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Tipping Etiquette 101 - What's Considered a Good Tip When Eating out?

Everybody loves a good night out, right? A fancy dinner, maybe a drink or two, and someone waiting on you after you've had a long day can certainly help a person decompress and relax. Of course, the people who are taking your order and bringing your food to you deserve a bit of acknowledgment in the monetary form when they do a good job, right? 

While tipping may not be expected (or even accepted) in all parts of the globe, a little nudge of cash is a customary practice here in the United States when one's server performs his or her role at a satisfactory-to-exceptional. Of course, there are those exceptions in which something catastrophic may have happened to prevent your server from earning an extra bit of money—but short of calling you names at your table or eating a portion of your fries right in front of your face—the chances of you experiencing one of those situations while eating out is nearly never going to happen. 

In other words, you need to tip your servers, folks.

Now, just how much you should be tipping...? Well, that's a different conversation. 

The evolution of the service industry, consumers' expectations, and the overall functioning of the economy make a difference when it comes to how much you should tip. Not to mention, the type of restaurant you're dining at and the performance of your individual server (obviously!) can impact the number you sign below the subtotal line. 

What do we mean? 

In short, there is no one-size solution to how much you should tip because there are dozens of variables, but the moral of the story is that you should tip, so we've come up with a quick guide to help you along the way.

tipping etiquette 101 what's considered a good tip when eating out

Why Are You Tipping in the First Place?

This is a deeper discussion that you probably realize, and since we like to keep things lighthearted around here, we're not going to drop the ball by going into something that's drastically politically charged. Suffice it to say that the basic idea behind tipping stems from the thought that people should reward excellent performance with a monetary incentive.

There's other stuff behind tipping too—like, for example, the fact that the federal minimum wage as of today is $2.13 an hour for tipped employees. Servers and bartenders do make more than this in many areas of the country (but it's usually not much more). The fact remains that tipped employees' livelihoods are truly driven off the additional bits of coin you place above the signature line. 

Other things go into the equation, too. For example, the fact that your favorite restaurants aren't footing a full cost of their payrolls themselves frees up their ability to keep prices reasonable (or, "reasonable", depending on where you're choosing to dine at the time). Sure, the establishment is certainly enjoying some profit off your purchase (if it's not, it won't be around for long anyway), but your check isn't as much as it would be if your servers, bussers, hosts, bartenders, and backwaiters weren't relying on your supplementary dollars and cents to make their efforts worthwhile. (By the way, in case you weren't aware, servers seldom get to keep their tips all to themselves; their daily sums are usually spread across a number of different departments.)

How Much Should You Tip Your Server?

Better service deserves bigger tips, but (almost) all service deserves at least the societally acceptable amount of 15 to 25% of the bill.

That's a big discrepancy, right?


Let's take a look at the driving forces behind the bottom line.

The Baseline 

20% is the expected baseline tip amount in today's world.

While "expected" is a word that can conjure up a lot of controversy in conversations revolving around tips, the 20% marker is a fair place from which to begin your assessment of the service you received. Bear in mind that your server has done more than you may have realized while you were sipping down sodas or imbibing on adult beverages; she refilled your water, got you new cocktails, answered your questions, made sure the guac was left off your dish, and cleared away all the plates you dirtied while you enjoyed that strange assortment of appetizers. 

If you're unsure how much to tip, or you had adequate service that didn't appall or astound you, 20% is a solid place to start.

tipping etiquette 101 whats considered a good tip when eating out

Bad Service

In most cases, even truly awful servers still did something to service you. Maybe they don't deserve your baseline 20% rate, but they probably did something to deserve some amount of money above and beyond your food and drink bill. In these cases, a 10% gratuity is okay, but you really don't want to exercise your right to tip this tiny amount very often; you'll begin to gain a reputation for being someone people don't want to provide good service to. 

Remember, there's a big difference between receiving bad service and causing servers to give you bad service. 10% service isn't the norm. In fact, it probably happens to people less than once every ten years, so don't abide by a 10-percent-service mentality 100% of the time. It's a rare occurrence that was likely deserving of a conversation with management if it was actually that bad. 

Exceptional Interactions

Let's say you had a server who could explain all the weird stuff on the menu to you in a way that didn't make you feel like you were being demeaned like a preschooler. He told you which wines paired best with different dishes. He assured you no nuts would interfere with your allergies. He was happy to make recommendations about things to do around town or stayed quiet when it looked like you were having an intimate conversation for two.

Outstanding service isn't as rare as terrible service, but it can be a unicorn, nonetheless. If you encounter a server who goes above and beyond to ensure that your dining experience is better than you could have possibly imagined, it's worthy of a 30 to 50% tip. This is reserved for those really awesome servers who make your outing even more memorable than it otherwise would have been because you'll be making a huge impression on them, too.

Dining in Groups

Group-dining gives way to tons of misnomers. For starters, your server isn't working just as hard as she would be if you were dining with one other person; she's working six to however-many-people-you-have-in-your-party times harder to appease various personalities, dietary needs, and timing. Timing, alone, is a difficult thing to manage for servers who are working with large groups. You don't want to finish your entree before the guy next to you gets his salad, do you?

Restaurants put required gratuities onto the tabs of big tables to ensure their servers are taken care of at a bare minimum, but that doesn't mean you can't (or shouldn't) tip on top of the grat that's given to you.

Before you sign your check, evaluate the service your entire group received. If there weren't any flaws in your experience, chances are, your server earned well more than her minimum gratuity.

tipping etiquette 101 whats considered a good tip when eating out

Comped Food

Maybe you endured a situation in which the manager had to intervene.

Was it the server's fault? Maybe. Maybe not.

In either case, don't forget that your servers are humans, too. They make mistakes, forget things, and overlook your need for a refill—especially if you're dining at a time when it's super busy. 

A conversation with a manager may result in comped food, particularly if the restaurant's reputation is at stake. Even without a manager's input, your server may take it upon himself to comp a few items to curtail any unpleasant experiences that may have otherwise occurred. 

If your server wasn't the immediate cause of the kerfuffle, don't penalize him by reducing the tip. Instead, be sure to factor in the total cost of your dining experience before comps so you tip on the total amount of the check before unexpected mishaps took place.

We live in a culture where superb service is expected, but it's not always delivered. When you encounter a server who's done everything she can to ensure your experience is optimal, be sure to reflect your appreciation when the check comes. Great reviews are fine, but they don't pay the bills of the people who ensured you had a meal you won't soon forget.



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