Your friend Joe has just spent the last couple of hours downing expensive single-malt Scotch and a lovely filet mignon, side dishes priced separately.
You, on the other hand, had a light appetizer and have been picking at a salad. You’re drinking iced tea – and not the Long Island kind. (There’s a recession on, you know.)
Here comes the bill.
Some diners in your large group – the Dodgers – avert their eyes, hoping someone else will pick up the whole tab. Others – we’ll call them the BP Execs – throw a little cash on the table, hoping it will appease the group even though they know full well it doesn’t cover what they owe.
It’s July, the time when summer dining season really swings into high gear. Diners are going out more with friends or showing off Portland’s restaurant scene to visiting relatives. It can be a lot of fun, but dining in a larger group also means some awkwardness when it comes time to pay the bill.
Invariably, someone ends up overpaying and it turns them into a tightly wound bouquet garni of resentment.
You could just pay separately, but that comes with its own baggage. Asking the server for separate checks can make you cringe like a puppy looking up at a rolled-up newspaper. You never quite know what’s coming next from the person who’s supposed to be taking care of you – a gracious “of course,” or a dirty look that says, “You just ruined my whole afternoon.”
We asked some etiquette experts how to navigate this tricky territory, and also asked some servers from local restaurants to weigh in with what drives them crazy and thoughts on how to handle the situation.
First of all, both etiquette gurus and wait staff say it’s always best to think ahead.
“What I have determined is it’s best when you make the reservation to ask the restaurant if they give separate checks to several people,” said Dorothea Johnson of Yarmouth, founder of the Protocol School of Washington and resident etiquette expert for “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” “It just seems to me that it should be made obvious to everyone ahead of time.”
You should also have a conversation with your friends ahead of time about how the bill will be divvied up, said Lizzie Post, co-author of “Emily Post’s Great Get-Togethers: Casual Parties & Elegant Gatherings at Home.” She suggests considering having one person pay the bill, then dividing it up later, which is only a good option if you don’t have deadbeat friends.
If you’re the one inviting people out to eat, don’t even think about asking to split the cost. If you say, “I want you to come celebrate Jim’s 50th birthday with us and four other couples,” that’s an invitation and it’s your responsibility to foot the bill, Post said.
“There is a big difference between organizing something and inviting somebody,” Post said, “and I think that difference really needs to be spelled out because people’s feelings get really hurt or they get in very embarrassing situations because of it.”
Bobby Young, a server at DiMillo’s in Portland, has seen plenty of humiliation play out at tables over the 15 years she’s worked in the industry.
“You’ve got one guy having the surf ’n turf and the three glasses of wine and the dessert, and the other guy had a salad and a bowl of chowder and (someone says), ‘Let’s just split it,’ ” she said. “Well, no. Why should you pay for somebody else’s good time?”
The kindest thing to do, if you see someone at your table being financially bullied by Even Steven, is to either speak up or throw a little extra cash into the pot as a lifeline, Post said. Even better, if you’re the one with the thin wallet, is to speak up for yourself. If anyone objects to your objections, “I think we all know what they look like.”
At the other extreme are the Idiot Savants – the folks who pull out a calculator to figure what each person owes, down to the last penny, then insist that one person pay the extra $1.12 they owe.
“I’d be sure I didn’t include them the next time,” Johnson said, laughing. “That is just ridiculous.”
This could all be solved with separate checks, but Johnson said a lot of upscale restaurants will no longer provide them. In Portland, it really depends on the restaurant. Some places welcome separate checks; others do not allow them. And attitudes among servers are just as varied.
At the Great Lost Bear, it states right on the menu that parties of six or more can expect to receive a single check at the end of the meal.
“I tell them on the phone that we do not do separate checks,” said Pam Maria, a server for 29 years. “What we do tell people is that because we have a pretty good computer, it will do multiple payments, but it’s up to them to come up with a number.”
That means customers can put $20 on one credit card, $25 on another and pay the rest in cash, or they can even do an even split among the group– but Maria won’t backtrack and figure out what everyone had for dinner and how much they owe.
Some places allow separate checks but point out that it’s easier on the server if you ask for them at the beginning of the meal. “If I have a large party that asks for separate checks,” Young said, “I always say I need two things from you: Order in order, and no interrupting. I’ll get back to you, I promise. Because what happens is, person number two orders and person number four is ordering, and person number two says ‘Oh! I want that.’ And it ruins the rhythm.”
Sometimes people want separate checks because they know the people they’re dining with are bad tippers, Young said, and they want to make sure the server knows it’s not them.
If a restaurant has good software, split checks are not usually a problem. The system at Havana South in Portland allows a server to split a check up to 28 ways, says owner Michael Boland.
“At all of our restaurants, we make it clear that the servers should politely meet any split check request,” he said. “I remind them that one of the reasons we have invested thousands of dollars in a computer system is to make their job easier, including the splitting of checks.”
That doesn’t make it any easier to go back and figure out what each guest had, he added, so guests should always alert their servers that they want separate checks before the meal begins.
But there are still plenty of restaurants in Portland that write checks by hand, including the popular dining spots Hugo’s and Miyake. Miyake does not provide separate checks, says Joe Ricchio, who is on the staff there.
“My biggest pet peeve with (splitting checks) is when three adults come in and the bill is, like, $25 to $30 and they split it three ways on three cards,” he said. “And it’s like nobody cares enough to look grown up and carry around any cash, or can’t just pick up the tab. And now we incur three credit card charges because the 5-year-olds all have to pay with their credit cards. That’s utterly obnoxious to me.”
Hugo’s also has a policy of not giving separate checks, although if a group calls ahead of time to ask “and if it’s not a crazy Saturday, we’ll accommodate,” said Arlin Smith, general manager of the restaurant.
Hugo’s does accept separate forms of payment, and the customers must decide how they want to divvy up the bill.
But if it gets too complicated – too many credit cards thrown on the table, maybe a cash payment thrown in as well – “I have my servers step aside, take a deep breath and go back to them with a pad and a piece of paper and tell them to figure it out, to write everything down instead of just verbalizing. Because every time that it’s verbalized, it gets screwed up one way or another.”
And the more forms of payment there are, the greater the risk of error, notes Megan Schroeter, a server at Evangeline in Portland. “It just gets confusing,” she said. “When there’s three of the exact same credit card, you have to get down to the very name and number of the card to make sure that you’re not charging the same card twice, which just takes a little bit more time when you’re in a busy service.”
Schroeter finds it humorous how seriously some diners take splitting the bill, and worries that their anxiety over payment may take away from enjoyment of their meal.
“I just feel everyone should relax about it because everyone’s always so uptight about it, and I feel like it’s a crimp in their experience,” she said.
But even diners who work in the restaurant industry are not immune when it comes to worrying about the check.
oung says she often goes out to eat with co-workers, “and we have one person who is a server and he pays what he thinks his meal should have been worth,” she said.
“We’re all aware of it now, so we ask for separate checks when we go in,” Young said, laughing.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]