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.

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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.

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.

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