A few months ago, I was invited to a high-end New York restaurant to review it. Usually when reviewing restaurants, I pay my own expenses, but in this case the meal was comped. Still, I wanted to leave a tip. I had forgotten my credit card at home, so I simply left a $10 bill, all I had in my wallet, and we went home. Later, upon calculating the tip, I realized that it should have been well over $25 considering the actual cost of the meal and drinks. I looked like a cheapskate scoffing in the face of their good deed. I still feel terrible about this as they really pulled out the stops to make me feel welcome, and I want to do something in return to make up for my misstep. Is it gauche to send money via PayPal with a memo like "Thanks for the meal, sorry about the shitty tip"? How does one remedy this?
—Haunted By My Non-Tip
You're right to want to correct your mistake. Fixing a flubbed tip is the ethical thing to do. But it also ensures you won't get a frosty reception should you return. Servers always remember non-tippers, says Max Belkin*, a server with 25 years of experience and the creator of the blog Waiternotes. "They come in six months later and I'll have a feeling of dread," he says.
Your server has no way of knowing that your mis-tip was an accident. He may assume you're a 10-percent-tipping tightwad, or he may conclude that you're just not a very nice person. According to Belkin, on occasion devious diners like to "accidentally" pocket both copies of the credit card receipt. The check gets paid because the restaurant has already run the card, but the server gets stiffed.
Of course, people do flub the tip for honest reasons, like farsightedness. Belkin explains: "Older people for vanity don't have their glasses on and get the eights and zeroes on computer printouts confused." But the usual explanation is, of course, alcohol. I must confess that I recently did not tip for this reason. I had two cocktails in quick succession. The check arrived and I drunkenly wrote the tip only on the "customer copy" of the receipt, which I pocketed.
If the server suspects your mis-tip was an accident, he is powerless to point it out, says Belkin. There is no polite way for a server to tell a customer that the tip is unsatisfactory. It's like complaining to someone because you feel he didn't give you a nice enough gift.
Most people never return to augment their own tip (some do return to augment someone else's bad tip, but that's another topic). It happens "about 5 percent of the time," says Belkin. This is unsurprising, since if you're drunk, you may not remember how you got home, let alone whether you left an appropriate gratuity. In my case, it was only when reviewing my credit card statement, days later, that I realized my mistake.
As for remedying the situation, it only takes a phone call. Ask the restaurant to add the tip to your credit card. "Technically we're supposed ... to have a signed and totaled receipt in our possession," says Belkin, but most restaurants will overlook this and add the tip to your total on their computer. (If the place only accepts cash, you'll have to mail a check.)
Usually you can find the name of the server on the receipt, says Belkin, especially at bigger places. At smaller places, they can probably figure out who served you based on your description of the server or even where you were sitting.
In my case, the restaurant is just a few blocks from my house, so I stopped in with an envelope of money marked with my bartender's name. I left it with the hostess. She didn't seem overcome with gratitude, but I felt that my karma went up a few notches.
*He asked that his real name not be used.