It all started out as a bit of harmless fun, a couple of quid here and there after a particularly enjoyable meal. Tip what you like, when you like - those were the rules.
But before long, some restaurants got a bit too big for their boots and the cheekiness began. Quite often now, huddled away in size eight font at the bottom of a menu, lurks the line: “A 10 percent service charge will be added to the bill.”
What was previously a way of showing appreciation for good service is now not only expected, but enforced. Of course you could just refuse to pay - and you’d be within our rights if the service was subpar - but, being British, the economic shortfall would be more than made up for by the level of embarrassment involved.
This irritating trend of mandatory tipping takes the p*ss most spectacularly in two situations.
The first is in self-service restaurants. SELF-SERVICE restaurants. Fancy something to drink with that MSG? Of course you do, but it’s going to set you back a pound for someone to pick up that overpriced coke and bring it over. Imagine if that level of guilt-fuelled generosity existed in other aspects of life too. Pass the salt? Show me the Benjamins.
The second situation came along the other day when I was enticed into a Camden restaurant by promises of half price dim sum. Being a) a debt-ridden recent graduate and b) absolutely tragic for dim sum, imagine my dismay when the compulsory service charge was double what I had anticipated. You see, it had been calculated before the discount was applied, effectively putting it at 20% of the bill.
“I have to pay my staff,” came the manager’s reply when I picked him up on the matter. And therein lies the problem.
Although it’s no longer legal for restaurant owners to use gratuity to bump their employees’ wages up to minimum wage, enforced tips are clearly still being relied upon when it comes to staff pay packets.
Of course, the majority of waiters work incredibly hard and are often on their feet for hours at a time, so they shouldn’t stand to lose out from any change. Instead, let’s just be upfront about it - price staff wages into the food and leave the small print to the mortgage brokers. That way you know right off the bat exactly what you’ll be paying, without having to cough up more to subsidise one of the manager’s overheads.
What’s more, once waiters are properly paid, the prospect of a discretional tip acts as a sort of incentivised bonus. Out for a meal in Leicester Square for my mother’s birthday earlier in the summer, our waiter was not only competent, but took the time to have a laugh with us and - most impressively - responded well to my dad’s inevitable attempt at banter (explaining to the Geordie, in his best Newcastle accent, just how much we loved watching Ant and Dec as children). The willing tip payment that followed was somewhat dumbed down by the fact that, had our waiter been grumpy and useless, he’d still be pocketing the same amount.
So, with claims that Londoners are dining out nearly four times a week, let’s pave the way in the opposite direction to the US where every tiny deed done for someone comes with a cash reward. Waiters would get a decent wage and a little bit extra if they impress, and I’d get my dim sum guilt free, at least until I start thinking about the calories.