Restaurant Tips

Ile St-Louis, Paris (photo by Sally Reeder)

In U.S. restaurants, it is customary to leave a tip of 15% if the server brings your food sometime during the same calendar year in which you ordered it.  For exceptional service — if your server smiles, for instance — a tip of 20% of the total bill is a nice expression of gratitude.

By European standards, these amounts seem extravagant.  For instance, tipping is not common in Spain — by locals, anyway.  When they do tip, they tend to round up to the nearest euro. 

Rounding up is the practice elsewhere, too, although in France and Italy it’s to the next big number.  If the bill is, say, 32€, leave 35 €; if it’s 46€, go to 50 €.  In fancy restaurants, you might tip a bit more — 5 t0 10% of the total.

You may already be familiar with those guidelines for tipping restaurant servers, but here are some tips for restaurant customers.  The objective is to make your dining experiences more enjoyable by avoiding common mistakes.

No one who reads this blog needs to be told that when a waitress says, “Do you have any questions?”, it’s not appropriate to ask “Are you single?”  However, some of you do seem to need this advice:  When a server brings your food and says, “Be careful, the plate is very hot,” that means that you should not touch it.  For some reason, that seems to be the impulse — to ignore the verbal warning and test the temperature of the dish, even though the marinara sauce is still bubbling.

Here’s another tip:  If your business associate is making a big production out of the wine-tasting ritual, just look away to spare him embarrassment.  The point of putting a small amount of wine into his glass from a newly-opened bottle is just to determine that the wine didn’t turn into vinegar due to a faulty cork.  True connoisseurs (as well as novices) can usually tell in about a minute if the stuff in the bottle is wine or salad dressing; it’s not necessary to gargle it or to splash a few drops behind each ear.

Another common mistake in eating establishments happens when customers are making their decision about what to order.  “How is the sea bass,” they will ask, or worse, “Is the sea bass good?”

Does it seem likely to you that an employee will truthfully tell you that it’s awful?  Besides, you just met her a few minutes ago when she said, “Hi, I’m Kimberly and I’ll be your server this evening.”  Do you know her well enough to value her opinion?

And suppose she does blurt out, “It’s terrible, you’d be better off sawing your tongue with that butter knife”?  You’re probably still going to order the sea bass anyway, which can create an awkward moment. 

My tip is to frame the question in a way that allows you to interpret the server’s response — something like, “How is the sea bass prepared?”  If the server is evasive, or clueless, go with your second choice on the menu.

Oh, and one more tip about tipping:  At the outdoor cafes in Spain, a euro will usually make the accordion player go away.

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3 responses to “Restaurant Tips

  1. Thanks for sharing this information, its just what I have been looking for. I have recently been invited to go on a road trip with some friends and have been looking for restaurants in Ottawa. I have heard really great things about restaurants people find when they travel. Wish me luck, its going to be fun!

  2. HI Tom,
    I love the picture of the Brasserie – my husband and I spent several nights eating there on our honeymoon. Would you be kind to send me the image file so I can print a copy? I would be more than happy to purchase form you!
    thank you so much! Courtney

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