Serious Eats: New York
Ask the Critic: Here's How Tipping Actually Works
Editor's note: Here to answer your questions is senior managing editor, former SENY editor, and frequent author of our NYC restaurant reviews Carey Jones. We'll take a few of your questions each week and give you the New York restaurant advice you're looking for. Email email@example.com with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question!
How Much Do I Tip A Bartender Who's Serving My Dinner?
What's the etiquette on tipping when dining at the bar? By "the bar," I mean a nice bar at a reputable restaurant and by "dining" I mean drinks and a full meal.
My date and I went to a well-regarded Lower East Side restaurant recently at about 8 p.m. on Saturday night. Looking at a 90 minute wait for a table, we opted instead to have dinner at the comfortable-looking bar. We started with a cocktail apiece and ordered three shared appetizers plus a shared entree. Service started shaky but nothing unforgivable (slow to make our drinks and then added a wrong ingredient so had to start again; didn't provide menus until about ten minutes after we asked; water glasses sat empty) but later improved. When the food came it was generally dropped off by a runner except for one dish that the bartender placed in front of us.
Now, the bartender did care for our meal by providing us with silverware and clearing empty dishes but does that sort of service require the same tip as what you'd give a waitress at a table in the dining room?
To answer that question, we've gotta get into the nuts and bolts of how tipping actually works in New York City.*
Unless you're in the habit of tipping with a handshake, sliding a $20-or-whatever directly into your server's hand, here's the reality: your tip does not go directly to your waiter.
Read that last bit again, it's important. Probably the biggest misconception of the dining public.
Many restaurants allot payout via a points system, in which tips are pooled, then distributed at the end of the night. Think that the extra amount you're penciling in goes into the pocket of helpful waitress Lauren or bartender Steve? Well, not quite.
*And here, we are talking about New York City; practices vary across this nation of ours.
Here's An Example
Head down the math road with me for just a mo'.
Let's take a medium-sized Manhattan establishment, a restaurant with a decent-sized bar. Say there are 2 bartenders, 6 servers, 2 bussers and 2 runners. And let's say, in this establishment, that the servers and bartenders get 10 points and everyone else gets 5. (There should probably be more staff and the runners might make more than the bussers, but I needed an example with nice round numbers, 'kay?)
That's 8 ten-pointers (2 bartenders, 6 servers) and 4 five-pointers (2 bussers, 2 runners), making for 100 points in total (8x10 + 4x5). Let's say the restaurant took in $3,000 in tips last night. Under this system, each "point" is worth $30 ($3000 total intake/100 total points). Thus, the bartenders and servers get $300 each. The other folks, $150. Not too bad.
Now let's say your server was terrible. Totally distant and indifferent, mixed up orders, left you alone for long periods of time, spilled something on your date and didn't apologize, screwed up the check. First of all: you might want to mention something to the manager, rather than just take it out in a tip. But it's an understandable impulse to tip less. Let's say your dinner was $100. You'd usually tip $20; tonight, you tip $5. That'll show him!
And sure, there's a bit of a psychological hit, a wake-up when someone tips you a measly 5%. But how does the money actually play out? You didn't knock that waiter down by $15, as it may seem. You knocked the pool down by $15. So let's take the scenario above. Now, the total tip haul of $3000 is down to $2985. Each point is worth $29.85. So that terrible waiter makes... $298.50 instead of $300. The difference? $1.50.
A buck-fifty, six quarters, is the difference between 20% and 5% for that waiter, on a pretty sizable check. We call tipping an incentive. How much of an incentive is that, really?
Of Course, It Varies
Sure, there's a lot of variation. In some restaurants, for instance, the bar keeps its own cash at the end of the night. (Though still, that money isn't just going to "your" bartender; there are barbacks, too, the guys who cut the garnish and fill your water and do just about every damn other thing, who need to be tipped out.) Here's the real truth of it: you don't know where your tip is going. And there's no way to know, unless you're going to be that guy who asks how the tips are distributed just so you make sure your money is going to the "right place." (Please don't ever be that guy. I hope that guy doesn't exist.) Think of it like paying taxes. You may want more for education or less for the military or more for city police, but the vast majority of us just fork over our share without any real idea of how it works out.
If you want a better chance of your server keeping the tip, always tip in cash. If you see your tip as a very specific thank-you—a host managed to sneak in your party of 10 last-minute, a bartender spent all night mixing off-menu drinks for you, a server pulled out all the stops for your date's birthday—that's best handled with a bill or few slipped into a handshake. (Though even that should be on top of a standard, on-table tip. Or you're stiffing those food runners again.)
So to answer your question—the bartender did care for our meal by providing us with silverware and clearing empty dishes but does that sort of service require the same tip as what you'd give a waitress at a table in the dining room?—yes, it does. Because, between the runner and bartender and busser and everyone else you interacted with, the service you received essentially adds up to what you would've gotten at a table.
It's a messy system, right? It's a messy system for the workers as well. Imagine taking a job where you don't know your own salary. And where there isn't a definitive way to know. My significant other is a bartender and cocktail designer, and within the last year, got a job offer from a very well-regarded and always-crowded restaurant, where the "cheap" beers start at $8; wine and cocktails, $14. At first, he was thrilled; those crowds and check prices must translate to a lot of money for the staff, right? But he talked to a few other bartenders and realized... they were making around $100 less per night than he was at his current job, where the crowds weren't as thick and the average check wasn't as high. Why? There were so many staff on the floor that the pool got stretched thin, and the tip distribution wasn't favorable to the bartenders. Every restaurant is different.
Occasionally I'll visit him at work, and sometimes I don't end up with a bill; my drinks are rung up on his buyback check. But even when I don't get charged, I always tip, at least 20% on what I "should have" paid. He pushed back my money once; "Why don't you just keep that $15 and take a cab home?" It's not for you, silly. It's for your barback with a 5-year-old whose wife is 8 months pregnant, who always makes sure my water glass is full and keeps me in good conversation when you're at the other end of the bar; and it's for everyone else in the establishment. (And yes, some of it's for you, too.)
Moral of the story? Always tip the full now-standard 18-20%, because it's not just your waiter or bartender you're paying out; it's the runners who are sending money home to their parents, and bussers who are supporting kids on their tip money, too.
Don't like the system? Thinking "Why is taking care of the employees my business?" Well, because you're eating at a restaurant in America, and by doing so, electing to participate. And maybe some day we'll figure out a different system, like every other goddamned country. But for now, this is what we got.
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