Let me relate one of my most unpleasant dining experiences. ABoston journalist was passing through Los Angeles for a night and hoping to see as many of her LA-based friends as possible. To help keep things sane, one of her local buddies organized a group dinner so she could see everyone at once. The evening was a great success—the restaurant was friendly and accommodating. The food was great. There was much laughter, much wine, much gossip. A sublime time was had by all.
And then the bill came.
It wasn't a big bill—the cost per person was about $45, which included chipping in for the guest of honor's dinner. But it was a group bill. And shortly after the bill arrived, the bickering began.
"My chicken didn't cost as much as his steak—I should pay less."
"Y'all had wine and I didn't—I don't want to pay for drinks I didn't have!"
"I didn't have an appetizer or a dessert—my bill should be at least $10 less!"
Needless to say, some of us were mortified. After all, these were not people who lived from check to check or bought generic groceries. They wore nice clothes, drove Mercedeses and Lexi, traveled abroad frequently and had a more than passing acquaintance with products from the De Beers cartel. Yet that evening they were complaining about nickels and dimes. (And remember, this was before the economy tanked!)
In the end, a few of us contributed quite a lot more to the pot to make sure that the waitstaff didn't get stiffed and that the next members of The Race who happened upon this place for dinner didn't get seated next to the kitchen door. "I have to live in this town," one over-contributor snapped, "and I'll be damned if I am too embarrassed to come back here again because these Negroes were too cheap to do the right thing!"
I totally understand the frustration behind the sentiment, but let me point out that fussing about splitting the check evenly is a universal, multiculti phenomenon. I was on the Other Coast a few months ago and shared drinks and hors d'oeuvres with a group of reporters at a chic watering hole in D.C. I was the only one of Us there. The bill arrived in one of those little leather folders that serves to prolong the drama, and not only did the bickering over who-ordered-what ensue, but there was even a virulent bout of selective amnesia for good measure.
"I'm sure I didn't ask for two orders of truffled fries!"
"Uh, no, I had house rum, not premium, in my mojito. This charge is for premium."
And once again, a couple of people served as the bank for folks whose sense of fiscal responsibility was, apparently, in cold storage.
So let's just understand, once and for all, the purpose of the group meal. In short, it's as much about the fellowship as it is about the food. And because of that, when the check comes, it is split evenly. Because bickering over the bill will take the glow off a fellowship-filled evening in about a nanosecond.
Splitting the bill evenly does indeed mean that there will be occasions when you will pay more than your actual meal costs. But there will also be times when you pay less than you probably should. In the long run, things even out. But the general rule is—again—that when you dine en groupe, the check is divided evenly by the number of diners. Some examples:
Perhaps a group of you at work decides to go to lunch together:
"Okay, lunch for six is $86 including tip. That's $14.33 for each of us."
Let's say a friend is leaving town for a new job and the luncheon is a celebration:
"That will be $25 for everyone—except Patrick. Consider it a group hug, man. …"
(Even better: If you want to make it a classy group hug, one of you should slip away before the bill comes, instruct the waiter to give the bill to you, pay it quietly when it arrives, and collect from the group once you're back at work. That way the guest doesn't have to sit and watch you make change for everyone, etc. And of course people should know ahead of time the ballpark amount they're going to be asked to contribute. The kind of restaurant where the fete is held should be able to give them some idea.)
One almost sure-fire way to avoid getting stuck with someone else's part of the bill in addition to your own is to let everyone know upfront about the evenly split check:
"Lavinia, we're all going to try that NeoSoul restaurant after work on Thursday. We plan to taste and share, and check out the wine cellar. We'd love to have you join us. I wanted you to know we're going to split the bill. Evenly. Interested?"
If Lavinia wants to come, she knows what she's signing onto. If she doesn't, she can opt out:
"Thanks, but I don't drink and I'm staying away from sugar for a couple of weeks, so I'll catch up with you guys some other time. Have fun!"
Advance notice tends to eliminate a lot of confusion. And resentment. And "Oh, I don't have enough—can you cover me?" (If you're told ahead of time about even-splitting and agree, presumably that means you also have enough time to stop at the ATM.)
There will, alas, always be one person who, even after being told the check is being split evenly (sorry, but can't say that enough for some people…) will whine "I know, but I only had salad!" Or "my omelet was so much less than her Chef's Special!" Or who will swear they're coming "just to visit," then order "just a little something, to keep you company," then balk at paying the bill.
Suck it up one last time and pay the difference. (Doing it and moving on is cheaper than therapy.) And never, ever invite that person to dine out with you again. Warn all your friends. Write the non-splitter's names on the walls of restaurant bathrooms.
Somebody stop them before they refuse to split again.
Because You Asked
The standard tip might have been 10 percent when you were growing up, but you're grown now, and 10 percent doesn't cut it anymore. The standard tip today is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent, depending on the kind of restaurant. Some people like to double the tax—but tax varies in different parts of the country. So look at the before-tax bill and leave at least 15 percent. If service is horrible and you think a smaller tip is in order, tell the manager why you're leaving a smaller tip.
Don't Do That!
Ordering the $48 lobster dinner, then leaving a $2 tip because you only came with $50?
Uh, no. Better to plan ahead. If $50 is what you have to spend, try the $36 crab-stuffed halibut, which will leave you plenty—let's say between $7 and $8—for a decent tip.
Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research did a study a couple of years ago that looked at why black folks often get treated less than warmly at restaurants (including black restaurants). The answer? We don't tip very well. (Even when the servers are black.) Partly that's because many of us don't have an accurate idea of what a proper tip is. The research showed that when people were educated about what the right amount was, they tipped better. And service improved.
Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent for NPR News, and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of the best-selling etiquette book "Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times" (Doubleday, 1996) and its revised edition "The New Basic Black, Home Training For Modern Times" (Doubleday, 2006).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).