July 7, 2010

Soup to Nuts: When splitting the check, think ahead

Here's the dish on when it's OK – or, more often, not – to ask for separate checks ... and other stuff you should know when dining out.

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.

click image to enlarge

Staff Illustration/Jeff Woodbury


HERE ARE SOME TIPS from etiquette experts and servers on how to approach splitting a bill:

• Think ahead. When you call the restaurant to make reservations, ask if they provide separate checks. Inform your server at the beginning of the meal, not afterward.
“It gives us a chance to write everything down and keep track,” says Bobby Young, a server at DiMillo’s in Portland. “The more you can inform your server, the better off everybody’s going to be. Don’t spring it on us.”

• If you’re the one who invited everyone, never involve your guests in paying the check.
“A guest should not even say, 'May I pay the tip?’ because the person who does the inviting, it’s their responsibility,” said Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington and resident etiquette expert for “The Ellen Degeneres Show.”

• If you see someone at the table being treated unfairly when the check arrives, speak up. Suggest they kick in only what they owe and a portion of the tip.

• If you’re going out with a big group and you know you can’t afford to split a check evenly, bring it up ahead of time. Tell the group you would love to join them but are trying to save money. Say: “Is it OK if I just order something small and pay for that?” Thinking ahead will help you avoid sticky situations at the end of the meal.

• If you’re splitting the check, don’t forget to figure in your server’s tip appropriately.

“A lot of times people split checks, they’ll do half cash, half (credit) card,” said Joe Richhio, who works at Miyake in Portland, “but then you get screwed because the idiot who pays with the card forgets what the other half of the bill is and just tips on their half. Then you end up losing half the tip.”

• Don’t get offended if your server asks if you need change when she collects the bill from the table. It’s really not a ploy to get a bigger tip, Young says, or an insinuation that you are cheap. “Say you have a table of 10, you’ve added the gratuity,” Young explains. “If they’re paying cash, it’s easier to say if you’re all set with that, I can just put it in my pocket and deal with it later. I don’t have to make change and bring it back to the table. It’s one less step.”


THE DODGER – Shifts uncomfortably in his chair or excuses himself to the men’s room when the check comes, hoping someone else will pick up the tab.

THE BP EXEC – When he sees the damage, he throws a little cash on the table, hoping it will appease the group even though he knows it won’t cover what he owes.

EVEN STEVEN – Advocates splitting the check evenly, even if he had an appetizer and dessert with his entree (the most expensive one on the menu) while everyone else had salads.

IDIOT SAVANT – Whips out a calculator as soon as the bill appears to make sure she doesn’t have to pay a penny more than she owes.

THE SUCKER – Eats an appetizer, then subsidizes her friends’ expensive meals because she has no spine and won’t object to Even Steven.

THE BLEEDING HEART – Sticks up for the sucker, or quietly throws in an extra $10 or $20 to ease her pain.

DADDY WARBUCKS – Swoops in and pays the entire bill because he has a big ego, he’s bad at math, or he’s tired of hearing everyone argue.

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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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