Restaurant Manners and Tipping, Vol. 18, Issue 16

Dear Etiquetteer:

I eat out regularly at a local restaurant, and over the years have gotten to know some of the servers. A few nights ago I got seated in a section empty except for a large group of eight or ten. After they left, I heard my server complaining to someone else about how cheap they were. She was upset, and I was embarrassed. They weren’t thinking that anyone could hear them.

You hear stories all the time on server blogs about patrons who stiff servers. I wanted to find out more, and maybe make up the difference since I’m there so much. Maybe they hadn’t left anything for a tip at all. So when she brought my check, I asked if they’d stiffed her. She told me what their bill was, and what they’d left for a tip. It was actually 15%. I know a lot of servers think 20% is right, but I think 15% is reasonable. I didn’t share that opinion, but I didn’t try to make up the difference in the tip I left (though this time I left more than 15%).

So here’s my dilemma, Etiquetteer. Should I mention to the manager that I overheard all that complaining? I was the only customer in my section, but not in the restaurant, and I don’t want the place to get a bad rep because the staff can be heard complaining about the customers. I also don’t want to get in bad with the staff. What’s a discreet guy to do? Thanks for your advice.

Dear Dining:

Let it lie. You’ve already identified yourself as a player in the story by drawing out your waitress*, so even if you say something to the manager, somebody will put two and two together and ID you as the Complaining Customer. And that won’t do you any good if you plan to continue going there.

Customer service can be a thankless profession, whether it’s in a restaurant, a beauty salon, a drug store, or driving a bus. it helps to be able to let off steam with co-workers. But it needs to be done in a place that is completely isolated from the customers. It’s good for management to remind staff that they need to be in a Safe Space before Sounding Off. But you’re no longer in a position where you can comment on that and remain anonymous.

The other issue you bring up but don’t ask about is the size of the tip left, and it’s a hornet’s nest of disagreement. Servers and other members of the restaurant industry advocate (with varying degrees of vehemence) for a 20% standard tip. (This piece at Eater is a good one.) In the past etiquette writers have pointed out that a tip is a percentage of the bill in order to keep pace with inflation; they suggest that raising the percentage is, therefore, not appropriate. So Etiquetteer did some research in 20th-century etiquette books to find out How Things Used to Be.

In Emily Post’s original 1922 edition of Etiquette, tipping in restaurants doesn’t even come up (though there is an unexpected entry in the index for tipping on steamboats). By the 1950 edition, Mrs. Post specified that a waiter was tipped 10-15% of the bill. Esquire Etiquette of 1953 indicates that 15% is correct. Letitia Baldrige reaffirmed the 15% tip in her reissue of New Manners for New Times in 2003.

The most interesting tidbits on this controversial topic come from the 1982 edition of Miss Manners‘ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. A reader commented point blank on the increase in percentage from 10% to 15-20%. Her reply made it clear she didn’t think much of the increase. Later in the chapter she acknowledged that the standard tip had now become 15%. But it seems that almost 40 years ago the biggest restaurant issue was the refusal of restaurants to issue separate checks. In the 21st century, the customers have clearly won that battle.

So, in the last 65 years we’ve seen the practice of a standard restaurant tip increase from 10% to 15-20%. The Emily Post Institute currently recommends a base tip of 15-20%, and Etiquetteer seconds that recommendation. Will the next generation of diners be tipping 35-40% after the next 65 years? Etiquetteer will not be here to know!

In the meantime, Etiquetteer would encourage you to err on the side of leaving a larger rather than a smaller tip. Bon appétit!


*Etiquetteer admits to disliking the term “server” and much prefers the original “waiter” and “waitress” for those who wait at table. While gender neutral language is more usual these days, the term “server” suggests something mechanical and robotic. “Waiter” and “waitress” at least acknowledge our common humanity.