OK, so Foodie and Jack have dueling blog posts about the minefield that is tipping in America. On one hand you have Jack who would be happy if you tipped at 150% of what you ordered after having multiple items disapear from the check and on the other you have Foodie who would thinks it's all a racket and will have every dollar pried from his cold, dead hand. Tiny exageration, but then you have the prevailing notion provided a while back by a local 'artiste' who said waiting tables was a job that could be done by monkeys. Of course this is the same guy who longs to return to an earlier era of civility and priviledge so he could live a life of cultured leisure provided by the sweat of others.
Sad but true. There are a lot of people out there that think waiting tables, or tending bar, is a job that could be done by our simian cousins. Actually, if a waiter has done his or her job right it should seem that way. You shouldn't be aware of all the work and chaos that has to occur to get that drink and plate of food to your table. It should all be seamless.
You'll never know about the arrival 2-3 hours before opening to polish silver and glass ware. To fill the sugar caddies and salt and pepper shakers. Coffee stations set up and ice tea brewed. A couple hundred napkins must be folded for various purposes, lemons cut for fish and menus checked for stains. In some places the front of house staff is required to double as prep cooks. Cutting veg, soup and salad stations and the joy that is raw bar. Live lobsters unpacked or garlic butter made. All for an amazing federally mandated wage of 2/3 of minimum. Except that was 2/3 back in the early 80's. As the minimum wage has increased restaurants have gotten exclusion waivers and the wage has remained at $2.13. As the cost of Latin American immigrants has gone up many of their duties have been foisted off on the lowest paid people on staff, the waiters.
I've heard often how people wish they worked in a restaurant so they could eat the wonderful food everyday. Bullshit. The staff is fed whatever is left over from a special that has been running for the better part of a week or 'bribe food' provided gratis by food suppliers vying for the chefs business. More likely you get a plate of frozen prepared chicken wings, pasta with a sauce that expired yesterday, or a 'stew' of tough meat that has been marinated in vinegar to cover the flavour it acquired after being forgotten in the back of the walk-in. For his trouble the owner pockets a $10 deduction per staff member.
Note - I have worked in a couple of family restaurants where, while we did not eat food from the menu, we actually ate exceptionally good and interesting food.
You won't know the careful dance that is played with the dingbat hostess so the waiter get's a fair share of decent tables and doesn't sit empty till the height of the rush when she 'remembers' you exist and seats your entire station at once leaving you spinning in circles.
You'll miss the fun of trying to get to the crowded bar and get the bartenders attention to get your cocktails (that you've ordered one at a time because it's too much trouble for everyone at the table to make a decision at once). No offense to Jack, but if it's busy the bartender makes more off the customers at the bar then the herd of waiters clamoring between the brass rails. The smart waiters bribe the bartenders not with cash but pilfered food. Since a bartender often misses or has to rush through the daily 'meal' to take care of the early birds they tend to appreciate this.
With drinks in hand you will now interrogate the waiter on the details of the menu. A good waiter will know how each sauce is made, all the details of each plate. A mediocre one will at least be able to bluff. And while every waiter can be stumped on a detail they will at least try to make you feel like that is an important question that must be answered.
Once you have placed your order, with all the dish changes and substitutions, you will never know what is about to happen to your poor server. For some odd reason the chefs will always think that all these changes to their dishes were made, not at the request of the diner, but at the waiters behest. You will never know the string of obscenities and insults hurled at the waiter so that you can have something that isn't even remotely on the menu. That's OK, that what the waiter is for.
If at anytime during the meal something does go wrong you should never know about the waiter begging the dessert chef for something under the table for you or trying to get the manager, who is more interested in hitting on the 18-year-old hostess, to at least get involved and make things right.
You should never know any of these things. You are there for dinner. The waiter is there to make that a relaxing and comfortable evening. And when you are gone you won't know about the extra hour or two cleaning up the messes left behind so that the place will be ready for another day.
For all this, and more, you leave them a tip. Please don't think, however, that they keep all of it. If you leave a tip by credit card the house may keep up to 5% of the tip, or even more, to cover credit card costs (even though it's less then 2%). Food runners, bus boys, bartenders, bar backs, even the occasional manager takes a share of that tip. If you leave a substandard tip who do think has their tip cut? The waiter. Everyone gets their share regardless. It is actually possible for a waiter to lose money on a table - not a happy prospect. Then there are the state and federal governments. They base your income estimate based on sales percentages. Got stiffed? Tough titty. You still get to pay taxes on the table.
So, how do I tip. I start at 20% and work from there. Somebody order ice tea and asked for lots of refills? That's worth more than 20% of 2 bucks so I'll add to the tip. Special requests or making the waiter run back and forth? Couple of more bucks. Waiter standing around chatting when I've got hot food but no silver? Subtract a couple. Rarely have I tipped less than 15% and I've only stiffed two waiters in my life. Usually it comes out to more than 20% and I don't subtract for the sales tax. That's just chintzy and I assume that part is going to all the support staff. Hey, I've even given Jack a bad tip and he gave me a free drink. Of course I was low on cash, told him I owed him a drink or two and provide him with a free book every now and then.
In Europe waiters make a living wage, and have benefits. People tip but the waiters do not rely on that to live. Could that work here? I doubt it. The current system is too entrenched and the odds of the owners paying professional waiters their worth is slim. RVA Foodie may hate pretentious waiters but I can only imagine his reaction to dropping a couple of bills in a nice eatery while being served by an ex-McDonald's counter girl who is snapping her gum and rolling her eyes.
I loved waiting tables. It was controlled chaos at it's best and my job was to ensure that you were blissfully unaware of all the work, politics, and just plain bullshit that went on to provide you with a nice an relaxing meal. I think everyone should be required to work a year in a restaurant - preferably one in a tourist resort - before they are allowed to eat in them. Sure, some aspects of the job a monkey or even Meade could do, but you really wouldn't like the result.