How to Tip in American Restaurants

Don’t you dare go out to eat again until you’ve read this. I mean it!

I used to be a food server or waitress. I’ve worked in casual dining at chain a restaurant (Chevy’s Fresh Mex) and I’ve worked in fine dining in the Napa Valley at Villa Romano Restaurant and in uber fine dining at Julia’s Kitchen in Copia. I have first hand knowledge of American tipping practices and I am about to share them with you.

By and large people tip well, but there are those few that are still clueless. They don’t know what is appropriate, how much to tip, or they just aren’t sure how much it should be. There are the ones that don’t go out often, maybe only on holidays, or maybe are foraying into fine dining for the first time. They can also be from a foreign country with different tipping practices than we have. This guide is for all of you!

Casual dining:

Poor service: 10% or less
Good service: 15%
Great service: 20% or more

Fine dining:

Poor service: 15% or less
Good service: 20%
Great service: 25% or more

What defines good service? Good service includes a polite server who is efficient. The server tells you any specials and takes your order, returns with your drinks in a timely manner, makes sure your drinks are refilled or asks you if you would care for another. They make sure you have the correct silverware. They check to make sure your order arrives correctly and that it is to your liking. If there are any problems or special requests they do their best to take care of them as soon as possible. Coffee and dessert are offered at the end. The check is presented and payment is taken care of quickly.

In fine dining each coarse must be cleared and new silverware provided before or with the next course. Multiple courses are not served together unless the guest specifically requests it. Appetiser, soup, salad, entrée, dessert are the basics. Servers or wait staff may also “crumb” the table, either after each course or just before dessert, which consists of sweeping away any crumbs on the table with a small tool called a crumber.

Great service, well you will know great service without me telling you. Your server and wait staff are friendly and caring and attentive and makes you feel like a VIP. They make sure that your dining experience flows smoothly and that you don’t have to worry about a thing but enjoying yourself.

How do you calculate? Let me make it easy for you. A lot of people go with double the tax, if your tax in your area is around 7% this works IF you round it up, because obviously doubling 7% is only 14%, not 15%. That gives you 15%.  Taxes can vary from area to area so the best way is just to look at the check total and figure from there, people it isn’t that hard. Let’s take a $100 check. 10% means just drop a zero or $10. If you need 20% double that, you’ve got $20. If you need 15% take half of that or $5 and add it to the 10% and you’ve got your 15% or in this case $15. Let’s try it with a $50 check. 10% drop the last number so you have $5. Half of 5 is $2.50 so add that to the 5 and you have $7.50 for your 15%, and double the 10% or $5 and that gives you $10 for your 20%. I hope this helps.

My last word is on gratuity. Some places add the gratuity. They may do it with parties of 6 or more, or they may just add it to every tab. It never hurts to ask your server if you aren’t sure. If they do add gratuity, find out how much. If they are only adding 18% and your server deserves 20% or more, it’s always very appreciated when you add extra. You’re ALWAYS welcome to leave them more.

Do servers split their tips with the other wait staff? Yes, they do. At the last place I worked we tipped 5% to the hostess, 8% to the bartender, 10% to the food runner, and 15% to the bussers. That totals 38%. Some places tip out more, some places tip out less. So remember that, the tip you leave isn’t only going to your server, it’s going to be split up between all the people who helped to make your experience a pleasant one.

Servers work for minimum wage generally and so the majority of their pay, the way they support themselves, comes from your tips. Please be generous.

For more tips on eating out please see my other post: Ordering Wine in a Restaurant.

Robert Mondavi

Robert Mondavi. I’ve had the pleasure of waiting on him and his wife and they were frequent visitors to the restaurant where I worked. By the time I waited on them he was in a wheelchair, and I never heard him speak. He was still an impressive man.

His wife, Margrit, was adorable! So friendly and charming and gracious! She reminded me a lot of Carol Channing with her wide smile and silver bob.

When the Mondavi’s came in for dinner Robert was wheeled in by a younger man and woman, who left after he was comfortable. Margrit took care of ordering and would attentively feed Robert and give him sips of champagne and wine.

A funny thing was they would usually bring their little white dog in it’s carrier. Dog’s aren’t allowed in restaurants unless they are seeing eye dogs, but what could we say? They are the Mondavi’s. Our Napa Valley royalty! Generally the darling little dog was good and quiet, but occasionally it would bark! All of the staff’s eyes would get big as we hoped that none of the guests complained. Sometimes Margrit would let the dog out and feed it under the table. One night as they were leaving and the younger couple had come to take them home, the man was pushing the wheelchair and the woman was holding the door and the little dog started running around through the center of the restaurant! Finally we shooed it out the door and the Mondavi’s were wisked away in their limosine.

We had a large event where the Mondavi’s were guests. I had to talk with the organizer and let him know that Robert was in a wheelchair as they had made no provisions for that and were unaware. They were under the impression that he was going to be giving a speech as well. I had to let them know that was doubtful unless his condition had changed since last I saw him. Margrit Mondavi had sat at Bouchon Bakery hand painting touches on all the menus as souvenirs for all the guests. They were such a lovely elegant touch. I am pleased to say I snagged one of the leftover menus at the end of the night!

Robert Mondavi died peacefully Friday morning, May 16, 2008 at his family home in Yountville, California at the age of 94. We were getting ready to celebrate his 95 birthday in June at Copia with a big event that included many of the world’s top chefs. The hope was that this event would continue in his memory. And what a memory he left.

Cheers to your memory, Robert Mondavi!

I said NO

So, I turned down the job offer for a couple of reasons. The money might have been comparable…but…she might have expected a lot of me for that. Also, I felt really proud to work at Julia’s Kitchen at Copia. I really wouldn’t feel proud to tell people where I worked if I worked there, not that it’s a bad place or anything. It just would feel like a step backwards to me. There’s a big difference between fine dining and sushi.

I had planned to go out job hunting in Napa again today, but I am really low on funds and can’t afford the gas money. Sad. It’s up to $4.19 at the Bonfare gas station on the corner. I should have my monthly fsusd auto deposit on this coming Saturday, May 31st. That is all supposed to go to bills that come out of the account automatically. I really am not sure exactly when I’ll get my first unemployment check. So, I must be careful, and as hard as it is I have to say no to going out to brunch, going out to dinner, and going wine tasting. It sucks! I love all of those things!

The Search Begins…

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Well, I must have gone to at least 10 places yesterday to apply/pick up applications.  I had a few good responses, a few mediocre and a few just not hiring right now.  I have an interview on Monday at 3pm at Zuzu's, wine bar and tapas.  There were three or four places that said they were hiring, but the owner was out of town until Wednesday, I guess enjoying a long Memorial Day weekend. 

Angela C. was bored, after finishing her finals at U.C. Berkeley on Thursday and said she wanted to come and hang out with me.  She also was bringing her son, Elijah.  I said, "Sure!".  I really wasn't sure how that was all going to work out?  But it did.  I sent them to the Oxbow to look around and I met them there for a few minutes in between, they loved it!  Angela fell in love with the coffee there.  Then they came downtown where I was and walked around and when I was finished I met them and we looked around a bit together.  Then Angela wanted to go and get dinner, but I had taken out some chicken breasts at home to thaw, and mainly I just can't spend any money that isn't absolutely necessary, like for gas, so I had to say no.  I felt bad though.  But they went back to the Oxbow to eat and seemed to have a really nice day enjoying each others' company.  It was nice to see. 

During the day I stopped in at Julia's Kitchen to pick up my check and $50 back tips that I was owed.  I walked up and saw Nick, Kris, and Joel at the bar.  Joel took me back to the office.  Nick was not friendly at all, wouldn't even really look at me.  I'm not sure what that was about.  So, Joel pulled $200 out of his pocket and gave it to me.  I think with my paycheck and back tips it would have been close to $100, so he gave me an extra $100 and said that was from him personally.  I need to write him a thank you note.  I was totally calm and matter of fact until he gave me the money.  Then I melted into a puddle.  I don't know what it is, but when people do or say things that are unexpectedly and extremely nice, even if it isn't toward me, I get very emotional.  I know Joel feels bad.  It must suck to be him and have to tell people they are fired.  We've known each other a long time between Villa Romano and now Julia's Kitchen. 

An odd random thing happened.  While I was downtown trying to find Angela and Elijah I saw someone and thought, that looks like Shannon (a co-worker at Julia's), then I realized, hey that IS Shannon, so I called to her and then I looked up and Jeannie (another co-worker) was practically right next to me!  I guess the two of them were going out to eat sushi between shifts.  We chatted for a minute about the situation and promised to keep in touch.  Then Angela and Elijah showed up and we all went our separate ways. 

Instead of cooking the chicken last night Lee Ann invited Alexandra and I to dinner.  We were planning to come down and visit with them anyways.  Lee Ann and Alicia are leave around 4Th of July to move to Missouri.  Lee Ann has been one of my closest friends for about 15 years now.  I'm really sad she's moving and want to spend as much time as possible with her before she goes.  She made pasta and a marinara meat sauce and garlic french bread and Caesar salad.  It was really good, but a bit garlicky for my stomach!  We also drank a bottle and a half of Riesling!  Alexandra had to drive home.  It was good to relax and visit with her.  I needed that. 

Unless Zuzu's hires me on Monday this may be a long process.  Hopefully they will hire me.  I just need to be really careful with every penny until at least the unemployment payments kick in. 


Day 2~ let go, fired, downsized, not needed

Today my GM Joel Tavison called me around noon to tell me that he was going to start writing my letter of reference at 1:00 PM when the Dining Room manager Nick Estefan came in.  He said he would call me if we were going to be open tonight. 

Finally about 4:15 PM I called.  The hostess Claudia answered and I asked her if we were open tonight and she said yes.  I asked her how many reservations we had and she said 70.  I asked if I could talk to Joel, but she told me he was in a meeting and asked if I wanted to talk to Nick.  So I said, “okay”.  She puts me on hold and then comes back and tells me Nick and Joel are both in a meeting.  So, I said, ” Well, Joel told me that he would call me if we were open tonight so I could come in to work.”  So she says she will try to check with him and call me back.  She calls back 10 minutes later and tells me that I’m not scheduled for tonight.  Great.  (I really don’t understand why Joel would call me today and tell me he’d let me know if we were open tonight so I could work, and then this?)  So I say, well I will come in anyway to pick up my check and my letter of reference.  She calls me back again saying that Joel hasn’t finished my letter of reference and will do it in the morning.  I ask her if I can pick up my check and she says she doesn’t know and will get back to me.  She hasn’t.

This all is really disappointing.  I should have been able to work tonight.  I should have been able to make a little money to hold me over until I get another job or the end of the month, when I get my school district check.  But that really does me no good, all of that has to go right back out to pay bills.  I really don’t understand why this is happening to me.  I have more seniority than any other server there.  I have been told that I get better comment cards than anyone else.  I have two couples that come in every Friday night and request me.  One couple is about to celebrate their 200th dinner, the other is about to celebrate their 100th.  The people who come in the most prefer me.  Me. 

This new president and CEO of Copia, Garry McGuire Jr. seems to be running around making poor snap decisions like a chicken with his head cut off.  We are heading in to our busy season where we do 100 people at lunch consistently and he has decided to only serve lunch three days a week, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  On the other days they are opening a bistro in Copia, which is really a glorified cafeteria, where people will walk up to the counter to order.  Classy. He says this is because they don’t make money during the slow season at lunch.  Okay, well close it down to three days during the slow season then, not during the busy season.  Duh.  I hear from my friends that this cafeteria is not working out well at all. Customers that come into the restaurant for a fine dining experience are having long wait times for their food, while the kitchen puts out burgers to the cafeteria/bistro. Next he is closing down the restaurant for renovations for three weeks during the start of the busy season.  This starts next week I’m told.  So even the people that are full time, that they want to keep, are going to be out of a job for three weeks.  None of us have enough savings to afford that.  I think all the employees are going to be out job hunting.  That means that Julia’s Kitchen will lose even more of it’s wonderful staff.  We need new chairs right now.  The rest of the renovation could have been saved for January, when they are now planning to close for a month, this could give the staff enough time to plan for it as well.  And he is letting good people go, me included of course, with no warning or even a severance package.  Firstly, it’s stupid.  Secondly, it’s mean.  It’s definitely causing me a lot of undue stress and hardship. 

I seriously live through the month on my tips.  My school district job covers my bills and provides health insurance benefits and my restaurant job covers my kids and my living expenses.  I had no time to prepare for this, no notice.  Now I have $23.  There is some money in the bank but I think I have more bills that may be coming out so I can’t touch that unless it’s an emergency. 

This is horrendous.  How did this happen to me? 

I applied for unemployment, but I really don’t know how that works or how much I will get or when I will get it. 

I spent yesterday and today waiting around, hoping against hope that I would at least be able to work my last two shifts.  I could have spent that time picking up applications and turning in resumes. 

Today I printed out copies of my cover letter, resume, and three letters of recommendation that I had.  I also emailed all of that to Auberge du Soleil and Etoile at Domaine Chandon. 

I talked to my friend/co-worker/former co-worker Norrel.  She is so sweet and fun, I will miss seeing her dearly.  I mean I guess we can all hang out now and then, but still.  She really didn’t know half the story.  She was so kind, told me she would ask around and let me know if she heard of anyone who was hiring.  Of course I’ll do the same for her.  She just started pastry classes this week.  She is becoming a chef. 

I heard from my friend Leo tonight.  He was going to the new Narnia movie, Prince of Caspian, I think.  He just called randomly to say hello.  He was shocked when I told him.  The good thing is that he gave me a lead on a place to apply that I’ve never heard of in Hiddenbrooke in Vallejo.  I’ll check it out tomorrow.   

My friend Patricia called me, hoping I wouldn’t answer because I was at work, but I did. 

I’m feeling a bit sad and depressed and sorry for myself.  I need to snap out of it though. It definitely won’t help.  And I’ve read The Secret.  I know what I need to do to fix things.  I’m just too much in shock and denial to do it right now. 

I have a big list of places to apply.  I plan to head out in the morning and pick up applications.  I wish gas prices weren’t so high and Napa wasn’t so far away though.  Wish me luck.


Published in: on May 24, 2008 at 3:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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let go, fired, downsized, not needed

Hire me, please.  Yes, today I was let go, fired, downsized.  I was advised, “I’m sorry, but I’ve been told from the new president of
Copia, Garry McGuire Jr., to let all the part-time employees go.”  I am a part-time employee, so that meant me.  This actually happened when I called in to find out what time I worked tonight.  That may seem last minute, but actually I had called yesterday, as well.  And the schedule which starts on Sunday is rarely posted until Saturday afternoon.   

So, instead of working tonight and bringing home close to $200, here I sit, blogging. 

I don’t blame my manager Joel, he’s a sweet guy, and he’s just following orders, and truly seems to feel bad about it all.  He’s willing to give me a letter of recommendation and has given me a few leads of places that are hiring.  That’s all I can ask for at the moment.

It’s unfair though, because of all the food servers at Julia’s Kitchen, I actually have the most seniority.  Even though I work part-time, I have been there the longest, since October of 2006.  I have stayed when everyone else left, through five – count them – managers. Steve, Jane, Noel, Jane again, and Joel. Also, Rose, Jazmin and Eric who were acting managers for short periods of time. Also, I have regular customers who love me.  There are two couples that come in and ask for me every Friday night.  The Curley’s, John and Cathy, and the Poliak’s, Richard and Cathy. I had special plans for them to celebrate their 100th and 200th visit respectively.  The sad thing is, I won’t even be able explain and say goodbye to them or any of my friends/co-workers. 

Whose idea was brunch? Mine! (And it’s been very successful I must say!) Who always shows up for her shifts? Me! Who has come in many times on short notice to help out? ME!

I filed for unemployment.  That was a bit confusing.  Apparently both of my part-time jobs, including the one I’m not fired from – with the school district – will pay for the unemployment that I draw.  They seemed to want to know more information from the job I still work for than for the one I was fired from.  Why?

I have almost $300 in the bank and about $23 in cash.  To last until the end of the month. 

This sucks!

The plan is:  Apply for unemployment.  Check.  Update resume.  Make copies of letters of reference.  Start applying at every fine dining restaurant in Napa. 

Do I blame the economy?  Do I blame the new president of Copia, Garry McGuire Jr.?  I really don’t know who to blame.  All I know is that as difficult and unexpected as it is, I need to find a new job and fast.  Wish me luck!

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