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.

Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Okay I am NOT @GaryVee, Gary Vaynerchuk,  but I have worked in fine dining and I can give you some very easy common sense advice. If you don’t live in the Napa Valley or a big city, here are some tips to enjoy wine in a restaurant.

Ordering wine, there are a few easy tried and true rules:

Oysters: Champagne or Sauvignon Blanc
Chicken: Chardonnay, aka Chard
Salads or Seafood: Sauvignon Blanc aka Sav Blanc
Pork, Duck, Lamb: Pinot Noir or Merlot
Beef: Cabernet Sauvignon, aka Cabernet or just plain Cab

All of these are subject to change depending on the wine. Personally, I think champagne goes with everything! I love all varieties of wine. There are good wines and bad wines in all varieties so don’t judge all chardonnays by one bad one.

If you have no, or limited, wine knowledge my best recommendation – is to ask the server for a recommendation. You can read magazines or websites or books and do research and find an amazing high rated bottle of wine and then get to the restaurant and find out they don’t carry that wine. If people are having a variety of dishes I will often times suggest a pinot noir, a light red. Your server or the sommelier will ask what type of wine you are looking for, what your price range is, and look at what you have ordered and make a few recommendations. Don’t go with the house red or white unless you are on a strict budget. This wine was bought in bulk by the restaurant and won’t have the best taste.

As a general rule white wine should be less than 5 years old. It is not made to age a long time the way most red wine is.

Once a bottle of wine is ordered, the server presents the wine to the person who ordered it by reading the label, then confirms it by showing the bottle. After they say, “Yes, that is what I ordered”, the bottle is opened, by the server, and a small sip is poured to the person who ordered the wine. That person must try the wine to make sure it is not corked, they do this by swirling the wine, taking a sniff, then taking a small sip. Corked wine smells musty and tastes of mildew. It’s not really necessary to sniff the cork. Once they have approved the wine, the server will pour the wine for the rest of the guests at the table, and lastly fill the glass of the person who ordered. At this time you make a toast and clink glasses!

You may request an ice bucket for champagne or white wine to keep it chilled.  There is usually no extra charge for this. 

If your red wine is quite strong or has too much of a bite from the tannins, you can request that your wine be decanted. There is usually no extra charge for this.  This is done by your server and your wine is poured into a clear glass decanter, which gives the wine more air surface to breathe. This is especially recommended for red wines over 5 years old. Decanting the wine allows it to breathe and smooths out the taste. There is also a really nifty wine aerator tool that does this instantly, called the Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator.  I highly recommend it if you enjoy red wine!

Different shaped wine glasses are used with different varieties of wine. The general rule is that champagne is served in flutes, white wines in a smaller wine glass and reds in the larger bordeaux glass and the largest bowl glasses for the pinot noirs. This rule can change in accordance to the restaurant. Fresh glasses should be provided for each new bottle of wine unless otherwise requested.

If you bring in your own wonderful bottle of wine most restaurants will charge a corkage fee. This can vary greatly in amount from approximately $15 – $50 a pop. This fee is a charge for the service of using their glasses, which will need to be washed and hand polished, and the server opening the bottle and pouring the wine. On the higher end ($50) it can be cheaper to buy a bottle at the restaurant. If the corkage fee is a concern to you I recommend calling ahead to the restaurant and asking what their corkage fee is.

Most restaurants do greatly mark up the price of wine, it can be almost double what you would pay at a wine/liquor store.

Now you are ready to go out to a restaurant and enjoy wine! Cheers!

For more tips please see my other article: How to Tip in American Restaurants.

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!