(The Washington Post illustration/iStock images)
Food reporter/columnist

They gathered around a large, circular table at City Lights of China in Dupont Circle, rekindling the friendships that had first sparked when they were teenagers at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. It was 2004, and the seven friends were just a couple years into their post-college careers. They were, in other words, not exactly flush.

Sandra Beasley, now a poet and teacher in Washington, remembers how pleasurable the evening was — until the group came up short on their dinner check, which totaled about $160 or so. As Beasley retells it, five of her friends had paid with cash, enough to cover their share of the bill, plus tip. The other two paid with credit cards.

When the waiter brought the cards back to the table, the charges were about $10 to $12 higher than what the cardholders expected, Beasley recalls, and they still had not covered the server’s tip. There were some rumblings that the waiter had pocketed part of the cash, causing the shortfall. Worse, there were unspoken suspicions that, among these childhood friends, a cheapskate or two lurked at the table.

“It was very awkward,” Beasley says. “We had never really dealt with these types of situations before.”

The stresses and frustrations of check-splitting are not exclusive to 20-somethings, but they seem to hit this subset of diners harder, and with more frequency, than other groups. The reasons would appear obvious: Many have just started to pull down a regular paycheck, one that often leaves little room for life’s pleasures, large or small. Twenty-somethings tend to hold onto their dollars tighter than J. Paul Getty. Perhaps just as important, they haven’t yet weeded out the misers among their friends, the people who, no matter how much they earn, will never cough up enough cash when dining en masse.

Everyone, it seems, has a story of dining out in their 20s and getting stuck with the tab. The amounts differ, but the scenarios are often the same: You’ve coordinated a gathering. Let’s say it’s a going-away party, and you’ve invited friends and colleagues to a favorite spot. They eat and drink with gusto. Some cut out early and slip cash into your hand on their exit. Others hand you $10, saying they had only a beer and a side of fries.

When the check arrives, just a handful of folks remain, and the cash on the table doesn’t begin to cover the damage done. You lay down your credit card and begin to mentally calculate how many months it will take to pay off the $100 that you had to cover for your deadbeat buddies. You begin to resent your friends and colleagues even though, at this point, you’re not even sure which ones to resent. (Well, that’s my story, at least.)

Given our shared nightmare over check-splitting, I thought it fitting for the $20 Diner to address the subject. There must be a solution to this common problem, right? I mean, other than never dining out in parties larger than one.

Restaurateurs will tell you that electronic point-of-sale, or POS, systems make it easier than ever to split checks, especially if everyone uses a credit card. These systems can be programmed to split a tab umpteen ways, and some even allow servers to split the cost of an individual item among several diners. The latter feature comes in handy when a large group orders, say, several bottles of wine, and they want to share the costs among just those who enjoyed the vino. Teetotalers are not stuck paying for someone else’s indulgence.

With that said, there’s a reason some restaurants limit splits to two or three credit cards: because asking a server to split a check 10 ways can cause problems for the front of the house, says Mikala Brennan, the chef and owner of Hula Girl Bar and Grill in Shirlington. Mostly, it ties up a POS system, preventing other servers from punching in orders. It takes between one and two minutes to spit out a check for each customer, Brennan says, depending on whether the tab is being split evenly among everyone at the table or the server has to customize 10 checks with the dishes that each diner ordered.

Now, why should you care about a server’s workload behind the scenes? Because you may be forced to sit and wait — and wait — for your check: 10 minutes, 15 minutes, maybe even 20 minutes. If you’re giving every busser and server in the dining room the stink-eye because your check hasn’t arrived, you might want to consider the source of your anxiety: you and your need to have 10 separate checks itemized like a billionaire’s tax form.

The best way to handle these difficult splits, says Jared Barker, general manager of All-Purpose in Shaw, is to notify your server ahead of time. Oh, and stay in the same seat for the entire meal. This way, your server can punch in dishes according to your seat number, which makes closing out your check much faster at the end. It also eliminates the need to have the math genius at your table calculate everyone’s bill. As a bonus: Everyone is responsible for his or her own tip. The cheapskate will out himself.

The tactic works in virtually all situations: If you have a tightwad at your table — or, conversely, you have a hard drinker who pounds down $15 Manhattans and then insists on splitting the tab evenly — just tell your server that you want individual checks. The offending diner is then accountable for his own excess or parsimony. Also, everyone should remember that, in Washington, there’s a 10 percent tax on your meal, which adds to each diner’s bill.

“There are only so many times that you want to be that person calculating the bill and you’re short 50 bucks,” Brennan says. “And you’re the only person at the table.”

Complications can arise, restaurateurs say, when some diners opt to pay with cash on a bill that’s split evenly among all guests. How will the cash be applied to the check? Does it all go toward satisfying the bill? Or is some reserved for the tip? Because if it’s all applied to the bill, the cash will then lower the remaining tab for those paying with credit cards, which in turn lowers the tip for a server who just spent three hours catering to your every need. You don’t want to be that person who stiffs a server because you don’t understand how the cash-and-credit-card combo can hurt servers.

What did Beasley and friends do all those years ago at City Lights? Fortunately, Beasley had an “emergency $20 in my purse.” Others had a similar cache of cash on them. They were able to cobble together enough to leave the server a decent tip. But the incident still left a mark on Beasley.

“I didn’t go back there for a couple of months afterward,” she says about her regular haunt. “I was so embarrassed.”