Dinner with a Tightwad

Dear Helena,

My dad is a stingy tipper. He once refused to pay a tip on wine. He actually calculated the tip based on the bill minus the cost of the wine. The maître d’ then followed him out to ask him whether everything was OK, and he didn’t explain his process—he said everything was great—which made me crazy. Since it’s my dad, I can usually look over his shoulder and convince him to add a little more to the tip. But if it’s someone else, it’s so hard. If someone tips poorly, is it OK to go back and leave a little more on the table? —Penny Pincher’s Daughter

Dear Penny Pincher’s Daughter,

It’s not unusual for one person to question another’s tip, because there’s no universal agreement on what’s correct. When I asked around, most people said they consider 18 percent to be standard, but those who’ve worked in the restaurant industry tend to be more generous. Phoebe Damrosch, author of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter and a former captain at New York’s Per Se, says 20 percent is her standard tip: “It’s a karma thing. I’ve made a great living as a waiter, and I have to make up for it.” But, says Damrosch, “I have older relatives who pay 15 or double the tax.”

So what do you do if your dinner companion leaves what you consider to be a tightwad tip? You could preempt him by offering to leave the tip yourself. But then you have to know how much the dinner was—and if he paid for your dinner, that’s like asking to look at the price tag of a gift.

You could also confront your companion directly. But I don’t advise that. For one thing, he just bought dinner (or at least left the tip), so it’s not the best moment to criticize. If you must bring the matter up, do so at another time. But if you don’t have a good relationship with the person, you may prefer to pick your battles. Mike J., a wine salesman in Los Angeles who preferred not to give his last name, says his father regularly leaves 12 percent tips. This makes Mike cringe, because he worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years. But he still prefers not to mention it, saving his energy for bigger confrontations: “We have plenty of other issues and emotional conflicts.”

The best strategy is to leave a stealth tip. Secrecy is essential, because if the person discovers you, he’ll be insulted. “It’s like you’re calling them cheap,” says Mike. Walk the other person out of the restaurant, then make an excuse to go back. “I’ll say I have to use the restroom,” says Crash Anova, a personal trainer in San Francisco. “I’ll say I forgot something,” says Damrosch. At Per Se, she remembers, “occasionally people would leave money hidden under things, like stuffed under the flower arrangement.” But Damrosch prefers to give the cash directly to the server. You don’t have to explain that you think your dinner companion is a cheapskate. Instead, she advises pretending that you’re rewarding the server for “doing something especially for you.” For instance, “You could say, ‘Thank you for making my father-in-law’s birthday so special.’”

It might seem simpler to drop the cash on the table, but then if your companion returns, he’s more likely to catch you. He may even take the money away. Anova says a friend once slapped some extra money down to supplement his tip and “totally embarrassed me.” The friend told Anova what she had done, but, he says, “I honestly believed the tip was fair and just.” He adds, “I went back and took the money off the table, then bought myself some gum.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.