City Desk

Ask Tim: Tipping the Scales at 20 Percent

This week's question comes from Kate Antoniades of Gaithersburg, who asks:

"I always like to tip servers at least 20 percent, but lately I've been hearing that '20 percent is the new 15 percent.' Is this true, or maybe just a high-end restaurant thing?"

This is a tricky question because of the way the American restaurant industry has positioned wait service: These employees, often expected to understand every nuance of the kitchen and every bottle of wine on the menu, must meet every diner's goddamn unspoken expectations at every table. That's a heavy burden, and if they don't succeed to your satisfaction, you stiff 'em. That's the way the merit system works for servers in this country. They must perform for their cash, organ-grinder monkeys right at your table.

But the issue is more complex than that. The fact is that the cost of living keeps rising for all of us—I believe my gas bill this winter came with a ransom note—and by the fact that tips often have to be split with busboys, bartenders, and runners. While you have the right to stiff your waiter or waitress for poor service, you should also consider the ethical side of this monetary exchange (or lack thereof). Each dollar you withhold is one less for these people to live off. Does your employer stiff you every time you spend the afternoon reading The Onion online or surfing for porn?

My position is this: I always give 20 percent. I give more when the service is great.

I also put this question to two veteran restaurateurs—Ashok Bajaj, owner of a number of restaurants in the District including Rasika, The Oval Room, and Ardeo; and Manuel Iguina, owner of Mio and former GM at Café Atlántico and Restaurant Nora.

Bajaj: "The answer is 'yes'...20 percent is the new 15 percent. I think it started about five or six years ago—I'm just speaking from my memory—after the Internet boom when everything was going well. Everyone was looking for better service...So then it sort of became the norm. People were tipping between 15 and 20 percent, and gradually, the word gets around and 20 percent is the new tip. And that's exactly what it is."

But with the average check price going up, I ask Bajaj, isn't the 20 percent tip a double whammy on the diner's pocketbook? "Everything has changed, Tim," Bajaj says. "I tell you if you really want to look at the economics of this...You could get a decent apartment for $800; now it's $1,400 for a one-bedroom...Salmon [used to] be $3.95; now it's $8.50. So everything's relative. With inflation, everything's gone up."

Iguina has a slightly different take on the 20-percent threshold: "That is a tough question. I'm a 20 percent tipper, if not more, if I'm blown away by somebody. But let me give you something that happened to me the other day. I went to this place, and I didn't get any kind of service that I wanted, and they put an 18-percent tip on the check and it was a party of four...I was a little bit upset about it, because I think the gratuity should be optional for service."

"If I do an average in my restaurant here for tips," he continues, "it is 20 percent minimum. So unofficially or not set in stone, people are tipping that amount. It makes me very happy because the waiters, they make good money. They earn their money, and [if] they get their 20 percentage, they're going to be happy working here...But it should always be optional. There should not be a minimum or a maximum."

At the same time, Iguina admits that he always leaves at least 15 percent, no matter how bad the service is, because he knows that servers "live on tips."

To submit a question to Ask Tim, just e-mail me at To download this week's Young & Hungry podcast, click here.

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  • Ernest

    Franklin, you still here? I wish you had no breathing technique, you tedious asswipe with zero brain cells. GET LOST!

  • Uri Franklin

    Oh please. No sooner will I get lost that will the non-vegan bacon bits get lost from a plate of fish and chips of mine, resulting in a tip less than 15%. You get lost, looser.

  • Bobby

    Ernest, how dare you insult Franklin? What if HE is retarded?! You'll apologize for your impertinence or you’ll quit the office instanter!

    Incidentally, the trousers you sport so proudly went out of fashion circa 1992.

  • Uri Franklin

    Was that YOU in "Ernest Goes to Camp"?

  • Robert R

    The debate of children in restaurants is never ending. (See food sites like egullet) I for one believe in exposing children to better restaurants as otherwise the future generation will only be familiar with KFC and Burger King. My kids have dined everywhere from Babbo to WD50 with no behavior problems. Ultimately it is the parents responsibility to handle their own children's behavior in all public places. In restaurants if that means getting up and taking the child outside then so be it. Myself crying babies don't bother me at all as I believe it's their world as much as mine. Others feel different and I respect that. But point the finger at the parent not the server.

    On a side note let me also state the risk involved in disciplining others children. I would never let my child get to that point but regardless. If a stranger butted his nose in my business a loss tip would be his least concern.

  • Uri Franklin

    Sure. And I appreciate that response, clearly.

    But what happens when parents don't take charge, and don't take "no" for an answer? Sure we're talking about restaurants here, but what if it's on a plane? What about a movie theater? Is it the parents job to shut the kid up in a movie theater, disturbing hundreds of patrons that want to, quietly, watch a movie in piece?

    No, I think people pretty much would want a theater worker to get involved.

    But sadly, that is what it's like going to the movies these days.

  • Robert R

    If ever put in a situation where I was that annoyed I likely would approach the parent and express my discomfit. The legalities and rights issues facing business's these days are often a area where they wish to avoid.

    Also remember we often don't know what is truly going on in our neighbors backyard. Many children and adults for that matter have disorders that cannot be easily controlled. Which goes back to the parent knowing their child and the appropriate environment they can expose them too.

  • Uri Franklin

    Another question I have:

    If your taking a friend to dinner, and they know you're picking up the tab (like for a "thank you" for somebody helping you with a graphic design website for your band), is it appropriate to ask them not to order meat, or you won't pay for it?

    I had to do this, and I felt pretty uncomfortable, but just had to say it straight up to them. Do you know?

    I feel like if somebody orders something like that, against your previous wishes, if you only have a certain amount of money, you might have to work something else out, which, unfortunately might involve the tip in some way...

  • Robert R

    I must admit Franklin you do raise some eyebrow raising questions. LOL

    I assume I would not offer the invitation to I was financially able to pay for whatever they wished to order.

  • Uri Franklin

    At least your nice about them, Lol. (Or Robert R.)

    That's true. I should think a head, better...

  • Bobby

    Dear Uri,

    We've been wondering what your major malfunction is. The entire office is intrigued. Ernest even bets his bottom dollar you're a rare idiot. Could you please help us resolve this issue?


  • Robert R

    Thanks Franklin, I approach each day trying to be a better man then the day before. Sometimes I succeed sometimes I don't.

  • l’enfant terrible

    Dear Sir,

    Sorry I ruined your fine dining experience, but your self entitled attitude that you are so quick to point out in other people ruined mine first as soon as you walked in the door. This coupled with the fact that my parents thought it would be a better idea to take me to a casual pub rather than Black Salt pretty much ruined my second birthday. I hope you are happy.

    PS I'm two years old and I know that fish is not a vegetarian choice!

  • L’enfant tasty

    Robert R, I think Uri's question is about his vegetarianism (his "vegetarianism," I should say) rather than his ability to pay for meat. Namely, can you ask someone to dinner and then tell them to follow your own moral eating code?

    For example, if Uri asked me to dinner, and after becoming irritated with the crying baby nearby, reached over and strangled it and asked the kitchen to grill it up, would I be compelled to accept the plate they offered me?

  • bringing it all back home

    20% is the new 15%- pick a restaurant whose menu prices won't make you balk at paying 20 and you won't have a problem. If you can't afford 20% or it pisses you off, eat someplace cheaper. Otherwise you're going to pick apart a server's performance based on whether or not you want to part with the cash, not on how they actually did. And that kinda makes you a jerk.

    I don't mind tipping well because I don't go out that much, don't have a car, and don't live an expensive lifestyle. I don't mind taking cabs or tipping the drivers because i usually bike. And maybe it's because I'm poorer than a lot of people in this town that I don't expect to go out, be treated well by someone who is making even less money than me, and not be generous. Who is self entitled here? If you can't afford to go out, then don't. But don't take it out on other people who are just trying to make a living too- without the benefits of health insurance and a steady paycheck.

  • Tim Carman

    Hey folks;

    Just a reminder. When you have a legit question, you don't have to beat your fellow bloggers over the head with it. You can send it to


  • Uri Franklin

    I don't really understand how, with ethics of any sort, that you can go out and not just tolerate somebody partaking in what youre against, but actually PAY for their habit!

    and you all make fun of me. uch! this is seriously, seriously rediculous.

  • ThatGuy

    I keep reading "Tim Carman" and "Tom Sietsema" pops into my head. Sorry.

  • LooLoo

    What pisses me off are the restaurants who stick on the 18-20% on the bill regardless AND THEY HAVE BASED IT ON THE TOTAL AFTER TAX. THIS IS WRONG WRONG WRONG ! YOU TIP ACCORDING TO PRE-TAX TOTAL. May not make much difference at a bargain rest. but it DOES at an expense-account place esp, in DC where tax is 10%.

    That said, I tip at 15% straight - pre-tax of course - except at buffet places where I tip around 12% pre-tax. But to save a little money, I often order carry-out instead, or stick with the self-serve places, and I don't drop coins in the now-ubiquitious tip cups...

  • Uri Franklin

    Oh I totally agree. I pay more attention to that stuff though, that the averaged layman. ANY tip that's added automatically, regardless of whether its 18%-20%, 15%-20%, or even a measley 5%:

    I will argue this, and not pay when you automatically force me to. It's a huge pet peeve and I hate it.

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