Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur, may have started something. Last week, he announced he would eliminate tipping at his 13 restaurants and raise his prices. There followed a plethora of editorials and op-ed columns, most of them in support of the new policy, some of them pointing out — as you might have guessed — that tipping is anti-democratic, sexist, racist and, if it does not in some way contribute to global warming, that’s only because the study has yet to be done. Still, I love tipping.
The practice originated with European aristocracy, whence the term itself comes — “To Insure Promptitude,” thus TIP. The Financial Times editorial where I found that much-disputed fact went on to call the practice a “demeaning custom,” “outdated” and, just for good measure, “obnoxious.” That was just one of five articles the newspaper devoted to the subject. It has not been so worked up since Scotland threatened to bolt the United Kingdom.
Why? Well, there is much to criticize about tipping. Waiters usually do not share their tips with the kitchen staff, including the all-important chef. (There are, apparently, two classes of chefs: celebrity and impoverished.) It can be demeaning to rely on tips since some people like to see a waiter grovel or they like to criticize just about every aspect of the meal.
It is true also that female waiters not only have to put up with the occasionally obnoxious behavior of co-workers but also sometimes have to wade into a dining room fetid with men who think a good tip permits a sexist comment (or a leer). A New York Times anti-tipping article says that “nearly 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from restaurants.” Maybe so, but eliminating tipping will not eliminate boorish behavior.
There are, I grant you, some problems with tipping, but it is, overall, worth keeping. Like almost everyone else in America, I was once a waiter — and a busboy, and a short-order cook and a dishwasher — and I never felt I was groveling for tips. I did feel, as a friend told me before I went off on a wait job, “Remember, you work for the customer, not the restaurant.” If tipping doesn’t quite shift loyalties so neatly, it does put loyalties into play.
The waiter is my guy for the duration of the meal. He’s my agent. He looks out for me and, if he does a good job, I look out for him. He has an incentive to give me exceptional service, not some mediocre minimum, to ensure that my water glass is full, that my wine is replenished, to make sure that the busboy does not prematurely remove the plates — that I am not hurried along so that the owner can squeeze in another sitting. The waiter is my wingman.
I hesitate to mention another reason I like tipping. I like to make a difference, not just to be a bit of a big shot or be noticed or appreciated, but to give some of what I make to those who make less. I’m not flipping silver dollars into the air or hurling twenties around with abandon, but I am a healthy tipper (once a waiter, always a tipper) because this is my way of recognizing a good job. A healthy tip is like a pat on the back.
The tip is recognition of service well-performed. It shows that I care, that I notice — that I recognize what the restaurateur way back in the kitchen does not because he cannot. Why would I want to treat everyone as if they were equally good at their tasks? I like to reward, but occasionally I like to punish. Make my meal an ordeal, make me anxious about whether you got the order straight, and no 20 percent tip will come your way. Maybe that’s not democratic, but a meal is not a town hall meeting.
Tipping, I regret, will go the way of the tie or the dinner jacket. It’s complicated. It needs to be calibrated. It’s something you learn how to do over time, and when, as a kid, I used to watch my father tip the waiter and the mai tre d’, I felt that mastering this would be almost as difficult as fatherhood itself. I’ve got most of it down now (I still don’t know what the mai tre d’ gets) — and I consider it both a responsibility and a privilege. I could go on, but my table — of course — is ready.
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