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.

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: mgoad@pressherald.com


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