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Why Restaurants Matter (and Why You Should Tip Generously)

The legendary Tour d'Argent in Paris, where I had one of the most expensive meals of my life. It was worth every penny.
The legendary Tour d'Argent in Paris, where I had one of the most expensive meals of my life. It was worth every penny.
Photo by Jeremy Parzen.

Last week's post Corkage: A Privilege, Not a Right generated a heated comment thread.

"Are you f'n kidding me?" asked "Corkage Smorkage" rhetorically.

"Offer your server a taste of your wine." ???? I'm already paying them a BS "fee" to open it. What's next, offering them a taste of my food so they don't feel left out. And "Be sure to tip generously, keeping in mind that your bill will be significantly lower than it would have been otherwise." ??? Huh? Now I have to tip more because I was savvy enough to bring my own wine? I guess if I just eat at home, I should send the server a check because then I REALLY had a lower bill than I would have. What inane drivel.

"His Fusiness" added: "I shouldn't have to pay for every single little thing because the restaurant industry as a whole won't take care of their employees."

And "Not Enough Money for Everyone" chimed in approval: "I have to look after myself and family, I can't afford to put a server through college!"

Whether we like it or not (and I happen to like it), the moment we sit down in a restaurant we enter into a social compact.

Whether or not we decide to respect that unspoken agreement is another question.

Restaurants play an extremely important role in human interaction and sustenance. The services that restaurants and restaurant workers provide us range from simple convenience to theatrical backdrop (how many people do you know who have proposed to a spouse or broken up with a partner in a restaurant over a meal?). And restaurants often allow us to enjoy luxuries that we couldn't otherwise afford on a regular basis.

The earliest restaurants were taverns and inns where medieval travelers would stop during their voyage or pilgrimage to "restore" themselves. Later, during the industrial revolution, as the great urban centers of Europe began to grow, the restaurant was born as we know it today. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word restaurant began to appear toward the end of the eighteenth century: As a result of the migration from the countryside to the big cities, the new city dwellers needed a place to eat -- whether the proletariat factory workers or the newly emerged middle class populated by the factory managers.

With the industrial revolution and urban migration came the birth of the bourgeoisie, and with the bourgeoisie came the notion that luxury should be available to everyone.

And here we are today. If you are reading this, you are most likely a member of the bourgeoisie and when you sit down in a restaurant, it's more likely than not that your server and your sommelier are your social equals and your intellectual peers (not to mention your countrymen and fellow citizens).

Today, tipping is generally not expected in Europe (you pay for service with a "cover" charge per person). But in our country it is. And when you sit down in a restaurant, you know full well that you are obliged -- not by law but by social compact -- to tip between 15 and 20 percent. If you pretend otherwise, you are engaging in outright dissimulation.

And while there are certainly dishonest restaurateurs out there, most restaurant owners and workers are honest, industrious people (and I make this observation as an avid restaurant-goer).

The dishonest ones are to be avoided, and the genuine ones recognized for their efforts. In the era of eno-gastronomic blogging, there's really no excuse for going to a bad restaurant anymore. We have more access to peer-generated reviews than ever before (and if you're reading this, you certainly know that).

If visiting a restaurant causes you or your family economic stress, you shouldn't dine out: Dining out is a privilege in our country, not a right. And if you feel like the custom of tipping is unfair to the patron, then you should go to restaurants where it's not expected. There are plenty of options (fast-food venues, barbecue joints, etc.) where you can obtain sustenance and socialize without being expected to offer a gratuity to your server. (For example, at The Burger Guys, one of my favorite Houston restaurants, tipping is not expected, corkage is free and BYOB is encouraged).

No matter where you decide to eat, keep in mind that the restaurant owners and workers can't survive without you. But the fact of the matter is that you -- as a member of Western society -- can't survive without them either.



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