photo by Lynn Agajanian / Indian
Zionsville Times Sentinel

How many times a week do you buy food at a restaurant? If you are a typical American, you eat out a lot. According to the National Restaurant Association, the typical American adult eats at restaurants 5.8 times per week. That’s almost once a day — perhaps a fast-food breakfast sandwich eaten on the way to work, lunch with the gang from the office or dinner with friends. All that eating out means that we encounter lots of people who are responsible for serving us our food. Many of these folks’ financial fates are in our hands because they make most of their wages via our tips.

In most restaurants it is the server who you are tipping, but in other cases, especially fine dining restaurants, you may encounter several people providing services to you. Figuring out who to tip and how much can be a challenge. Here are a few guidelines to help sort it all out:

Wait staff. Whether you are eating at a roadside diner or a four-star, fine-dining restaurant, the wait staff is the most vital member of the restaurant team. The rules for tipping can get a little bit complicated but here are some things to keep in mind. First, calculate your tip on the pre-tax amount. At most restaurants, a 15 percent tip is the typical minimum and 20 percent is what the majority of people tip most of the time.

There are a few exceptions to these percentages. First, if you are eating a very inexpensive meal and 15 to 20 percent is less than $2 to $3, cough up the $2 or $3 instead. For instance, if you’re having only dessert somewhere, ordering two cups of coffee and a couple slices of pie, your check may only be seven of eight bucks. Instead of leaving $1.05 (15 percent of $7), plan on leaving more than that. The other exception is for limited service like a buffet. In these cases, 10 percent is an appropriate tip.

Valet. Occasionally you’ll eat someplace where a valet parks your car. On these occasions, you encounter the valet staff twice: once when you arrive and again when you leave. Typically you should tip only when you leave. If, however, you have a special request, like needing your car quickly after dinner, you should inform the valet staff of this when you arrive and provide a tip when you arrive and when you leave. The standard tip for the valet is $3 to $5 to the person who retrieves your vehicle, and that same amount to the person who parks your car if you have a special request on arrival.

Coat room attendant. Although it was much more commonplace in the days of yore, some restaurants still have a coat-check room. If you have coats to check, count on one dollar per coat paid when you retrieve the coats.

Maitre d’. At most full-service restaurants, a Maitre d' or host is the first person you encounter when you get in the door. His or her level of responsibility can vary greatly from simply greeting patrons to managing the front of the house. Usually you do not tip this person. If, however, you are a regular customer, a $10 to $20 tip now and then is a good idea.

Bartender/Bar Staff. If you are just having drinks, or having drinks before dinner you may spend some time in the bar. If that is the case, you will want to tip here as well. The recommended tip is $1 per drink or 15 to 20 percent of the bar tab.

Musician. If while waiting at the bar, you’ve enjoyed listening to some live music — perhaps a piano player — you may want to tip this person $1 to $2. This is optional unless you’ve asked for a special song. In that case, a tip is expected.

Sommelier. The sommelier is the person in the restaurant who manages the wine list. This person typically selects the wines, manages the inventory, and is available to make recommendations to customers. When it comes to tipping, the cost of the wine should be included in calculating the 15 to 20 percent provided to the wait staff. In nearly all restaurants, tips are pooled and then divided out among the staff. It is also appropriate to tip the sommelier separately and personally. If you choose to do so, you can subtract that from the overall tip.

Scott Hutcheson is a food writer based in Lebanon. Visit the Hungry Hoosier Web site at

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