Dining: Tom Sietsema

In the dark about tipping and lighting: Chatters seek advice, air peeves

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Today's special: Edited excerpts from questionsand comments from recent online chats.

Awkward tipping situation: Tom, is it acceptable for wait staff to approach a table after the customers have paid a bill to inform the customers that their 10 percent tip is not enough and that they need to fork over some cash to bump the tip up to 20 percent? That happened to us at a Bethesda restaurant this weekend.

As a former waitress, I am a very generous tipper (usually more than 20 percent, and rarely less), but there was a major glitch with service that negatively affected our evening. It was so bad that my usually generous friends wanted to tip even less, but I convinced them otherwise.

Tom Sietsema: I typically tip 20 percent of the pre-tax bill, unless the service is poor, in which case I tip 15 percent (or less, depending on what the glitches are).

Under very few circumstances is it acceptable for a waiter to broach the subject of an inadequate gratuity with a party.

Chatters, what say you? Have you ever stiffed a server, and, if so, why?

When to stiff wait staff: I think it's only fair to slight the wait staff if you have given them an opportunity to fix whatever the problem may be. I don't think it's ever right to be cheap if you haven't even let them know that you are unhappy. For example, my husband and I recently waited for more than 15 minutes at a very nice restaurant before our waiter acknowledged our presence. However, we politely told him that we had been waiting, and he went out of his way the rest of the evening to make up for it. Needless to say, he received a great tip.

Tom: Useful advice.

Tips not mandatory: In my opinion, it is absolutely inappropriate for a member of the wait staff to come to your table and tell you that you have tipped inadequately. Tipping is a reward for good service, and as much as we treat it as mandatory because we don't want to look cheap, it's not mandatory! If your waiter/waitress does not provide good service, that should be reflected in the tip. If the restaurant itself or the chef or anyone other than the wait staff did something wrong or unsatisfactory, that should be taken up with the manager, and the wait staff should not be tipped less if he or she was not at fault. It is unacceptable for someone receiving a non-mandatory amount of money to assume that it is, in fact, mandatory.

Tom: I agree.

Undertipping?: Sometimes I blow the math and inadvertently undertip. A polite "Was the service satisfactory?" inquiry has more than once saved me from myself.

Tom: Great solution to a potentially sticky situation.

Minibar: I was able to get reservations in a couple weeks to celebrate my anniversary with my Significant Other, and we're very much excited for the experience. However, I've read in various outlets that there's conversation between diners/chefs and diners/diners. Is this expected? I'm not antisocial, but on our anniversary I want to be focused entirely on my SO, the food and the chefs without having to worry about putting off fellow diners. Not trying to be a party pooper, but ...

Tom: Going to Minibar and expecting to focus on your Main Squeeze is like going to Cirque du Soleil for a heart-to-heart. I'm not saying you should reconsider your reservation, but to fully enjoy a meal at Minibar, you gotta listen to the chefs and pay attention to the plates.

Minibar follow-up: I completely understand that we won't be able to gaze into each other's eyes all night long (joking, of course), and I look forward to engaging with the chefs, as that's part of the experience that we're excited about. My chief "concern" is the other diners, whom I'd rather not waste my time with, for lack of a nicer term, when I want to enjoy the experience and my SO on our anniversary.

Tom: I don't think you should worry. I've been six times now, and I've never been hijacked by a stranger sitting next to me. Plus, you can create a zone of privacy by turning toward your date.

Puzzled by stars: I reread your review of Cosmopolitan Grill (Magazine, March 28) three times trying to figure out the justification for a 1.5-star meal (a rare occurrence for a restaurant to merit anything less than 2, it seems). So what gives? Where did they go wrong?

Tom: You were not the only reader to question that rating. One-and-a-half stars means a place is "satisfactory to good." And I thought that was fair for a modest mom-and-pop establishment that does some things well (Cosmopolitan's burek is excellent) but isn't notable for everything. Its fish was overwhelmed by garlic, and the seasonings were pretty much the same from dish to dish. I didn't mention dessert, but those I tried (baklava, apple pie) were lackluster. One guest of mine was a native Bosnian with no ties to the restaurant, and she felt the food was fine but not great.

Finally, I'd rather be conservative and have readers walk away from a place happier than they would expect after my review, than have them go with lofty expectations and be disappointed by what's "satisfactory to good."

Dining alone: You've often commented that when dining alone at a restaurant, you enjoy sitting at the bar and ordering from the bar menu. Can you recommend a few places (D.C. or close-in Maryland) that provide a good setting for that?

Tom: Palena in Cleveland Park, but you have to get there early to snare a seat. Buck's Fishing & Camping in upper Northwest for winning American fare. Rasika in Penn Quarter for lusty Indian (in part because it's so hard to book a table there). PS 7's near Chinatown (dig those cocktails!). CityZen, helmed by star chef Eric Zeibold (such a handsome space, and you feel very much a part of the formal dining room in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Southwest).

Menu print: This is a plea to restaurant owners to please make your menus easier to read, or print a couple of large-font menus to provide if people ask for them. It's such a simple thing that would set a restaurant apart, and my young, visually impaired spouse who loves to eat out would really appreciate the chance to read a menu instead of having it read to her.

Tom: Here's your plea. Let's hope restaurants pay attention.

The regular Dining column will return next week.


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