Courtesy of the Bon Appetit Foodist down at Yahoo:
Dear BA Foodist,
Can you set me straight on tipping? I was once told that 20 percent is for great service, 15 percent for bad. Unless a waiter's gone overboard, I'm an 18 percenter, but I was recently accused of being stingy. Am I wrong, or wasn't 10 percent considered fair not too long ago? Give me a tip I can use. --TIPPER G., Albuquerque
Dear Tipper G.,
Ah, the great tipping conundrum. You are not alone. At a meal's end, I often find myself staring at the blank lines of a credit-card receipt, concerned that the effects of too much wine and food will impair my basic algebra skills. (That's what a spouse is for: making sure it all adds up correctly.) Still, I think I can help.
The Foodist waited tables many years ago at a small, well-regarded spot in Brooklyn. (Incidentally, one evening he waited on a major food critic who later gave the restaurant a one-star review. The critic liked the food but described the service as "friendly but very slow and fumbling." Oh, well: If you can't serve 'em, join 'em.) Waiting tables is a job everyone should be forced to do at least once, if only to learn that it's not okay to snap your fingers when you want something, and also to find out what it's like to eke out a living on tips.
It's disappointing to receive anything less than 20 percent of the total bill. Most waiters at today's better restaurants expect that much for average service, and even more if they do it with a smile. So unless you're planning never to go to the same restaurant twice, the days of 10 percent tips--and even 15 percent tips--are long gone.
The BA Foodist's Tipping Rules
RULE NO. 1: Unless the server is rude, condescending, and/or completely absent, tip between 18 and 20 percent.
RULE NO. 2: Never tip on tax. Tip based on the subtotal. And if you're calculating your tip simply by doubling the tax, stop it--you're being cheap.
RULE NO. 3: Unless you drink like Dean Martin or have a taste for expensive wines (i.e., $40 or more, depending on your budget), it's best to include booze when calculating a tip. Bartenders expect a dollar tip per drink (which is usually about 20 percent of the drink's price), and it's no different with waiters.
RULE NO. 4: Never turn a blind eye when others are tipping--especially if they're unfamiliar with our tipping culture (i.e., Europeans). If you think your tablemate is lowballing the service, it's best to hand the waiter a few bills on the way out.
RULE NO. 5: If a few dollars here and there really matter that much to your bank account, perhaps you shouldn't be going out to eat in the first place.