This essay by Emrys Westacott, for the most part, gets it right—there is no good justification for the practice of tipping in restaurants. It is doubtful that it encourages better service and we are so inconsistent regarding who we tip that the practice is not based on a rational idea of what good service deserves—why not tip your doctor or your car mechanic if good service deserves a tip? And why should servers rather than the kitchen staff get the tips?
If servers were paid a decent wage and treated like professionals, as is the case in much of Europe, I suspect the quality of service would improve rather than diminish.
Notice I wrote that the practice of tipping lacks justification. That is emphatically not to say that you should fail to leave a healthy tip for your server when out to dinner. They depend on those tips to pay the rent, and failing to leave a tip because you disagree with the practice is just petty and thoughtless.
But I doubt that the practice of tipping will disappear in the U.S. Restaurant owners like it because it reduces their labor costs and keeps the menu price down. Customers seem wedded to it for some reason, which I don’t quite understand.
A few years ago, a San Diego restaurant—The Linkery—received national recognition for eliminating tips and adding a 18% service charge, which was shared with the kitchen staff. The policy created no end of controversy, many customers resented it, and the restaurant is now closed. The degree to which the no tipping policy contributed to the closure is itself a subject of great controversy. But, to my knowledge, no additional local restaurants adopted this policy and the policy created no groundswell of sentiment for eliminating tipping.
Which just raises the question: Why do Americans prefer the hassle of deciding upon a tip? After all many, many countries throughout the world with a sophisticated restaurant culture eschew it and find our custom to be peculiar. I suppose we like the feeling of exercising control over the waitperson, a motive that is mean-spirited and subject to abuse. The idea that someone’s income should be harmed by a minor, inconsequential mistake, a slow kitchen, inadequate training, or a less-than-scintillating personality strikes me as inordinately vindictive.
I just leave 20% across the board regardless of service—but with one exception. In very high end restaurants where I’m spending hundreds of dollars for the experience, it is reasonable to expect the highest professional standards to be met with consequences if they are not. But having the power to stiff the waitstaff at your local bistro just doesn’t turn me on.