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Carlton: A little something for you — the charm of old-school restaurant tipping

On the subject of how much to tip in restaurants, the world divides in two.

You have diners who have never worked for tips, a varied group that can range from leavers of insulting pocket change to respectable 15 to 20 percenters to lavish overtippers. In the mix can also be stiffers, those leavers of not one thin dime in the name of bad service real or imagined, and may their Bloomin' Onion disagree with them all the way home for that.

Then there are those who have worked for tips themselves and who, according to my in-depth research and previous personal experience in a guacamole-smeared apron, tend to overtip. And Do. Not. Stiff.

"If the service is really, really bad, they get 15 percent," says April Griffin, who was serving Sonny's ribs and Bennigan's cheese sticks long before she was elected to the Hillsborough County School Board. "In good or outstanding service, it's 20 or above."

And when Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, who spent youthful summers waiting tables at the Sagamore Hotel in Bolton Landing, N.Y., gets bad service? "I'll tell them what they did wrong," he says "But I'd never stiff them."

Oh, how the world is changing when it comes to tipping. As Times food critic Laura Reiley recently reported, technology that has you deciding your tip in plain view of your server, upping of the minimum wage and evolving attitudes all contribute. And there's a move afoot in some corners to improve server pay and get rid of tipping.

How I dislike this idea — and not just because I don't believe businesses will be able to compensate servers the way tips can.

When you wait tables, you are motivated by knowing that the more you put into it, the more you make — generally speaking, and serial stiffers notwithstanding. Lackluster service, more lackluster tips. "I was a good server because I liked money," says Griffin, "I liked paying my bills."

A basic tip is part of the price of going out, part of the deal. But I understand our confusion. We get nickel-and-dimed everywhere we go. Even in the grocery line, the nice lady at the register makes you feel like Snidely Whiplash if you won't add a little something for the cause du jour.

At a restaurant, if you order for yourself on a computer tablet but someone brings your plate, do you tip? Wait, how much? If you stand in line for your bagel, are you obligated to stuff a little something-something in that jar?

Yes! Yes! says the waitress I once was. But seriously, shouldn't practicality, relativity and conscience be our guide?

Here is a story about tipping: Last month, before my father-in-law unexpectedly passed away, he and I had a nice lunch at an Italian place. The service was great and as always, he palmed the check. The bill was about $30 and I saw he scrawled on an additional $10. When I raised an eyebrow, he just said, "Christmas tip."

Lately, when I am deciding whether to round up, I think: Big John tip.

I say keep the time-honored tradition of tipping. Keep the yin and the yang of the server who, when asked what he recommends, does not go straight to the priciest dish but one he clearly has tried himself, who keeps the iced tea filled, and the customer who lays down appreciative bills accordingly.

I ask council member Miranda about the biggest tip he ever dropped himself. A hundred dollars or so, he tells me.

Wow. Because the service was so great?

"No," he says, "because the bill was high as hell." Proving that with the best ones you get dinner and a show.

Sue Carlton can be reached at

Carlton: A little something for you — the charm of old-school restaurant tipping 01/08/16 [Last modified: Friday, January 8, 2016 6:39pm]
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