They were a female "lunch bunch," and they had just left a tip after a meal at a Northern Virginia restaurant. When the server saw only 10 percent in the tray, she asked rather petulantly if the women had been displeased with her service.
Intimidated, each lunch buncher produced an extra dollar for the server, which brought the tip up to about 15 percent. But one buncher was so perturbed that she wrote and asked what I thought of the server's question. I said the server was out of line to have demanded more money.
The heavens have only recently stopped raining responses from servers (there were somewhat fewer from diners). The majority view: The server was within her rights, and the Northern Virginia lunch bunchers need to take generosity lessons.
"Ten percent is an appalling tip," wrote Ellie Tupper. "Fifteen percent is chintzy. Twenty . . . is pretty much appropriate nowadays. We're in D.C., remember?"
"These ladies . . . need to get out of the Burger King customer mentality and recognize the rules of society," added Ung Choi, a former server. "Tipping isn't a kindness," said Beth Mills, a server in Prince George's County. "It's a question of whether I can pay my electric bill."
Was 10 percent an acceptable tip? It would have been to Kym Graves, of Charlottesville. She insists on tipping what she wants, not what the server wants.
"We are a young couple with a toddler on a tight budget, and going out to eat in a restaurant is a treat," she wrote. "I resent spending $30 on a dinner for two, just to be expected to fork over another $6 for a tip. In our world, every dollar counts . . . [S]top making me feel like scum because I can't always afford to pay a server what they think they deserve."
Bill Farr, of Arlington, was another member of the I Decide Club. "Unless the management builds a tip into the check, and says so in the menu, I don't feel obligated to tip even one red cent," he said. "A tip is a reward for good performance, not a tax."
Jeffrey O'Connor, of Silver Spring, thought that tipping bitterness would fade away if tips were built into the check for parties of all sizes. He points out that built-in tips are the rule in most of the rest of the world, and could easily be here, too.
George Crisan, of Pasadena, had an idea I liked (although it wouldn't settle the size-of-tip question). George says his wife always hands her tip to a restaurant server. It's a way to say thanks in a personal way for personal service. More practically, it's also a way to assure that a tip left in cash doesn't walk into the pocket of a busboy or another patron.
Sorry to be cynical, but there's a likely side result, too. Even if you tip skimpily, how many servers would chase you out onto the sidewalk with fire in their eyes if you had been so personal about presenting it?
As for responding to waiters who demand a larger tip, I offer a memorable story relayed by David Kessel, of Detroit.
David says he was having dinner with friends at a restaurant in Paris about 30 years ago. One member of the party had spent considerable time in the French Resistance during World War II.
After dinner, the waiter objected heatedly to the skimpy tip that the party had left. The former resistance fighter ended the discussion in a most effective way.
He "pulled a particularly wicked-looking knife out of his coat and began looking at it," David reports. "All discussion suddenly ceased, the waiter vanished and out we went."
The last word is one of patience. Patrick O'Neill, a server at a "mid-scale restaurant in Old Town Alexandria," says he has never objected to a smallish tip -- "and I get many of them."
It's a matter of consistency, Patrick said. "If I objected to the small ones, wouldn't I be duty-bound to run after the guy who leaves me $40 on a $60 check and ask him if maybe he has left me too much?"
In the same column that produced all the fireworks about tipping, I reported on a restaurant in Rockville, La Fonte, that totally teed off a local couple. The place served them two rolls without charge or comment. But it tacked an extra 50 cents onto the bill for providing rolls three and four.
I thought this was about as cheap (and ultimately self-defeating) as anything I'd ever heard. But readers say such nickel-and-diming has taken hold even in the customer-always- gets-a-break world of fast food.
Louis Caplan, of Alexandria, says he went into a Burger King during a recent layover at the airport in Charlotte. He ordered two Whoppers.
"I always order my Whoppers the same way -- extra pickles and no onions," Louis says. "I was very surprised to see that I was charged ten cents each for the extra pickles!"
Louis pronounces this "ridiculous." I'm afraid one word won't satisfy me. I pronounce it greedy, insensitive, harsh, vicious, usurious.
A co-worker of Louis's came up with a nice take on the story. She said Louis should have demanded his 20 cents back. After all, he swore off onions on both Whoppers.