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.
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.”
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.”
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.”