By Thomas P. Farley, What Manners Most
We’ve all been there. After a fun night out for dinner with friends, the check is being passed around. Wallets and purses are pulled out, cash is piled high and some lucky winner gets to tally the proceeds and verify that there is enough to pay for the meal and tip the wait staff. Hold your breath.
As a New Yorker, I eat out a lot, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve encountered a scenario where the table had so much money left over that the group needed to vote on whether to give the servers a whopping tip or to divvy the overage among the group. More typically, the kitty winds up short, because one or two friends have arbitrarily decided that they didn’t appreciate the service and don’t want to contribute to the tip. Then there’s the person who had to leave the event early and gave his seatmate a fistful of bills with the pronouncement: “This oughta cover me.” (Of course, it didn’t.) Still others have simply forgotten to add the cost of their appetizers. Or maybe they’ve just forgotten how to add. “We’re about thirty dollars short,” says the unofficial accountant. Alas, some of your friends are already at the door. Others are in the bathroom. Consequently, the accountant and anyone who pities her take up an impromptu collection to remedy the shortfall. Crisis averted. Sort of.
I get a lot of questions about the best ways to avoid these awkward end-of-evening situations. Here’s a sampling of the queries I’ve gotten and the advice I’ve offered.
Q. As a rule, is it always best to divide the check equally no matter what?
A. This is a good strategy in many scenarios, but even-steven should not be your fate if you’ve merely joined a group for coffee and dessert after their long, pricey dinner. Likewise, if one member of the party decides it’s time to order a bottle of Château Lafite for him and the missus, that is their luxury, not yours.
Q. Are there things I should bear in mind when I’m settling my tab in a group?
A. Absolutely. No one likes a cheapskate, and if you’re always the one whipping out the calculator to figure out your own share to the last decimal, you’ll soon find that you’re no longer invited along. If you eat out with the same corps of people on a regular basis, over time, group-split scenarios should even out. In other words, you’ll occasionally overpay for what you ate and underpay at other times. If you find that you are consistently forking over for far more than you ate, it may be time to start ordering an extra appetizer every now and then. On the other hand, if you’re the one wearing the stained lobster bib amid a table of comrades who ate nothing more than split-pea soup, you should insist on kicking in some extra to cover the cost of your expensive entrée.
Q. Are separate checks gauche?
A. The answer to this is regionally specific and will often be based on the sort of establishment you’ve chosen. (In a diner, probably not. In a Michelin-star restaurant, most definitely yes.) When you are in your home area, make it a point to know what the local customs are. If you are a visitor in a new place and don’t know the rules, presume that separate checks are not advised until a local indicates otherwise.
Q. If I’m out for dinner with a group and we’re treating someone else for a special occasion, do I bear some responsibility for kicking in for the “overall experience” even if I haven’t ordered very much?
A. Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean others should start ordering sevruga caviar for the table just because they think it enhances the spirit of the occasion. Big-ticket food lovers should rein in their spendy ordering habits when they’re in the presence of friends who are on a strict budget. On the flip side, misers who cringe at the mere mention of a wine list need to come to terms with the fact that social gatherings like this are celebrations and not the time to riddle the rest of the group with guilt for enjoying themselves. If you and your pocketbook can’t handle that reality, you might be best off declining the invite.
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