Nothing beats a great meal out – a tasty appetizer and delicious entrée, perhaps accompanied by some fine wine and followed by a decadent dessert – but you eventually have to deal with the bill.  That’s when you have some decisions to make to ensure you recognize the service component of your experience.  Here are five “tips” to keep in mind:
1. How Much Should You Tip?
In general, tips should generally range from 15% to 20% of the food and beverage total.  When a waitperson covers the basics – is gracious, gets the food to the table, and is available to meet your needs – 15% is reasonable. If a waitperson provides more nuanced service, the gratuity should increase.  Explaining menu additions, listening to dietary concerns, assisting with wine selections, and anticipating guests’ needs deserve reward. Tipping on exceptional service begins at 20%.  Tipping is more flexible but also encouraged for “to-go” and delivery orders.  Tips at pick-up counters can be a smaller token, however, tips for delivery should take into account the difficulty and size of the order and the appropriate amount may be as much or more as when eating at a fine dining establishment.  Delivery can be a wonderful luxury!
2. Distributing The Wealth.
In most cases, when you hand over a tip to your server, she’s not simply pocketing it.  A service staff is a team, so they share the tips (and pay taxes on them).  Depending on the establishment’s policy, either all of that shift’s gratuities are pooled and divided, or each individual server is responsible for tipping her support staff—a busser, a runner, a back waiter, and/or a bartender.   Be aware that your tips are not just a supplement, but are the main source of their income. In New York, for example, the wait staff minimum wage can be as low as $4.90 per hour.  Although that rate must be supplemented by tip income to the state minimum wage, servers rely primarily on gratuities to make a decent living above minimum wage levels.
3.Gratuity Included.
Often restaurants opt to add a fixed gratuity or a service charge to the bill for large parties.  This should be printed on the menu or stated when you make a reservation.  With this practice, restaurant management is protecting their staff from being short-changed by poor tippers.  If service is exceptional and you would like to leave additional gratuity, your servers will be thrilled.  If, however, you feel your service wasn’t up to snuff, confront the management.  The guaranteed gratuity should also guarantee the extra staff and service that may be required to adequately serve a large party.
4. Hidden Service Charges.
It’s always a good idea to check your bill, instead of blindly popping your credit card into a check presenter.  Two scenarios to be aware of are A) During late night dining, regardless of party size, some restaurants tack on a service or cover charge, and B) When you are involved with a large party and a standard gratuity is added, the house should be calculating the tip based upon the pre-tax total.   It makes good financial sense to check your bills carefully to ensure you actually ordered everything on the bill and that the total was calculated properly.
5. Exceptions to the Norm.
In instances where a complimentary course is sent out, or when food is taken off the bill—irrespective of the reason—make a mental note to tip on the correct value of the meal.  This can be especially true when using dining coupons that offer a BOGO (buy one get one free).  The wait staff is servicing your table…just because you’re enjoying a complimentary meal, doesn’t mean the server shouldn’t be paid fairly for her service.   Another exception may be at your favorite drinking establishment.  Often tips are set at a dollar or so per drink when bellying up to the bar.
There is a bit of controversy about tipping and some restaurants are changing their policies and discontinuing the practice in hopes of creating a level playing field among the servers.  This of course means that the menu prices could rise by as much as 20%.  It will be interesting to see how the tipping trends change over time, but in the absence of a posted no-tipping policy, please remember that the servers do their best to make your dining experience enjoyable and are counting on your gratuities to make their ends meet.
For more thought on tipping and information on gratuities for other services – check out CNN’s article at