subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Thursday throwaway: Restaurant tipping, and Alexander Valley Cab



When the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle—arguably the most important reviewer in California, and one of the most important in the whole country—comes out and says it’s time to end the practice of tipping, people should listen.

That’s exactly what Michael Bauer did yesterday.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.” For the reasons why he’s taking this radical position, Michael cites the fact that it’s happening anyway—Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and Camino, among others, have already done away with tipping. He notes also that this “new tipping paradigm” is “civilized”–no more calculating percentages, no more discomfort or uncertainty—and is “the wave of the future.” Adding an overall service charge, instead of tipping, also ensures that back-of-the-house staff is paid more equitably (at least, one would hope so!).

I’m in favor. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of tipping, so I won’t miss it. I have two huge problems with tipping: (1) it’s not fair to the kitchen staff, and (2) it implies that servers aren’t professional, which certainly isn’t the case, particularly in a good restaurant. I mean, you don’t tip your doctor or car mechanic; why do we have to tip our servers?

Nor have I ever particularly subscribed to the notion that tipping is good because you can tip higher for great service and lower (or not at all) for lousy service. The truth is, 99% of all restaurant service seems pretty good to me. Maybe it’s because I live in the very professional, restaurant-conscious Bay Area. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fussy, demanding diner; I don’t expect everything to be perfect. In fact, on occasion when I’ve dined at  restaurants like French Laundry or the old 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the service because it’s so self-consciously perfect that it makes me self-conscious! (Thanks, but I can put my own napkin in my lap!) So I rarely have cause to complain about restaurant service, except when I feel like I’ve been forgotten about, and that usually happens in an inexpensive restaurant where I’m there, not for cuisine, but for sustenance.

So let’s see how this “end-of-tipping” thing goes. California is where most trends happen: maybe this will sweep the country.

* * *

I’m interested in what my readers think of Alexander Valley. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Great Zinfandel, much of it from older vines.
  2. Surprisingly good Chardonnay given the valley’s warm climate. Those old Chateau St. Jean Chards, made by the great winemaker Richard Arrowood from vineyards like Belle Terre, rocked.
  3. Very fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Along these lines, I make a distinction (which may not be as important as it used to be, due to precision farming) between the higher, western slopes of the Mayacamas and the flatlands. Still, Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, which makes it cooler. The Cabs as a result are somewhat earthier or more herbaceous, with pleasing tobacco-green olive-sage notes: you can actually taste those things because the Cabs aren’t as fruit-driven as they are in Napa Valley. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs aren’t as high in alcohol as Napa’s, and that they’re more capable of aging. I’m always surprised they’re not more popular with somms.

Care to offer your thoughts, esteemed readers?

  1. Jesse Katz’s Devil Proof Malbec from Alexander Valley suggests another varietal that shines there.

  2. Very on board with the idea of doing away with tipping. I don’t know that it has much effect on service, either. Professionals will act professionally, but in the restaurant industry they have to hope for the best when it’s time to pay the bill (which they shouldn’t have to). Some of the best service I’ve ever seen is in Japan, where tipping, anywhere, is non-existent.

  3. Bill Stephenson says:

    I, too, can place my own napkin, pull my chair out, and don’t need to be asked every 3 minutes “How’s the food?” while mid-chew.
    These things I find a little intrusive but not nearly as much as a server who insists on keeping my wine glass full.

    Perhaps you, Steve, can shed some light on the etiquette.
    My feeling is – it’s my wine, I brought it to go with the meal I chose from the menu posted online prior to be seated.

    I like to let the wine go through it’s very subtle changes in the glass. Sometimes I’ll take a half hour to consume that first glass. When the server comes from behind me and starts to re-fill my half-full glass I feel ambushed.
    When I tell them, politely, thanks but I’ll fill my own glass I get a scornful look as if I’m some rube from the country.

    Any thoughts?

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    Tipping is an archaic practice that should be done away with. The stereotype of the fine dining waiter making several hundred dollars a night aside, tipped employees are twice as likely to live in poverty than non-tipped employees.

    Here’s the article from that bastion of radical workers’ rights: The Wall St Journal.

    If a restaurant–or any other business for that matter–can’t afford to pay its employees a living wage, it should shut down.

  5. Chad Mavity says:

    Freakonomics did a piece on this recently, and economists unanimously agreed that tipping is dumb.

    Bauer’s piece was interesting, but he barely touches on the fact that California is in the minority in having the same minimum wage for tipped employees. It will likely be much harder to change the practice elsewhere in the country.

  6. Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal
    (October 23, 2008):

    “Tipping Point: What It Takes to Make Your Waiter Like You”


    By Neal Templin
    “Cheapstake” Column

    Tips have been on the rise for some time. During the 1950s, people commonly tipped 10% of the bill, says Michael Lynn of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. By the 1970s and 1980s, the standard tip had risen to 15% of the tab. Nowadays, people commonly tip 15% to 20%, with the average tip about 18%.

    Why are tips rising? Dr. Lynn, who’s written more than 40 papers on tipping, says that people tip to make a good impression on the server. “If I want the server to really like me, I have to leave an above-average tip,” he says. “And if I want the server not to dislike me, I have to leave an average tip. That dynamic leads to an upward trend in tips.”

    . . .

    Despite the economic crisis, don’t look for tips to get smaller anytime soon. Drs. Lynn and Azar say the same social-acceptance factors are likely to keep pushing tips higher, albeit gradually.

    “These changes are over decades, not year to year,” says Dr. Azar. “I don’t think in five years that 25% will be the norm.”

    . . . Cornell’s Dr. Lynn says that people tip a little worse when they get bad service, but not dramatically. “How sunny it is outside has as big an impact on tipping quantity as does the service quality,” he says.

  7. Bill Stephenson,

    The late Christopher Hitchens had some thoughts on the practice of waiters pouring wine:

  8. I feel tipping is a bad practice too. All employees should be paid a fair wage, including servers. I’ll gladly pay a higher price for the meal if that is what is required to pay a fair wage.

    I am opposed to paying a “service charge” unless you have a large group. A service charge is just a way to make the restaurant more money. Don’t even think it will be distributed to any of the workers. Again, raise your prices if necessary. I don’t pay a service charge at the grocery store or the hardware store why should I pay one at the “meal store”. Of course restaurants will say the won’t be competitive with the others if they raise their prices. Eliminate tips and service charges for every restaurant and they are all equal again.

  9. From The Wall Street Journal
    (August 15, 2014):

    “Choosing the Right Wine for Cheapskates”


    By Dan Ariely
    “Ask Arieley” Advice Column

    [Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics who teaches at Duke University.]

    Dear Dan,

    I love eating out, including some wine with dinner — but I can’t tell much difference between different bottles, and I never know which wine to order or how much to spend. When I ask waiters or sommeliers for advice, they often give some flowery descriptions about soil and accents of apricot, but these never help me figure out which wine pairs best with my meal. The whole wine-ordering business makes me feel incompetent and inadequate. Do you have any simple advice for how to order wine?

    — Josh

    The first thing to realize when picking from a wine list is that you are in a battlefield. This is a battle for your wallet — a fight between the restaurant, whose interest is to get as much of your money as possible right now, and your savings account. The restaurant’s owners have much more data than you do about how people make their wine decisions, and they also get to set up the menu in a way that gives them the upper hand.

    In particular, restaurants know that people make relative decisions: If a place includes some very expensive wines on its list (say, bottles for $200 or more), customers are unlikely to order them, but their mere presence on the list will make a $70 bottle seem much more reasonable.

    Restaurants also know that many of us are cheap — but we don’t want to seem cheap, which means that almost no one orders the cheapest wine on the menu. The wine of choice for cheapskates is the second-cheapest wine on the list.

    Finally, the restaurants have another weapon in their arsenal: waiters and sommeliers who add to our feelings of inadequacy and confusion and, in the haze of our decision-making, can easily push us toward more expensive wines.

    Now that you are starting to think about ordering wine as a battle, or maybe a game of chess, you can think ahead. Perhaps decide in advance to spend up to a certain amount of money on wine. Or tell the waiter that you have a religious rule against spending more than a set sum on wine and ask for a recommendation that would fit within your boundaries.

    And if you really want to strike back, inform the waiter that you have allocated a total of $50 for the tip and wine combined — so the more you spend on wine, the less you will leave for a tip. Now let’s see what they recommend.

  10. See this advice from Cornell University School of Hotel Administration professor Michael Lynn:

    “Mega Tips: Scientifically Tested Techniques to Increase Your Tips”


  11. Other reading . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (November 6, 2008, Page D9):

    “When Is a Gratuity Gratuitous?;
    We Give Big Tips to Some, Stiff Others”


    By Neal Templin
    “Cheapskate” Column

  12. Other reading . . .

    From Los Angeles Times “Travel” Section
    (April 18, 2004, Page L3):

    “Grin Big, Predict Sun and Tuck a Flower Behind Each Ear;
    Tips don’t really have anything to do with service,
    says the author of a guide on how to get greater gratuities”


    By Jane Engle
    Times Staff Writer

  13. Other reading (part 1 of 2) . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (August 8, 2014):

    “Tips for More Tips:
    Waitresses Who Draw Smiley Faces Make More Money”


    By Jo Craven McGinty
    “The Numbers” Column

  14. Other reading (part 2 of 2) . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
    (August 9-10, 2014, Page A2):

    “Tips Don’t Add Up for Most Waiters and Waitresses;
    Some Live in Poverty, While Median Income Falls Below Average”


    [See accompanying exhibit]

    By Jo Craven McGinty
    “The Numbers” Column

  15. The years-old link to Professor Michael Lynn’s article titled “Mega Tips” has been replaced:


    Or . . .

  16. The years-old link to Professor Michael Lynn’s article titled “Mega Tips” has been replaced.

    Alternately try:

  17. I left California in 2008,and I’m sure that I don’t know as much as some of your other readers, but here are some of my thoughts on Alexander Valley Cab:

    I have always been a huge fan of Stryker Sonoma, and I’m never dissapointed by old standby’s like Jordan and Christopher Creek. I appreciate that those wines are often much cheaper than the stuff coming out of Napa. But while the Sonoma County Zinfandel or Petite Sirah can rival the best wines from anywhere in the world, I do think that Alexander Valley still plays second fiddle to the Napa Valley in terms of quality Bordeaux varietals.

  18. Waiters pouring wine at the table? NO.

    I say immediately “STOP, thank you for your kind attention, but we need no help in the pace of our wine drinking.”

    And another time I say STOP is the gratuitous uninvited immersion of white wine into an ice bucket. White wine that arrives at the dining table direct from refrigerator temperature always profits from warming.

    The Christopher Hitchens link was just right.

  19. Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Off Duty” Section
    (February 21-22, 2015, Page D1ff):

    “In Defense of the Notoriously Arrogant French Waiter”


    By Cristina Nehring

    The French waiter has a bad reputation and he knows it.

    . . .

    The much-maligned and often misunderstood French waiter is an inscrutable breed unto himself, distinguished by his pokerfaced elegance, tangible pride, easy authority and incontrovertible expertise. . . .

    . . .

    At least part of the reason French waiters have such a bad reputation can be chalked up to cultural differences. The French garçon de café will not hesitate to correct your pronunciation, for instance, because he thinks you want to pronounce things correctly. He will not bring your check unless you ask him, because he considers it rude to intrude upon your party. He may speak to you with what—particularly to American ears—appears to be impenetrable coolness, because he is there to serve you, not to be your pal. Which is why, in mid-2013, the Paris tourism board launched its “Do You Speak Touriste?” education initiative to encourage cultural understanding and a kinder, gentler approach in the ranks of waiters and others who frequently deal with tourists. Asked whether the campaign has succeeded in making the city’s famously frosty waiters any warmer and fuzzier, tourism board spokeswoman Véronique Potelet replied diplomatically, “We know that work remains to be done, but the situation certainly is not catastrophic.”

    Unlike his American counterpart, a French waiter would never come curtsying up to your table to introduce himself: “Hi everyone, my name is Johnny and I’ll be your server today! Do you have any questions about the menu?” (Nor would his respect for the ritual of the meal—and for the meal itself—permit him to ceaselessly interrupt diners to inquire “And how is everything?”)

    . . .

    More than 60% of Paris waiters have graduated from such schools, which are almost uniformly respected by veterans of the trade. “In your country,” one of the instructors explained, “waiting tables is not a career; it is something you do to pay for college. Here it is something you go to college to learn.”

    . . . I resolved to question him [one of the waiters] . . . about the notoriety of his profession.

    “Mais non! We are not ‘arrogant,’” he replied. “We are proud.”

    “And why are you proud?” I asked.

    “Our culinary culture is worshiped the world over,” he said. “Our wine is worshiped. Even our coffee is worshiped! We’re a bit like vestal virgins.” He broke into a rakish smile: “Except that…we are really — really — experienced.”

    Article sidebar: “French Garçon Do’s and Don’ts;
    How to navigate your next encounter with this highly pedigreed breed”

    — Do say a confident and slightly upward-inflected “Bonjour” upon entering any Paris drinking or dining establishment. To slink in silently is to suggest either rudeness or timidity.
    — Do ask what wine best accompanies the dishes you select, and what dishes, for that matter, go well together. The French waiter always knows, and you’ll be glad you asked.
    — Do order all courses at once—entrée (first course), plat (main course) and dessert (dessert)—when opting for the three-course “menu.”
    — Do ask for the check when you’re ready: It will not come automatically. French waiters consider it impolite to bring a meal bill unless they are about to end their shift. “”L’addition s’il vous plaît?” will do—or a simple hand signal.
    — Do say “Bonne journée” or “Bonne soirée” as you exit. You can never employ too many expressions with “bon(ne)” in France: “Bon appétit” (to your dining partner) or ““bon courage” (to your overworked waiter).
    — Don’t seat yourself at a table for six if there are only two of you. Space in Paris cafes is at a premium.
    — Don’t holler “Garçon!” across the room or wave your arms to attract attention. Catch your waiter’s eye, as you would if furtively flirting with someone very busy; if necessary, pronounce an assertive “S’il vous plaît!”
    — Don’t ever ask for your waiter’s name—or volunteer your own.
    — Don’t discuss the weather or your opinions on the Eiffel Tower. Dining is serious business in France and no occasion for small talk. Besides, your waiter is busy.
    — DON’T LEAVE A 25% TIP. THAT WILL ONLY BARAND YOU AS A SUCKER. Five euros for a hundred euro meal is generous. One euro for a 19 euro meal is fine.
    — Don’t (ever) ask what your waiter hopes to be in the future. He hopes to be a waiter. Food service is an honorable career in France. To suggest he’s bussing tables on his way to becoming an actor, film director or psychiatrist is an insult. The actor, director or psychiatrist is as likely to be training for a career as a waiter.

  20. Erratum.

    — DON’T LEAVE A 25% TIP. THAT WILL ONLY BRAND YOU AS A SUCKER. Five euros for a hundred euro meal is generous. One euro for a 19 euro meal is fine.

  21. Cabernet FRANC is such an overlooked grape variety in the North Coast, relegated largely to its role as a blending component, but worthy of stand-alone bottling.

    When you find them, they are well-made and fairly priced.

    But don’t take my word on it. Take this guy’s:

  22. From (Santa Rosa) The Press Democrat “Food+Wine” Section
    (November 23, 2011, Page D1ff):

    “King Cab;
    Tasting tours: If for you, life is a cabernet, then the Alexander Valley is your destination.”


    By Peg Melnik

    [Accompanying the print edition of the article, but missing online is a color map of Alexander Valley, with an adjacent “winery key” box listing “a good sampling of wineries best known for producing great cabs.”]

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts