By Lynn Ashby 9 August 2010
THE RESTAURANT – Now is the awkward moment of truth, or agony. The waiter is coming across the restaurant with our check. This is the same waiter who ignored us for most of the evening as we smiled, waved napkins, stood on the table yelling. No attention from him. But when the time comes to present the check, he quickly weaves and bobs through the tables and patrons toward us like a Heisman halfback through the Little Sisters of the Poor.
My wife and I are with another couple, so when ordering our meal I had asked the waiter for separate checks for each couple. Our dining companions gave me the usual frown, grimace, even a slight shake of the head. Sometimes the husband and wife glance at each other, exchanging that “what’s this deadbeat trying to pull?” look. Little do they know I’m doing them a huge favor.
Separate checks for couples, individuals or lynch mobs make sense. Under this operation, each person is free and uninhibited to order as little or as much, as cheap or as expensive, various items without the guilt of influencing the others’ tabs. Tonight, for example, I shall order the 3-pound lobster, two sides, a shrimp salad and dessert (chocolate soufflé a la mode). But first, I’d like two vodka martinis, wine with my meal and a brandy or so afterwards. My wife, a light eater, will watch me. Across the table, the other couple will split a small bowl of beef bouillon along with one cup of ice tea with two straws. It really isn’t fair that we split the bill – beef bouillon is expensive — and I’m certainly not going to follow their lead.
The worst situation is when I am not very hungry or maybe suffering a relapse of dengue fever, so I’ll settle for the house salad and Ozarka. Across from me sits my 300-pound dinner companion who glances at the menu, hands it back to the waiter and says, “Yes.” He also prefers a $120 bottle of. Moët & Chandon. When his seven-course meal is over, he burps and says, “Let’s just split the check.”
If my fellow eaters are hedge fund CEOs or drug lords, I have no guilt with ordering the most expensive items on the menu and splitting the bill. Better yet, I’ll be their guest. Or let’s say it’s someone’s birthday – his or mine, makes no difference. In celebrating surviving another year, I shall graciously let him pay. Same with anniversaries, weddings, or perhaps it’s a Wednesday. My thoughtfulness and sensitivity are no doubt appreciated.
Business lunches have clear guidelines. Whoever is clever enough to go to the restroom just before the bill arrives proves that there is, indeed, such a thing as a free lunch. Or, maybe both diners are on expense accounts. They both put down the full amount and get reimbursed by their company. Sometimes, to determine who pays, diners will play scissors-rock-paper. (Some call it rock-paper-scissors while others call it stupid.)
Another solution to the unbalanced check is to say, “OK, we’ll go 50-50 on the tab, but let me get the tip.” That way, I feel better when I leave the quarter. Then there is the wallet or purse fumbler. When the check arrives, start patting your coat pockets, vest, digging into the top of your boots, looking for you wallet and/or purse. Your companion finally gives up, mumbling, “I’ll get it. You fed the parking meter.”
There are a few more points to be made. Restaurants today serve single portions large enough to satiate the Cowboys’ offensive line. I mean, do you really want a 45- ounce Porterhouse? So I often split the order with my wife, the kid at the next table or the bus boy. Also, it has been said that many an invention has sprung from drawings on a restaurant cocktail napkin. I have scribbled down some wonderful ideas, too, with my Flair, but the maître d’ always charges me for the table cloth.
The split-check routine can be difficult in large parties, especially at Chuck E. Cheese’s or the McDonald’s drive-thru. There are some Houston eateries that even charge extra for a split entrée, so they certainly don’t like to write up several different checks. But that doesn’t prevent them from putting in small type at the bottom of the menu, “A 20 percent gratuity will be added for parties of three or more.” What you do when dining with a large party is to order the most expensive items on the menu, along with the best wine. Why not? Every one is going to pay the same, so you might as well eat the best.
There is one gaff that is apparent to all at the table. Someone orders the extra large turkey breast with gravy, potatoes, dozen hot rolls and pie. Then, when the meal is over, the diner puts about half of that in his doggy bag. Tomorrow’s lunch is being paid for by everyone else. Incidentally, once I was dining with about 12 others (all of whom ordered the top items). Afterwards, we all tossed our credit cards into the little black folder that contains the check. Later, everyone got their slice of the price, and their credit card. Except me. I never did get mine back, but someone in Akron sure lived well for a while.
Yes, it is awkward getting separate checks rather than trying to figure out who had what for how much and balancing it out. It is at times such as these that I recall President John F. Kennedy’s remarks at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere on April 29, 1962: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” That’s when Jefferson came up with the constitutional concept of checks and balances.
Ashby bills separately at firstname.lastname@example.org