlueGoo


                                          It happens to the best of us.

                                          I would not hold the server(s), or the restaurant responsible. Yes, you had plans, but they did not come to fruition. That is life sometimes.

                                          I have been in your exact position, and just get over it - then, I "get even" with those guests/family members later on.


                                          1. re: BlueGoo

                                            But wait... if you're from my culture, you're supposed to make a really big loud scene! :D Even if you don't really want to pay!

                                            1. re: BlueGoo

                                              what restaurant was this at?

                                              i think it depends on type / style of restaurant you were at. i tried to think how we would have dealt with this problem and think its possible we could have failed in a similar situation. i think that even if we trained staff to be aware of such issues we still couldnt guaranty success. and to that, then thought is it our problem? is this an expected service of a restaurant? and to those decided: no. so while we may try with good intention if ask, if someone is sneaky enough we could fail and yet we would not fault our servers.

                                              but if i were running a "very elegant" establishment that it may be an expected service. and can be dealt with like say an allergy (they wouldnt likely mess that up).

                                              im not even sure i know a restaurant that trains staff and would have a policy about this. kudos to ones that do.

                                              if i wanted to win the bill, i agree with previous replies to leave a card, and set a high enough tip that the server will do their due diligence to protect that tip and not entertain another bid. but what if my guests offer to outbid? id expect a server to accept it, unless i was a regular customer at that establishment as they would be risking losing all my future business. and to that point, if im a regular patron of an "elegant restaurant" id expect them to honour my request, regardless of tip, and would definitely have a talk with management if they failed.

                                              how would people feel about an autogratuity on such requests? we wouldnt even consider this. but if its an expected service, then its possible there should be an expected price for it. would this be a written policy on a menu? on a website? what is a fair price to both patron and establishment?

                                              also, most POS systems require either the owning server or a manager to be able print/close a particular tables bill.

                                              - khao san road

                                            2. I think you should have handed the server your card when you said you wanted to pay the bill.

                                              1. I feel bad for the server who is put in an uncomfortable position, but ultimately, I think a restaurant should defer to whomever made the reservation. Though in cases like this, I always give my credit card in advance.

                                                1. I can guess what probably happened. Your cousins wanted to repay you for your hospitality in showing them around Toronto and perhaps having them stay in your home, so they told the waiter this. He figured their claim trumped yours and let them pay.

                                                  I wouldn't contact the restaurant about what is really just an affront to your pride, not a flaw in their policy. Next time, if you really want to pay discreetly, give the waiter your credit card up front. For now, just send a thank you note to your cousins.

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: Isolda

                                                    <<and perhaps having them stay in your home>>

                                                    Plus drinking all of your 60 year old Macallan Scotch Whiskey, when you were down by the pool...


                                                  2. I have been is very similar situations. Usually, my instructions are completely honored, but have experienced a few "end-runs" by my guests. I protest to them, but never to the management. I feel that if a guest is so predisposed, and they are quicker, than I am, regardless of the instructions, so be it.

                                                    Just my way of thinking,


                                                    1. Is your cousin Chinese?

                                                      1. Ha!
                                                        Never have fought for the bill since I love when someone else picks up the tab.

                                                        Our business partners will sometimes pick up the tab at fancy pants places but they've learned through the years that when I know ahead of time its their dime, I'm getting couple dozen oysters, the wine list is being utilized to the max and I'm ordering like its my last meal.
                                                        Now, they don't tell me nothing and I have to weasel the wife ahead of time to see if she'll spill the beans..
                                                        Gotta love good friends.

                                                        1. Hah. I reckon the OP finds her/himself in a fortunate position.

                                                          Whenever I dine with family members, they keep their hands very firmly in their pockets when it comes time to pay up. They seem to have an expectation that we will pay which, of course, we then do.