The Starkside

Tipping Topics

I’m happy to be resuming my regular food and beverage column at WCNY CONNECT. This first discussion will be a topic that has interested me for a long time: tipping. Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with the custom and wish that restaurant owners would simply pay servers a fair salary. If they did it would send the topic of tipping to the dust bin of irrelevancy. I’m not clear why you and I are asked to subsidize restaurant owners to pay servers who are just performing their assigned jobs. Actually the idea of increasing servers’ wages is catching on and there are now about a dozen restaurants in the country that have adopted the policy of forbidding tipping.

It has been typical for the topic of tipping (try saying that ten times fast!) to come up in discussions I have had with my food and wine students and friends.

Here’s a question that particularly interests me: “How much should we tip for a bottle of wine we order in a restaurant?” For example: A diner orders a bottle of wine. The server brings the wine and goes through the accepted customary routine – shows the diner the label, opens the bottle, pours a small sample, lets the diner taste it, and then fills all the glasses at the table. The server basically expends the same effort for every bottle of wine, and these days, if the wine is capped with a screw top instead of a cork, it’s even easier.

So here’s my problem: If the diner decides to leave a 20 percent tip, should he tip $4 for a $20 bottle and $40 for a bottle that costs $200? To me it seems clear that the server didn’t do anything special to earn the extra $36. And the problem can be even more complex if the $200 bottle has an easy opening screw top (many do now) and the $20 bottle is capped with a cork.

Some of my friends have a set tip they give for any bottle of wine no matter what the cost. If they would normally tip $4 for a $20 bottle, they’ll tip $4 for any priced bottle. On the other hand I know a few people who believe that if you’ve chosen to patronize a restaurant that serves expensive wine you should be willing to leave a 20 percent tip no matter how much the bottle costs.

I am definitely sympathetic to the point of view that the server doesn’t exert any more of an effort to open a $200 bottle than a $20 bottle and shouldn’t be paid more for it. However, if you spend time asking the server for advice about what wine pairs well with the food you’re ordering, I wouldn’t be opposed to tipping him more for that extra expertise and time. I don’t appreciate unschooled advice. I once ordered a dozen raw oysters and the young and inexperienced server (he didn’t even look old enough to be a legal drinker) offered me unsolicited advice to help me choose a wine. When I followed up by asking what he would recommend he hesitated and then replied, “It doesn’t matter what you order with raw oysters as long as you order a red.” (It’s almost a universal axiom that white wine pairs much better with raw oysters than red. My personal choice is one of the many fine, dry Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand.) I politely responded that before he volunteered any information to other wine customers, he might want to study the subject a bit more. Should I have tipped him less because his advice wasn’t helpful?

I remember twice in my life where I’ve chosen to “stiff” my server, i.e., tip nothing at all because of rudeness and extremely inattentive service. On those occasions I’ve written $00.00 in the tipping box so the waiter knows that I didn’t forget to leave a tip. Have you ever done that?

What do you usually do when tipping for a bottle of wine? You might be inclined to agree, disagree, or have something to add to the views I’ve expressed. I invite you to do just that. Have you ever “stiffed” a server? What were the circumstances? I invite you to express your thoughts on this, or any tipping topic, for all of us to read and consider. It should be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Henry Stark has been a food and wine columnist, writer, and restaurant reviewer for the Ithaca Journal, the Ithaca Times, and The Good Life magazine. A teacher, advocate, and enthusiast, Henry shares his always well-considered—sometimes contrarian—views in inimitable style, opening the door to a robust conversation with fellow members.
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  • Richard Adie

    Henry – glad to see that you are now connected with WCNY- a fine “pairing” of two great institutions. Tipping is certainly complicated. I suggest your readers look into the extensive research of Professor Mike Lynn here at Cornell. There are pluses and minuses to the practice. At the end of the day- if tipping were eliminated your food bill would be 15-20% higher. And you will no longer be ensuring servers being motivated to earn your tip through great service. Regarding wine- I tip up to 20% for wine up to $50 and then start to scale the tip back on a declining scale as the price of wine increases- unless of course decanting is involved. Look forward to reading future columns. Richard Adie

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