Tipping point: How much should I leave in restaurants?

Tipping has got tricky when eating out. Here’s how to navigate the minefield.

It used to be simple. You’d leave some money for your waiter if the service was good. But more often than not, I’m finding this “discretionary” charge automatically added to the bill. The implication is you’ve got to pay it, even if the food arrived cold or your side of chips never made it to the table.

How much you should tip seems to vary depending on where you are. 10% used to be the standard here in the UK, but in London you’ll most likely see 12.5% recommended, maybe even 15%. And in Yorkshire, where I now live, tipping isn’t generally expected when you eat out (though it’s appreciated!).

And then there are questions over who actually gets the money. Will it go to your waiter or waitress? Will the management pocket it themselves?

Here’s more on these and some of the tipping dilemmas I struggle with – and some advice on what you can do in the same situations.

How much should I tip?

I’ve seen more and more examples recently of the tip in restaurants set at 12.5% or even 15% – and I can’t work out why.

Yes in the USA you can easily pay 20% in tips when you eat out, but here wait staff are far better paid. There’s no reason to increase it for standard service.

I stick to 10% for decent service in the UK, rounding up if the experience has been exceptional, and I think that’s still a fair rule of thumb for everyone to follow.

Who gets the tip in restaurants?

I’m sure you remember the micro-scandal a few years back when it was revealed some of the big restaurant chains took an admin fee from tips left by customers. A backlash meant places like Pizza Express cut this charge and made sure all the money went to the service staff – but it still goes on in other restaurants.

In fact, a “service charge” on your bill might not even get to employees at all. Though many will pass it on, there’s no guarantee any of it will end up in a waiter’s pocket.

Some places will also pool all tips and distribute among all the waiting staff, others might split it between front and backroom staff. I’m not saying splitting tips like this is wrong – I don’t know how much they get paid compared to the waiters – but since every restaurant has a different policy, it’s impossible to know where your money goes.

It’s definitely worth discretely asking who gets the money so you can make a call before handing anything over.

Is a cash tip better than one on a card?

This is probably one of the bigger difficulties with tipping today. It seems cash tips are better for the staff as they are more likely – though not guaranteed – to get to keep any physical money you leave for them. However, I rarely have much cash on me since I pay with cards most of the time.

What do you do if the tip is automatically added to the bill?

More often than not, I’m also finding a service charge is already calculated and added to a bill (and often at 12.5% rather than 10%).

For a start, this takes away any discretionary choice you have. If the food or service wasn’t up to scratch, it’s a whole lot harder to not pay it. And, even if it was good, the industry seems to want to make 12.5% the new standard tip – despite wages going up.

You can of course say you’re not paying the full suggested tip if you think it’s too much. Yes it’s awkward and potentially embarrassing, but that’s what the restaurants are relying on. And remember you might not be stiffing the waiter – it could be going into the restaurant’s coffers instead.

What if it’s bad food but good service?

This is a tricky one. Tipping is a service charge, but how often have you reduced your tip because the food wasn’t up to scratch, even if the service has been fine? Really you’re punishing the waiter or waitress for mistakes made in the kitchen, which doesn’t seem fair.

A while back I was out with my wife and her mum at a nice Yorkshire Dales pub. My meat was overcooked, so I nervously asked the waiter about it. The staff were fantastic about it, bought out a perfectly cooked replacement and thoroughly deserved a decent tip. A far better solution than me not enjoying my meal and not leaving a tip.

Of course, it happens the other way around too. Some friends and I were completely forgotten about for hours at a recent meal. The food itself was good (when it arrived) but we probably only tipped 2% in rounding up the bill.

If it is bad food, you’re better off asking for the items in question to be taken off the bill – though make sure you’ve said something during the meal rather than when you ask to pay.

And what about when you’re using a voucher?

I love deals that cut how much I spend on meals out, but I try to be aware of what the smaller bill means to the wait staff and boost what I leave.

Recently I took advantage of an offer on Three’s Wuntu app which gave me a £3 main at Bella Pasta. 10% would be 30p. But on the menu, that main was £12 odd. It’s a big difference so I Ieft £4 in total. But when I’m looking at smaller discounts I tend not to worry.


Food & drink deals (May 2021)

2 thoughts on “Tipping point: How much should I leave in restaurants?

  1. I always carry a few fivers for tips – a £5 note is better as you know what you’ll give, whereas if the bill comes to £39.10 giving a 90p tip is a bit cheap.
    So £39.10 on the card and a £5 tip.

    I’ve noticed in London that automatic “service charge” is now very common – I don’t like it and I don’t think it equals better service from experience.

    1. I earn a decent wage and often feel I should tip in restaurants. However, my wife works in retail for minimum wage – and as she points out, nobody tips for her service. My mum is an NHS nurse who says a similar thing. Tipping culture in America is premised on the sad fact that waiting staff are commonly paid under minimum wage by their employers. Thankfully, that’s not the case in the UK, so really what is the logic in tipping restaurant staff when they earn the same as many other hard-working, low-paid individuals across the country?


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