Check, Please: How to Pay without looking like a fool or making everyone uncomfortable.

| May 22, 2009 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments

credit cardFor most diners, paying one’s bill at the finish of a restaurant meal is a simple, uncomplicated process, a no-brainer. Or should be. It never fails to amaze me how many people screw this up.

The ideal execution of bill getting-and-paying should be a near-non-event. The only words exchanged should be those of thanks between the payer and the server, and from the recipients of the evening’s generosity to one giving it.

This should be obvious to most of you out there. Hopefully. Sadly, it isn’t to everyone.

Here are a few handy tips on how to pay a restaurant bill with grace:

1. In a fine dining environment, when a server delivers the bill to a table, he or she will either place it nearest the host or hand it directly to him/her if the host reaches out for it, or place the bill in the center of the table if the host is not clearly certain (for example, if more than one person orders wine or food for the table as a whole). Typically, we assume that the person paying is the one who asks for the check. If that happens to be you, please proceed to step 2.

2. When you are ready to make payment, place your credit card, cash, cowrie shells, or whatever method of payment is accepted inside the bill folder with just enough spilling out to indicate that you are ready to make payment. This is important. It is most likely (and hoped for) that your server will not be staring at you as you rifle through your wallet. When you have accomplished this feat, place the bill folder at the edge of the table next to you or, if you are seated in a booth, the end of the table nearest the server’s approach.

I find it surprising how many people do not understand this small-but-important ritual. The folder could be stuffed with cash, but if it looks as though it has been both untouched and unmoved, it’s not going anywhere. Servers are often expected to read the minds of guests, but I think they deserve a little help on this one. Please, make it obvious that you are ready to give payment.

3. When the server hands you back your bill, sign it at your leisure, but when you are finished, please place it back on the edge of the table. Your server may then take it away. He (in most cases) is not taking it away out of greed, but rather to take care of the paperwork, especially if you have paid by credit card. Your bill must be closed with the proper paperwork. Read: the restaurant’s copy of the credit card receipt. If, in your wine-soaked joy of the evening, you have accidentally pocketed the receipt (and we’ve all done it at least once, waiters included), the server might gently ask you for it as you leave. You might expect your server to guess what sort of wine you might like with your pork, but do you really expect him or her to guess the amount of gratuity you’ve left? I didn’t think so.

Isn’t that easy? Yes.

Now for a couple of other hints.

You’ve been Declined

If your credit card is declined, it is not necessarily your fault (credit card companies sometimes put a hold on cards on which an unusual amount of spending has occurred at any given time, etc.), but it definitely is not your server’s. As a waiter, this can be remarkably painful. I worry that I am embarrassing one of my guests– especially one of my guests who happens to be leaving me a tip. Any server worth his salt will just treat it (outwardly) that it’s no big deal and, rather than say, “I’m sorry, your card’s been declined,” will say something to the effect of, “Excuse me, do you have another card? This one doesn’t seem to be working.” Unless I’m handed one of those black titanium American Express cards. Then I always give a little frown and tell them it’s declined. The response is invariably one of, “Uh huh. Sure it is.” And then I go away and giggle.

Essentially, if you are planning on taking people out to dinner, have a back up payment method. If you see no reason your card should be declined, your server will be happy to make a call for you and look into it. Remain calm.

Fighting Over the Check

One of the most irritating things about waiting tables is guests fighting over the check. Suddenly, the food-and-alcohol-induced peace and harmony at the table is shattered by diners grabbing the checks and credit cards out of each others’ hands in a seriously misguided effort to pay for the meal and be “hospitable.” Or they’re just trying to play Alpha Dog. There is a certain ritual to this that must be followed:

One of your dining parters grabs the check and insists on paying. You then say, “Oh, no, I just couldn’t let you do that.” Then they counter with something like, “But I’d really like to treat you to dinner tonight. Really, it would make me very happy to do it!” You are then supposed to respond with something to the effect of, “Well… alright, if it will make you happy, but I’m taking you out next time.”

And then you’re done.

Do not, I repeat, do not drag the server into this. At my tables, I have in most cases been spending the previous two hours making sure that everyone in my charge is as comfortable and happy as possible. I am not there to referee. Taking sides is not in my economic interest. If I am approached privately by a member of a dining party who hands me his or her card and insists on paying, I will: a) run the credit card and hand back at the end of the meal, run and ready so that he or she is one step ahead of arguments, or b) if the card-giver is not the clear-cut host, I will hand the card back uncharged. To the host.

In extreme cases, when different people start shoving cards or check presenters in my face (it happens) saying everything but “Pick me! Pick me!” I am polite, but firm. And mildly, chidingly sarcastic. I tell the contenders something akin to, “Oh, you’re all just so wonderful to want to pay for dinner, I wish I could pick all of you!” I then take a step back from the table, saying, “I can’t wait to see who wins!”

And then I walk away.

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Category: Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, hospitality

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I am terribly fond of martinis, Edward Gorey, and sleeping with many pillows. You are more than welcome to follow me on Twitter: @procopster
  • jeanie

    This is also a cultural thing. In eastern cultures, its rude to not fight over the check. Its actually considered protocol. I never fight over the check with my white friends, but with specific groups of people or my family, I would not feel like a good friend or dinner companion if I DIDN’t fight over the check.

  • gd

    You have every right to be irritated if you, the server, are dragged into the fight about the check. However if the diners want to do it, or feel they should, I don’t see why you should care. I’m forth generation Chinese American and still I feel that I should make an attempt to pick up the check. It is not some misguided attempt at being hospitable or trying to be the alpha dog at the table. It’s what we were taught was the proper thing to do.

  • jesqer

    +1 with jeanie. perhaps the author has a very homogeneous group of friends and acquaintances…perhaps the author is highly ignorant of other cultures and customs. there are many cultures where it is socially required to fight over the check and to do so vociferously. the “peace and harmony” of the table is NOT shattered but actually enhanced, the effort is not “misguided,” and it is not about playing “Alpha Dog.” a server in the Bay Area certainly should know such a basic custom of other cultures.

  • sl

    I am a Chinese American, and have witnessed several times the parents/aunts/uncles reacting like hungry pirahnas fighting over a piece of meat when the waiter brings the check. My cousins and I all agree that it is stupid and ridiculous, and that they look like fools.