Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Dear Mr. Knowlton…

In the September 2010 issue of Bon Appetit, Andrew Knowlton (as the BA Foodist) responds to a reader’s question about the best way for a large party to split a check.

Dear Cecilia,

Unless you’re with only one other person (okay, maybe two–I’m feeling generous) or you’re 17 years old and out with a group of friends at a local chain, splitting a check is lame…

He then whinges on for a few more inches about how tough it was being a Brooklyn waiter and how you should just (wo)man up and put the entire thing on your own credit card and hope your friends pay you back.

But, really… the best word he could come up with is lame?

First of all, mingling money with friends is the fast track to ending a friendship. I speak from experience having been the point person on a bulk buy of fabric several years ago and one of the girls stiffed me for her portion. It took certified letters and untold stress to get the money from her and it was during a time just after my divorce when I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room in my monthly budget (this was after I’d dug myself out of credit card debt and canceled all of the cards I’d previously owned so we’re talking real dollars here, not credit). It wasn’t that she was a bad person or a bad friend in general, it just underlines the point that you should never lend money to friends unless you don’t want it back.

I cannot advocate anyone picking up the tab for a group of 6 or 8 friends when there’s the possibility that it will add to their credit debt. “Thoughtful and considerate” are gestures best left free of interest charges. It’s far easier, in contrast, to pick up the tab for one or two friends in a ladies-who-lunch situation with the express understanding that the next check will be picked up by someone else, that to do so for a large group.

Second, might I remind Mr. Knowlton and those like him the industry they are (were) in. It’s called the service industry for a reason, more specifically the hospitality industry. While I know, firsthand, just how difficult some customers can be and that “the customer is always right” is not always correct, your customers are paying a premium for food that comes with service and, yes, it should be with a smile or at least some civility.

If a server sees a large party without obvious familial hallmarks and doesn‘t ask, beforehand, if this will be on one check or separated then he deserves the check-splitting headache that’s to come.

Finally, if you are going out in a group with the plan to split the check, here are some ways to make the process easier:

  • Call ahead. Whether reservations are required or not, it’s always a good to give a restaurant a heads up that you’ll be arriving en masse and, while you’re at it, ask if they are able to split checks for large groups. Most will tell you it’s no problem but some will say no. If you run into one of the latter you can make plans to go someplace more group-friendly or advise everyone in your group to bring cash. If the restaurant has a website with their menu online, folks can figure out ahead of time what they’ll need to bring.
  • Tell the server you’ll need separate checks before the first glass of water is ordered. Forewarned is forearmed and it’s up to them how they want to keep track of the divisions.
  • Have patience. Not only do larger orders take longer to prepare, serve and clear, there will be extra time preparing the checks and processing them. If you’re on a time-line (like our ladies nights heading off to see a movie after dinner), make sure you give your server ample time to process 8 credit cards and still have time to get to your show. For that matter, ordering in waves–before everyone arrives–let’s the kitchen get a jump on those first few dishes.
  • Arrange large gatherings on nights other than Friday and Saturday or have an early dinner mid-afternoon on the weekends. A less crowded dining room means less-harried waitstaff and more flexibility for your group.
  • Tip well. Yes, it’s more work to process 6 smaller checks than 1 large one, so show your appreciation for their willingness to work with your situation. Large parties usually get gratuity added on to the bill, but a few dollars more per check adds up and may win you a favored server if you frequent the same establishments.

So go out and have your fun! And if you continue to receive less-than-stellar service from the hospitality industry consider turning those Girls Nights Out into Girls Nights In and keep your dollars where they will be appreciated.

Jennifer Walker
Jennifer Walker

  1. I agree with you Jennifer, but often the best way to do it is to split the bill evenly. Over time it all evens out.

    That being said, I hate it when we go out with friends and they get into penny pinching about the bill. “I only had this….”
    “I ordered the …..”

    If you can’t afford to go out and eat then don’t!

    It got so bad that I stopped going out to dinner with certain people.
    Now we just split the bill evenly. Like I said over time it evens out.
    As far as the restaurant goes, with computerized billing, it’s not that big of a deal.

  2. In large groups there always tends to be someone who wants to get away with not paying their share. If it is an issue, carry a calculator and have one person (who used to be in the industry so they are not cheap on the tip) and tell everyone else what they owe. Or worry about yourself and ask for your check to be seperate.

  3. Yeah separate checks are the best but some places mostly nicer ones won’t do that. They also add 18 percent tip on larger parties and rightly so.
    I agree with Rita that it’s so much better to just split the check. If one person owes more and they bring it up, tell them to add more to the tip.
    A few birthdays ago, I had my birthday in a bar for happy hour so the food and liquid were all around the same price and people were splitting stuff. When it came time to pay the bill, everyone threw in a designated amount of money but I found out that one person did not. She watched people keep putting in more money to make the amount correct but just sat there. Apparently everyone else had cash and she had a credit card and didn’t want to say so, so instead she said nothing.
    That was the last time I ever included her in my plans.

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