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Roadside explores the back road and Main Streets of America. Our recipe for an American renaissance:
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Hot Tips

Originally published in 2007

Recently, a syndicated advice column published letters regarding tipping in restaurants. The range of opinion stretched from the stingy (“I tip 10% – period”) to the sanctimonious (“Restaurant owners should pay a living wage.”). The issue continues to rage in and around the industry, particularly as our economy shifts further and further into services over manufacturing. Like you, I work hard for my money, and I don’t make it a practice to spend it foolishly or needlessly. But when it comes to tipping my waitress, I have a philosophy that revolves around a basic truth: I’m trusting a stranger making $2.10 per hour to handle something I’ll put in my body. Why, then, would I want them to think I’m a jerk?

Sure, some might see this as bowing to an implied threat, but reality tells me that we have this custom of tipping servers, and those who wait tables reasonably expect a little extra generosity on your part. This system endures because it does the best job of properly rewarding the quality of someone’s effort.

Then, there’s the penny tip, bestowed to leave no doubt that, yes, I remembered to tip, and sorry, you just proved that you have no future in this business.

Typically, I tip somewhere between 15 and 20 percent for good, competent service. Like it or not, our society expects this. Exceptional service deserves even better. If my check comes to less than two dollars, I often leave as much as a 50 percent tip, because my server often works just as hard to bring me a cup of coffee with refills as she does to deliver a full turkey dinner.

A tightwad tipper shouldn’t expect more than perfunctory service, and should feel lucky to get even that. You cannot expect your server to turn on the charm for less than minimum wage. Your parsimonious proclivities will only discourage the effort to perform above and beyond the call of duty and, though I hate to say it, may also incur a server’s mischievous wrath. I’d never condone the deliberate contamination of meals, but let’s face it – it happens. If you’re a jerk, it’s more likely to happen to you.

That said, I don’t suffer incompetence gladly. Repeated disregard of simple requests, failure to acknowledge my arrival within a reasonable period, or a palpable disdain for the basic rules of hospitality as indicated by a sour attitude, listlessness, or unprofessional behavior will surely temper my generosity.

Then, there’s the penny tip, bestowed to leave no doubt that, yes, I remembered to tip, and sorry, you just proved that you have no future in this business. I’ve left a penny tip twice in 20 years. Once after being told that my water wasn’t as important as someone else’s order, and again when I waited for better than a half hour for my waitress to peel herself off her boyfriend to bring my check or refill my coffee, but thankfully not to save me from choking. On the back of that check, I wrote: “When it comes to waitressing, you’ll make a fine hairdresser.”

On the ever-entertaining BitterWaitress.com website, someone was making a case against the punitive tip, because many of the better restaurants in New York City pool tips. Thus a bad tip hurts the whole staff. Further, she urged anyone experiencing bad service to take the matter to the management, while still leaving a full 20 percent. Sorry, but when I go out for a nice dinner, I’d rather not invite the manager to the party. If your coworker costs you money, then you need to fix the problem.

In my experience, however, I’ve mostly had the pleasure of receiving service performed by hardworking and friendly professionals who earn every cent they make. My appreciation for their efforts extends even deeper when I remember that the person taking my order, setting my table, pouring my coffee, bringing my meal, and generally making me feel welcome, may also support a family, pay for school, or be saving to buy a restaurant of his or her own. Suddenly, 15 percent makes for one smart investment in the future. That’s a hot tip by any measure.

The Countertop