Liberate diners from service charges

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The Independent Online
As the House of Lords discussed in its debate yesterday, tipping in restaurants is an anachronism - the left-overs from a period when service implied servants from the lower ranks rather than professionals, the equal of those dining. Its function nowadays has little or nothing to do with service rendered anyway, and is in fact twofold, hiding part of the real cost of eating out, and also subsidising the wage costs incurred by the restaurant and hotel trade. Superficially this is a good arrangement for everyone except those paying.

The origins of the service charge, which Lord Bradford's Private Member's Bill seeks to abolish, lie, perversely, in previous attempts to rationalise this awkward and inconvenient business. Ten per cent, then later 15 per cent, was added to the total bill so that both diner and waiting staff should know how much was expected. In some respects it was a success but it was never "optional" in any real sense - an extra reward for extra attention - and its demise is overdue.

Banishing tipping is not as straightforward, however, and nobody would want a return to the previous messy and uncertain arrangement. Should this proposal become law, the restaurant and hotel trade will still need to put its house in order if there is to be any improvement for those at the sharp end of the transaction - those with the bill.

Part of the overall problem facing restaurants is that the paying punters are uncomfortable with all this rubbish - dress codes, tipping and the like. That's why pubs now attract so many diners willing to pay sizeable amounts of money for a straightforward meal served without fuss and without hidden extras. It is not unreasonable before eating to want some clue to the final cost of a meal. Nor is it reasonable after the meal to be confronted with any expectations other than a bit of appreciation.

Certainly, nobody wants the American system. There, you must carry around a large wad of suitably denominated notes so as to order a cup of coffee or check in luggage, or else face problems from hovering porters with fixed smiles and itchy palms.

The real cure for tipping will have come when no tip is expected - probably at the same time as proper wages are paid to service staff. If this means a 10 to 15 per cent increase in restaurant prices then at least everyone will know where they stand. Those hovering for something extra may then be treated as the importuning beggars that they really are and the catering trade may slowly creep into the modern world. Better late than never, one supposes.

The writer is chef-patron of The Merchant House in Ludlow.