A Check on Rude Behavior

Dear Helena,
When I go out to dinner with friends we have an unwritten rule to split the bill and use cash. One person in our group always seems to “forget” to bring cash so he can take the group’s money and put the entire bill on his rewards-earning credit card. What would you do in that situation?
—Confused

Dear Confused,
Since everyone else seems happy to pay cash, your friend’s behavior isn’t wrong. He’s merely taking an opportunity no one else seems to want (much like pocketing an unwanted bread roll from the dinner table). It’s silly for him to fib about “forgetting” cash when everybody knows his motives. He should be relishing the spirit of bonhomie, not mentally adding up the points on his MasterCard, and it’s perfectly OK to tease him about it.

Dear Helena,
It really annoys me when servers bring the check before I’ve asked for it. Sometimes they bring it in the middle of dessert—for all they know I could have been planning to order coffee. It makes me feel like they’re rushing me out of the restaurant. It would be OK if I’d been hanging out for four hours and they were trying to give me a polite hint to leave, but servers do it when I’ve barely had the table for 45 minutes. Shouldn’t they wait to bring the check until I’ve asked for it?
—I Wanted a Second Piece of Pie

Dear I Wanted a Second Piece of Pie,
In a good restaurant, the check should never arrive before you’re ready for it. Anne Stoll, co-owner of Delfina and Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco, says, “Even if you’re dining at our pizzeria and there’s a huge line, the server should always ask you if you want dessert and never bring the check when you’re still eating.” You’re right that servers often deposit the check as a hint that they want to turn the table. But they shouldn’t do that unless you’ve long outstayed your welcome.

Nonetheless, in America you should not have to ask for the check (let alone be forced to mime scribbling on your hand to a server on the other side of the room). Martha Keller, adjunct table service instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, says servers should know a table is ready for the check when “all offerings have been suggested—desserts, coffee, liqueurs”—and either consumed or declined. If the server is still unsure whether you’re fully sated, he should ask, “May I bring anything else?”

While we’re on the topic of bringing the check, let me add a couple of other points. A server shouldn’t make a comment like “I hope you had a really great meal” at the same time as he presents the check, because it seems too much like a reminder that he deserves a tip. Keller explains, “The service should speak for itself. A simple ‘thank you’ is enough.”

Asking if you want change is also a faux pas. A server should bring it automatically and not put you on the spot about how much you want to tip.

Dear Helena,
Whenever my nephew is in town, I take him out for dinner. He always orders the most expensive thing on the menu—be it lobster ravioli or grass-fed steak. It’s not that I can’t afford it, but the fact that he does it every time—even when I’m just ordering soup and salad—seems like taking advantage to me. If you take someone out to dinner, is it OK for him to order the most expensive thing on the menu? If he does it repeatedly, how can you stop him without seeming like an old skinflint?
—Soup-Sipping Aunt

Dear Soup-Sipping Aunt,
Your guest is perfectly entitled to order the most expensive item on the menu—provided it’s only a few bucks more than the other dishes. But if the price is 30 percent more (as a rule of thumb), it’s good manners to pick something else. For example, at New York’s Pastis, the steak frites is $34 and the second costliest entrée is $26. So a guest may order steak without guilt. But at Cyrus in Healdsburg, California, the tasting menus range from $102 to $130, and the caviar selection is $190—well over 30 percent more. A guest shouldn’t order osetra caviar unless you beg him to.

There is one exception to the 30 percent rule: If you order the most expensive item, your guest may, too. You can hardly expect him to order a salad while you’re plowing through the truffle-tasting menu.

Rather than drop tacky hints (“You want to order the lobster? Hmm, it’s kind of pricey”), nip this problem in the bud by taking him to lower-priced restaurants where you’ll feel less annoyed if he orders the costliest entrée.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.