Victoria Beckham didn’t exactly endear herself to L.A. or at least its vocal waiter community last July, when she allegedly forgot to leave a tip after lunching with best friend Katie Holmes at the Mandarin Hotel’s elegant Asia de Cuba restaurant. And, when the unhappy server followed her out of the establishment to make her displeasure known she was blocked by bodyguards.
Others who fall into cheap celebrity Hall of Shame, according to Bitterwaitress.com, a website where oppressed servers of the world can vent and dish, include Rachel Ray who allegedly left a 10% tip on a ten dollar check—“And, she is a chef!”—steamed the spy who supplied the reconnaissance. Then there was Bruce Willis whose party tacked a measly $30 tip onto a $450 bill and was rude to boot.
While celebrities who travel with entourages should probably be cut a little slack—was it really Al Gore’s fault when his staff stiffed an Iowa restaurant the tip on $90 worth of breakfast sandwiches?—one can’t help but feel that tipping is one of the ways you see into celebrities’ souls. Or, at least the practice reminds us that they’re mortal, as generous or cheap as the rest of us.
The difference, of course, is that stars can get away with being bad tippers, even if they get stigmatized throughout the internet, but for the rest of us a healthy tip isn’t only a way of expressing gratitude for a good meal but also an insurance policy, should we want to visit that particular establishment again.
According to Steve Lyle, the owner and chef at Village, a Greenwich Village restaurant whose low-key atmosphere attracts local celebrities, among them Uma Thurman, and playwright Sam Shepard and his wife actress Jessica Lange, 18% is the going rate for tips. “A good waiter should be tipped in the 20% range,” Lyle explained. “Anything under 18% suggests bad service. People do still tip 15% but that’s a really bad tip.”
Waiters typically earn minimum wage. It’s their tips—usually pooled and distributed on a point system depending on how many hours you’ve worked—that pays the rent. Bartenders and bus boys, by the way, are included in the pool; a maitre d’ may or may not.
But, according to Lyle getting good service is more subtle than the size of the tip you leave at the end of the evening. As old-fashioned as it sounds, especially coming from the owner of a restaurant in a countercultural part of Manhattan, the trick is to dress the part (and that doesn’t mean displaying your tattoos.) “Look really well dressed,” Lyle coached. “That doesn’t hurt. People will assume you’re richer and will tip better.”
Another way to earn your server’s respect is the most obvious—by spending generously—or, as Lyle genteelly put it, by “ordering well.” “A cocktail,” he said, “an appetizer, an entrée, wine with dinner, and dessert. By the time you’ve ordered a fairly decent wine, appetizer and entrée, I’d say you’ve got their attention.”
It may sound counterintuitive, but Lyle added that it doesn’t hurt to be slightly demanding, even sending orders back if you’re not satisfied. “If you show yourself to be somewhat discerning,” he said, “they’re more likely to take good care of you. That and spending a lot of money will get you good service anywhere.”
Perhaps the best strategy to insure star treatment is to treat the staff with appreciation. Regular customers at Village give Christmas bonuses. A couple of them even took all the waiters out to dinner at the Harvard Club.
Another time-tested method is to grease the maitre d’s palm. A tip at the beginning of the meal “is somewhere between great and gauche,” Lyle explained, “but it will certainly get their attention. I don’t know anybody who minds being tipped.”