No Drinks = Bad Service

Dear Helena,
Last Saturday I went to a new pizza place and it was packed. The waiter asked if we wanted drinks and we said, "No, just tap water." When we ordered our pizzas, he asked us a second time if we wanted drinks. We said no again and he basically checked out for the rest of the night. Should we have felt guilty about taking up a table on a busy night without ordering drinks?
—Healthy Liver

Dear Healthy Liver,
Are you really surprised that big spenders get better service? Servers do work for tips, you know.

Of course, servers won't admit this kind of discrimination on the record. The official line is that all diners are potential repeat customers—not to mention online reviewers—so everyone gets the same attention, whether they are a couple who split a salad or a table of six who order everything on the menu. But once I grant servers anonymity, they confess the truth: On any given night, the prospect of a big tip trumps long-term considerations. As Michael Nagrant, dining critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, says: "There is a direct correlation between the amount of Bordeaux you order and the quality of service you receive."

Alcohol has a high profit margin, but that's not the only reason servers prefer drinkers. Nagrant explains: "Drinkers spend more, and not just on booze." A drinker, Nagrant included, is more likely to order a cheese course, dessert, a postdinner drink, and some coffee. "The kind of person who doesn't order alcohol [usually] won't order all of those things," says Nagrant. "Nothing breeds hunger like drinking." Drinking also breeds nonchalance toward long-term consequences. Who cares what the check is? Let's live a little and order a round of 30-year-old Cognac!

I'll get in trouble with some readers if I say that drinkers have more fun, so let's just say that drinkers often end up in a more convivial mood—and so leave a big tip (unless, of course, they're so drunk they forget to tip altogether).

Obviously, you're perfectly entitled to order as little as you want—though on a busy night, you should avoid "camping" at your table. But you get what you pay for, and in this case, that means less attentive service. Servers may peg you as abstemious or even cheap. Furthermore, nondrinkers can make annoying beverage requests, one server told me. "Hot water with lemon is the bane of everyone's existence": It's time-consuming and free. In other words, the server doesn't get a tip for it.

So yes, unless you order six bottles of San Pellegrino and ask for fresh truffles to be shaved over your pizza, as a nondrinker, you'll inevitably get less attention. But look on the bright side: You won't wake up with a hangover.

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