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Tipping in restaurants FAQ

Hannah Jolliffe / 13 June 2019

To tip or not to tip? We look at how to deal with tips and service charges when the bill arrives.

Restaurant tip jar
Top tip or not to tip? How much, and do the staff even get it? We look at the frequently asked questions.

What is a service charge – and do I have to pay it?

Many restaurants will add a service charge of around 10-15% to the bill. Your bill should state if this is discretionary or compulsory. If it’s discretionary then you have the option to pay it or not. You may also have grounds to refuse to pay it, even when it’s compulsory.

Under consumer law, your food should be ‘as described’ and of ‘reasonable quality’. So, if the meal was missing key ingredients, not properly cooked or served at the wrong temperature, you have grounds to complain and withhold the service charge.

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What’s the difference between a service charge and a tip?

There are complicated tax laws that differentiate between the two. As a diner, the best approach is to ask the waiter two questions about the service charge – what is it paying for, and how much of it will staff receive? Often, staff will receive more if you opt to leave a cash tip as well (or instead) of the service charge.

Is it ever acceptable not to tip?

“If the service was horrendous or your food was inedible and it wasn't met with any compassion from a manager then yes, you don't have to tip,” says chef Stuart Ralston, owner of Aizle restaurant in Edinburgh. “A tip is meant to be a sign of the appreciation of the effort and enjoyment of the meal.”

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How much should you tip?

“If service is not included, add a minimum of 10%,” advises Michael Cole, former director of Harrods (with 32 restaurants) and former BBC Royal correspondent. “If service is included, at your discretion or not, do not feel obliged to add to the bill. However, if the service has been exceptionally good, give a personal tip to the waiting staff; cash is always appreciated.”

Of course, this will depend on the type of restaurant you are dining in, and the level of service you received. Stuart believes you should tip based on how much you enjoyed your experience and how you felt you were treated: “If a restaurant goes out of its way to make your night special then it’s always appreciated when you tip. When tipping it’s always good to remember that many restaurant staff aren’t on huge wages, so I always try and leave 20% on top if I have had a good time.”

Is it best to tip on your card or in cash?

Cash is usually preferable as it is more likely to be split amongst the staff. If it goes on a card it goes into a TRONC system which managers/owners are in charge of and you can never be sure staff will see 100% of the tips.

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How do you know whether the tips go to the staff and are not syphoned off by management?

Unfortunately, the answer to this is you never really know. “Laws look to come into place to make sure staff get 100% of tips, which I agree with and practice, but the best way to find out is ask your server if that’s the case, you will be able to tell by the reaction and answer they give you,” advises Stuart.

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Can you request to tip the chef or a certain waiter only?

Many restaurants will have a policy of splitting all tips equally between staff to ensure fairness. If you would like to single out one aspect of the meal with a special tip, it’s best to pay the service charge and then discreetly explain to the manager how impressed you were with the food/service etc and enquire if they are happy to pass on a personal tip by way of thanks.

What about the thorny issue of splitting the bill - are there any hard and fast rules to follow to keep everyone happy?

Most restaurants have the technology to easily split a bill in several different denominations. “If you wish to split a bill, try to let your waiter know in advance of the order being taken and most definitely prior to a bill being issued,” says Jaime McCormack, Manager of Restaurants and Bars at The Chester Grosvenor.

It’s also a good idea to work out exactly what everyone is paying before the waiter arrives. If you’re all paying an equal amount, do some quick calculations on your phone to make it more efficient, especially if you’re all paying by card.

For more on splitting the bill and other issues read our guide to dining out with friends and family and restaurant etiquette

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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