Bad Dinner, No Tip

Dear Helena,

I recently went to a (nice) Asian restaurant with my boyfriend. Our server was rather surly the whole time; when we said we just wanted waters he slammed two glasses in front of us. I finished most of my glass before realizing there was some unidentifiable schmutz hanging out in the bottom (our silverware was also filthy). My sushi was a ball of rice with a speck of salmon on top and my dumplings were massive dough balls with OK vegetables but foul-tasting pork; my boyfriend’s beef was inedible and his pork bun came out almost half an hour after everything else. When I told our waiter about a few of these faux pas, he laughed at us, which sealed my decision (even as a former waiter) not to tip on our $50 meal. He picked up my credit card slip before we made it out of the restaurant and began to berate us in front of the entire restaurant. Were we in the wrong here? —Faintly Nauseous

Dear Faintly Nauseous,

When you get bad service, you can’t always be sure it’s the server’s fault. If your burger takes 45 minutes to arrive, it could be because the server was too stoned to place your order, or because the kitchen is slammed. If he doesn’t bring the ketchup, it could be because he’s lazy, or because the place is understaffed. So unless the server has poured gravy in your lap and made a pass at your wife, you should always leave some kind of tip.

In your case, this may seem unfair. Although your server wasn’t responsible for cooking the food or washing the glasses, he could have managed a simple apology, instead of laughing in your face. But as Chowhounds have pointed out in their discussion of this issue, not tipping may hurt staff besides the server. If the restaurant is a “pooled house” (where servers share tips with runners, busboys, and other employees), when you don’t leave a tip, you’re punishing all the other staff members too.

In any case, when you don’t leave a tip, the gesture could be misinterpreted. Phoebe Damrosch, author of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter and a former server at Per Se, says: “If you don’t tip, it’s easy for the waiter to rationalize that you’re cheap or European.” Or, says Janet Wesley∗, a server at Gary Danko, it could look like you’re “drunk and can’t handle the math.”

Because it doesn’t send a clear message, leaving no tip is emotionally unsatisfying. It’s just punishment for punishment’s sake. “Revenge doesn’t feel all that good in the long run,” says Damrosch. You’ll feel much better if you communicate clearly why you’re unhappy, and you may improve the restaurant.

When you get the check, tip 10 percent, and explain why. If you leave 10 percent, the server won’t think you’re a drunk, a jerk, or a cheapskate, and he or she will have to take you seriously. Says Damrosch: “If you leave 10 percent and make it clear you didn’t have a good time, they’ll think of you as a good citizen and feel badly.”

You can explain to the manager on the spot. But if the place is slammed, that might not be the best time to get his attention; and if you’ve had a bad dinner, you may just want to slink home for some Pepto-Bismol or a nightcap. Plus direct confrontation is not to everyone’s taste. Wesley confesses: “I don’t have the vocabulary or confidence to [criticize the service] in a nice way without sounding arrogant.”

Instead, email the restaurant the next day and air your grievances. This might seem like too much bother. But you may get a bonus: “If the restaurant is decent they may offer you something in the future,” Damrosch says. Of course, even if the restaurant offers you a free bottle of champagne, you may not be inclined to return. But your feedback could save others from suffering through a meal as bad as yours.

∗Her name has been changed at her request.

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