It's an interesting thing, really. The act of handing extra cash to a server allows restaurants to cut payroll costs, which in turn holds food costs a tad lower (sometimes) and encourages us to expect a certain level of servility. "I only have to pay $2.13 an hour," says Daniele Puleo, chef-owner of Daniele Osteria--or our editor, we forget which--"the customers pay the waitstaff." Popular standards call for tipping restaurant waitstaff 15 percent when service proceeds smoothly. Anything more signified exceptional treatment. In Dallas, however, the trend is for heftier gratuities, often 20 percent or more no matter the level of service.
"Some people automatically tip 20 percent, no matter what," says Geoff Holton of Al Biernat's. "Some pay attention."
Yet tradition dictates we tip according to the quality of service. Granted, it's easier to notice mistakes. Over the years the Burning Question crew has experienced lengthy delays, had greasy appetizers dumped in our laps, been knocked on the head with wine bottles...hey, wait a minute...not sure those were actually mistakes. OK, let's look at the other side of things. "If it's obviously the waiter's fault, yeah, decrease the tip," advises Rene Hernandez of Daniele Osteria. Don't however, scribble double-zeros on the receipt. "There are a lot of waiters who shouldn't be waiters," admits Gloria Vasquez of Monica's in Addison. Other people depend on a share of that tip more, though, and a bare gratuity punishes them unfairly. "Out of 15 percent, two goes to the bar," she continues, "two to the bussers, one to the food runners." Best to ask about tip sharing, stiff the inept waiter, and pass a few buck to the others.
As Carey Henderson of Dragonfly succinctly explains, "Crappy tip--I get the point." Really want to make a point? "I think $2 or $1.50 is more insulting than zero," Hernandez says.
On the other hand, people often blame waitstaff for things beyond their control. Most never see waitstaff pleading with the kitchen to hurry things along or begging management to comp a drink because of a random miscue. "Sometimes service can be misinterpreted," warns Bradley Bandfield, manager at Go Fish in Addison. "If the kitchen is having a meltdown, that's no reflection on the waiter."
To make matters worse, great service is often difficult to recognize. It flows seamlessly and never intrudes unless patrons express an interest in casual conversation. As Johnny Diller of Dragonfly says, "We have to look at each table and assess: Do they want invisible service? Do they want to be entertained? Each table is different." At the minimum they should read guests, communicate well and anticipate needs.
Which, in our case, means keeping the booze flowing.
"We're the face of the restaurant," Diller continues. "That's why we're expected to know everything about the menu, the wine list and have some personal savvy."
Anyway, that's pretty much why we tip--to pay the staff and reward an extraordinary performance. Why then do so many people in this area lay out 20 percent? We're guessing the old aphorism "you have to spend money to make money" doesn't really apply. Every week the Burning Question crew faithfully invests a good portion of our meager pay at Goody Goody. The rest we deposit at The Lodge or The Men's Club. Anything left goes into various funds--Sense, Republic, The Old Monk. Pretty good portfolio, on the surface, yet the dividends from all that spending have been quite meager indeed.
Mostly a few hours of community service, a couple of unfounded complaints about alleged incidents, several stern rebukes from female bar patrons...
From a server's perspective, each tip carries a message. "Ten percent, I wonder what I did wrong; when it's between 15 and 20 percent, it's OK, something they enjoyed. Twenty percent or more, I know I did something right," Hernandez explains. It takes us awhile to figure out just what constitutes 20 percent...OK, 12 percent. Experienced waitstaff, however, recognize the exact percentage at a glance. Mindlessly plopping down the expected amount yields nothing but a sincere thank you and come again. Tossing in a little more, well, Diller says, "If you're 20.005, I'll remember your name."
A fraction more means exceptional treatment next time around. "And the difference could be $1," Diller points out. "For a mere $1 you skip out into the stratosphere."
Don't think 2001: A Space Odyssey. He means you become a player.
And that's why Dallasites pulling down $50,000 and dining at upscale establishments willingly hand over whatever spare change they have to professional waitstaff also raking in $50,000--to confirm their status amongst friends and associates.
Of course, none of this applies if you've just stopped for an alcohol-absorbing plate of greasy burritos.