January 29th, 2009


How to Eat Out Right: Dispelling the Myth of Tipping on Alcohol

More often than normal lately, I've overheard customers talking about how one does not need to tip on alcohol the same way one tips on the rest of a meal. While short tipping has become widely accepted for expensive wine and cocktails, it is a completely unacceptable practice to do so. Following are a couple arguments, and my responses to them...

If I'm going to buy a $150 bottle of wine, I don't think I should have tip 15 to 20 percent on it.

Why not? If I go to Alexander's Steak House and order the Australian F1 Crossbreed 50% Tajima Wagyu and 50% Holstein 12 oz. Striploin for $135, you can bet that I'm going to be tipping my waiter on the full amount of that steak. And most people would, right?

But think about this:
Waiter: And what can I get for you this evening, sir?
Customer: I'd like the twelve ounce striploin, please.
Waiter: And how would you like that prepared?
Customer: Medium rare.
Waiter: Thank you sir.

At this point, the waiter walks to a computer, pushes a button marked STRIPLOIN, then pushes a button marked MEDIUM RARE. Approximately 20 minutes later, a steak magically appears for him (or one of his associates) to deliver to your table.

As compared to this:
Waiter: And will you be having wine this evening, sir?
Customer: Yes, I'd like a bottle of the 2004 Masi Amarone Classico.*
Waiter: Very well, sir. Thank you, sir.

At this point, the waiter walks to a computer, pushes a button marked 2004 MASI AMARONE. Then the waiter goes to the glass racks and pulls the appropriate number of the appropriate style of glass for your wine. Then the waiter hand polishes those glasses one at a time (because in this age of instant global communication, we still can't make an industrial washing machine that won't leave water spots on wine glasses). Then the waiter looks up the wine you requested and proceeds to the appropriate part of the wine cellar to get it. Then he returns, brings the glasses and the wine to the table. Sets the glasses, presents the wine, opens the wine, pours a taste, and if the bottle is not corked** pours the wine for the rest of the table. Then the waiter proceeds to watch the wine glasses for the rest of the night, making sure that the glasses are always filled to the same level until the wine in the bottle is empty.

It takes the same amount of effort to bring you a $7 cheeseburger that it does to bring you a $135 steak (except for stopping off to grab a steak knife). But there's a significantly higher work to price ratio difference between your diet coke and your bottle of Amarone.

And that's why you should be tipping the same on wine as you do on food. In a perfect world, people would tip MORE on wine, because not only is your server doing more work to get that wine to you than they have to do to get your food to you, if you're at all cultured, you're going to sit back and ENJOY that wine, not just slam it down. That means you'll be spending even longer in the restaurant at that table. So if you short tip on the wine, not only are you cutting into the server's wages for the night, the fact that you're staying there longer is keeping them from seating your table again to possibly make up for what you didn't tip them on the wine.

But in a GOOD restaurant, there's a wine guy that does a lot of that for them.

Even if there's a Sommelier or Wine Steward there to assist with the fetching and presentation of the wine, in most cases your server is tipping that person out*** as a percentage of their wine SALES. That means it's possible for them to actually LOSE money on your bottle of wine, because they have to tip out more than you tipped them for it.

The same goes for cocktails. If you only leave a dollar tip on that $25 top shelf margarita that you ordered, the waiter is still tipping out the bartender on a percentage of their bar sales, so your server is losing money.

So think about those things the next time your out on the town and someone says "But you don't have to tip as much on alcohol."

* Market price at Alexander's Steak House, $138 ($3 more than the steak).
** No, you don't get to send the wine back if you don't LIKE it, only if it's bad-- so don't just order blind... but that's a rant for another article.
*** Tipping out is the end of the night practice where a waiter gives a portion of their tips to the staff that helped them get the job done. This includes, but it not limited to the bus boys, the sommelier, the guys that bring the food to the table, the cappuccino drink maker and the bartenders. That's right, your waiter does not get the full tip that you leave. If they're lucky, they'll get 55 to 60 percent of it.

Why yes, I did get a $6 tip on a $66 check today, why do you ask?