May We Have Separate Checks, Please?

Photo courtesy of
‘I take the fifth’
courtesy of ‘Lars Plougmann’

It has happened to everyone at some point or another. You’re sitting with a group of your friends at the end of the meal, and the waiter drops off the check. Some of you had drinks, you split an appetizer, and your one just-laid off friend only had dessert. This is going to be one heck of a check to try and divvy up. Finally, after some awkward shifty looks, someone brave picks it up, you dig around in your purse for a pen and the person of your left busts out the cell phone calculator. You pass the check around, and inevitably someone forgot to bring cash. You flip over the check, write dollar amounts next to your last names, and yet the bill doesn’t add up in the end. Someone gets shafted, someone else insists they paid what they owe when the obviously didn’t, and your friend that is the notoriously bad-tipper left 50 cents on a $25 bill. It’s just generally awkward all around and someone in the group winds up taking a big hit to the wallet. It’s an awful way to end a meal. Last week, after one terribly frustrating experience at dinner with a huffy waitress and paying in way more than what I owed, I finally had it. I decided that this issue of splitting checks in DC needed to be investigated, so I set about doing just that.

To begin, let me explain to you what I’m used to. In North Carolina, where I come from, individual checks are the norm. Generally you don’t even have to ask for them, but when you do ask for them, the waiter or waitress doesn’t blink an eye, and an itemized list appears with what you owe. Then you can tip on your total, and pay how you please – cash or credit. Unlike in DC, you don’t get a huffy waiter, and you definitley don’t have to scramble for pens or pound away on the cell phone calculator to divide the tax. Individual checks are just the way of the world down there – and maybe that’s not everywhere, but I’ve talked to so many people in DC that think it’s frustrating, annoying and unlike where they come from that I just HAD to investigate and write about it.

So I interviewed a bunch of people – customers, wait staff from some of the area’s most popular restaurants, managers and also the king of power dining in DC, Ashok Bajaj – and have finally come up with some answers. You may not like them, but at least next time you go out on the town with six of your closest friends, you’ll be armed with better information.
Photo courtesy of
‘Prune Restaurant’
courtesy of ‘Shutter Ferret’

So first off, I wanted to find out if places actually HAD the capability to split checks. I’ve heard my fair share of wait staff say, “Nope, we only take one card per table, our system can’t do it.” If you hear that? It’s probably not true. Every single one of the waiters and managers I talked with had computer systems that COULD split checks. Patrick Owens, the Assistant Manager at Bourbon in Adams Morgan said, “I may be releasing a big secret, but our computer DOES have the capability to split checks, and it’s actually quite painless. You merely swipe the card and enter the amount you want processed, and there are also buttons for automatically splitting the checks 2,3,4 or more ways. I’d say that if a bar or restaurant has computers (and not just paper checks), they can split checks fairly easily. (Sorry to all other waiters!)” Christopher Owens (unrelated to Patrick Owens) is a server at Brewer’s Alley in Maryland, and said “Splitting checks is simple. You only have to select “add a tab” and then highlight an item from the original tab and place it on the desired new tab.”

I’ve heard lots of theories as to why DC is a particularly hard place to split checks, one of the theories being that DC is such a wine-and-dine town that it’s risky on the part of the restaurant to ask to split checks when it could cause major awkwardness at the table. The person to ask about this? King of DC power dining, Ashok Bajaj, restaurateur of some of DC’s hottest political spots, like The Oval Room, 701 and Bibiana. I first asked him if he COULD offer individual checks. “In the last couple of years this practice has increased, so my restaurants, such as 701 and Rasika, often split checks for diners.” So why would this be a new thing? “The new Congressional gift rules that indicate staffers must pay their own checks,” Bajaj told me. A good point, which feeds into the wine-and-dine town – adding more fuel to my fire that restaurants should, to keep customers happy, offer individual checks. (Bajaj also told me that at his restaurants “whoever the host (made the reservation) is handed the check.”)

So with the ability to split checks, why are servers so hesitant, even rude, when asked to split? I’ve always thought that tips must suffer when people split the check themselves, when they write what they owe, some comes in cash, some comes on card, rather than when they’re issued their own individual bills that are done by computer or waiter. Christopher confirms my theory saying, “The most common scenario in which a server’s tip suffers is in separate payments. Often when people apply cash towards the check and pay the remainder with a credit card, the card holder will tip 20 percent, but only on the amount the card was authorized for. This overlook usually results in the server being untipped for the balance paid in cash.”

A server at Clyde’s who asked to be kept anonymous, who we will call Sam, agreed with Christopher’s scenario of a group attempting to split checks themselves saying, “I feel that split checks do not result in good tips a majority of the time. Perhaps this is because of the whole ‘diffusion of responsibility’ idea, that if one person doesn’t tip particularly well then someone else will make up for it. Whatever the reason may be, it is rare that an exceptional tip is given on a split check as a opposed to one whole bill.”

Photo courtesy of
‘waiter with anger issues’
courtesy of ‘Fecki’

This would mean that one payment bills, or individual bills result in more reliable tips. Chase Bellini, a waiter at Le Pain Quotidien agreed, saying that if a group does want their own checks, “more often than not… people tend to tip a little higher when faced with [individual] checks”

The trick I learned? That if you want checks split, ask for it up front. Christopher says, “If [customers] wait until the check is presented, or near that time, the process of itemizing will take longer and leaves more room for error. At the restaurant [where] I work, there is no protocol in asking whether or not people want separate checks. It is generally assumed that the guests of each table will be on one tab.”

Sam explained to me the process that he has to go through if a customer doesn’t ask for a split check in the beginning. He said “If a server is not asked to split the check until the end of the meal they are then left scrambling to ensure that each seat has the proper drink(s), as well as the added confusion of where desserts or appetizers that were shared should go.” explaining that the computer system Clyde’s uses only assigns entrees to customers. Sam tells me, “The computer separates the checks by corresponding seat numbers, thus divvying up what each person has ordered in terms of plates of food…The biggest problem with splitting checks for each individual is drinks are not assigned to a specific seat number. For example, if a person orders a glass of chardonnay and a salad then the seat number must be entered for the salad so the food runners know where to deliver the food, but no seat number prompt appears for the chardonnay once it is entered. This makes it very difficult to separate checks at the end of the meal for each individual, because the server has to make sure that the drinks are with the correct person.”

Photo courtesy of
’55/365 – Out to dinner <3′
courtesy of ‘BLW Photography’

Tony Lucca, the owner of 1905, said “The reality of doing business in a city is that we get people of all ages dining at 1905, so it is very rare that one person at the table will be covering the bill. It would be bad for business if we had a no splitting policy.” Patrick from Bourbon agrees. ” At the end of the day though, it’s just another part of the service industry, and you don’t want to taint the guest’s entire experience because the payment was grumbled over.”

Sam from Clyde’s wraps it all up, stating, “Splitting checks is not necessarily an annoyance as long as the patron recognizes what it requires: a few extra minutes to divide the bills, the added effort of making sure drinks, appetizers, and desserts are correct, and the collecting of payment (i.e. making changing/ running credit cards etc.) These are all things that take extra time and effort and should be rewarded through the patrons tip. If those criteria are met then there is nothing wrong with requesting split checks.”

Katie moved to DC in 2007, and has since embarked upon a love affair with the city. She’s an education reform advocate and communications professional during the day; at night and on the weekends, she’s an owner here at We Love DC. Katie has high goals to eat herself through the entire city, with only her running shoes to save her from herself. For up-to-the-minute news and reviews (among other musings), follow her on Twitter!

31 thoughts on “May We Have Separate Checks, Please?

  1. Interesting article! Having been a server before, I know that the “our system can’t do it” line is total b.s. Ours did it back in 1994; yours can do it now.

    I think most of it boils down to dining etiquette. Be up front with your servers, and they should be up front with you. Take pains to ensure you’re not stiffing them. Take responsibility for your bill.

  2. great post!!

    I agree, if you want split checks, it should be noted before ordering. Also bringing cash helps in case checks can’t be split.

  3. So you’ve got confirmation from several sources that waiter-split checks result in higher tips than customer-split checks, and yet the waiters don’t volunteer to do it by default? Seems like the extra time it takes the waiter would pay for itself in better tips, and a smart waiter would volunteer, rather than reluctantly deign to split the check if asked.

  4. @Ed – yes, you’re exactly right.

    @michelle – thanks! And yes, absolutely on the cash.

    @fedward – right – smart waiters WOULD. From what I gathered, the debacle was the time spent making the separate checks taking away from the time you’re able to spend on other tables vs. better tip from large table with individual checks.

  5. How about this: don’t go out with 6 people. I’ve never understood the need to go out in huge groups unless you’re on business…in which case some single entity should be picking up the tab.

    In my humble opinion, if you can’t choose 1 or 3 other people to go out with, you are probably juvenile, awkward, or are from NoVA.

  6. You do realise, Josh, that some groups of 3 and 4 still wish to split checks? Or that some people might just (shudder!) go out with a group of six?

    In my humble opinion, being condescending on the sizes of other people’s dining groups is idiotic.

  7. Ed…agreed that it’s frustrating when they won’t split checks among two parties.

    But I feel that it only becomes unwieldy/burdensome when it’s large parties of 6 or more.

    I mean: let’s say you’re out with two couples. The douchey waiter won’t split the check in two. So whoever doesn’t pay the waiter knows they owe half to their counter-party.

    Split it ups 6 or 8 ways and this activity becomes difficult for all the reasons outlined in the article.

    I’m not excusing the restaurants…just wondering why people like to go out in hordes like they were still in college.

  8. Great article! I always wonder about this myself, being from Arkansas originally where you don’t even ask if you want it split, they just do it.

    And, Josh, why so insistent on small groups? What if it’s a birthday dinner or a supper club? What if you are going out with your 3 best friend’s and their partners come along? What if your family is in town and it’s larger than 4 people? Why is having a large group of close friends that you wish to dine with “juvenile” or “awkward”–and what the heck does NoVA have to do with it? I’m a DC girl myself, but seriously, what’s with the geography bashing?

  9. Great article! I always wonder about this myself, being from Arkansas originally where you don’t even ask if you want it split, they just do it.

    And, Josh, why so insistent on small groups? What if it’s a birthday dinner or a supper club? What if you are going out with your 3 best friends and their partners come along? What if your family is in town and it’s larger than 4 people? Why is having a large group of close friends that you wish to dine with “juvenile” or “awkward”–and what the heck does NoVA have to do with it? I’m a DC girl myself, but seriously, what’s with the geography bashing?

  10. sorry for the dupe. slow system at work that doesn’t always make it clear when success has been had.

  11. This is why I hate going out to eat with more than 2 or 3 people and why I hate sitting down at bars to drink with any number of people. NO ONE factors in tax when they tip, and a lot of my friends are cheapskates who tip 15% pre-tax, if that.

  12. So, I’m not a huge fan of Vapiano’s food, or the having to get up and fetch what I want every time I want something. BUT their system of “you get a swipe card when you walk in, and every time you get something you swipe it” is GENIUS. Especially if you’ve got that friend who is a lousy tipper.

  13. I’m going to lay off the condescension for a moment to offer a historical perspective on the matter. Here’s Emily Post’s take:

    “Everyone has at some time or other been subjected to the awkward moment when the waiter presents the check to the host. For a host to count up the items is suggestive of parsimony, while not to look at them is disconcertingly reckless, and to pay before their faces for what his guests have eaten is embarrassing. Having the check presented to a hostess when gentlemen are among her guests, is more unpleasant. Therefore, to avoid this whole transaction, people who have not charge accounts, should order the meal ahead, and at the same time pay for it in advance, including the waiter’s tip. Charge customers should make arrangements to have the check presented to them elsewhere than at table.

    Lack of consideration for those who in any capacity serve you, is always an evidence of ill-breeding, as well as of inexcusable selfishness.”

  14. Gee Josh, with your winning personality and friendly demeanor, I can’t imagine why you can’t find more than two people willing to spend an entire meal with you…

  15. I agree, the more people you add to a dinner party, the more stressful it gets however it doesn’t mean you should avoid them at all costs.

  16. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  17. Josh: WTF?

    Katie, great article. It’s strange to me that waiters can still be surprised that a group of two or three people might not want to pay together. And once you get up to six or so people, seems like it would be in the waiter’s best interest to split the check upfront to preserve tips. Personally, I always tip higher in a larger group because I know the waiter is spending more time both at our table and dealing with our orders. But that higher tip is a lot easier to figure out if I have my own bill with tax, drinks, etc. added in.

  18. Keith, that only works if everyone’s meals/drinks came out to be around the same amount. Otherwise someone with an inexpensive meal ends up having to pay part of someone’s expensive dish

  19. I get where Josh is coming from. Part of what annoys me about going out in DC are the packs of people being loud and obnoxious. I understand the occasional celebration when 6 or more is expected, but from my observations, these are usually not close friends. They’re the people you go out drinking with. It seems that people will use a large group to hide behind their obnoxious behavior. It’s like the more people you’re hanging with, the more important you are – “yeah, this is my crew.” I have no problem with this if it’s kept at places like the rowdy bars in Adams Morgan but please, not at grownup places where I expect to be able to hear the person I’m with.

  20. Credit card companies charge restaurants and other businesses by the transaction, in addition to other charges (this is why you see “Minimum $5 credit card charge” at many bodegas, etc.).

    While splitting the check several ways may not be bad for the server, it is a significant extra cost to the restaurant. This fact seems to be neglected in this article.

  21. Interesting article, thanks for posting! I have dined out many times with friends in the city, and have never had a problem splitting the check…with one exception. At the Reserve, the waiter did split the check for us, but with much ado (and with a warning that they will not be so generous with us the next time). It may have been because we asked for a lot of change, though.

    In my restaurant experiences, I have always split the check evenly with my friends, and we all of us tipped for our portions only. No one has ever given us a problem for it, and my friends and I always tip between 15 and 20 % on each of our portions. I agree that it just makes good business sense to allow for split checks.