September 23rd, 2009

We don’t dine out often, but now that the summer crowd has left, we’ve treated ourselves to a few meals at local restaurants. My guests and I are all good cooks, and what we usually choose to prepare at home is different from the restaurant menu dishes that we sometimes crave. Perfectly battered, deep-fried seafood and stuffed squash blossoms are tricky at home, and we’re happy to patronize casual places that serve these delectations. Besides,once in a while, it’s nice to let someone else clear the table.

But the demeanor of our servers marred the experience of our two most recent restaurant meals. On both occasions the issue was one of etiquette. In each restaurant, I’d placed more than enough cash on the table to cover the register receipt for a meal we’d just enjoyed. And each time, as our server picked up the cash, she asked, “D’ you want change?” In both instances, I felt I’d just been deprived of a satisfying meal.

At one restaurant, the change due from our lunch tab would have topped thirty percent. At the other, the remainder would have been barely six percent. Of course, I have to ask myself if the servers’ expectations might also have been different. Perhaps our fellow luncheon patrons—many of whom sported hair-gel and gold chains—were lavish tippers. At the other, a burger-and-fries sports bar, our very young server (who might have just moved up from washing dishes) could have considered six percent to be just fine. We may never know.

Nevertheless, I’m thinking that in the future I might bring a little tent-sign to put on my table. It would say something like “Change is good.” or ” Caution: Tipping Point! ”

Several years ago while waiting for a European flight at JFK, I ordered a couple of beers for myself and my travelling companion at a bar in the passenger lounge. When our server presented our drinks, I handed her a ten-dollar bill for two three-dollar beers. Smirking, she said, “You don’t want change, do you?”

I was as appalled then as I am now, but back then we just chuckled and said, “Ahh, that’s why we love New York…” Back then, it made a good story. But now, it just seems coarse.

I hereby give notice to restaurateurs: We’ve passed the autumnal equinox, and it’s time for a little seasonal shape-up. The days are shorter, the nights crisper. Change is in the air.

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