clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Definitive Guide to Tipping at Any Restaurant in America

Start by making your default 20 percent everywhere — yes, even there

Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

It should be common knowledge that when dining out in America, you tip your server. Sure, tipping is inherently exploitative, but as long as tipped minimum wages exist, you don’t get to opt out.

But how much? People are eating out more and more at restaurants that fall outside of the full-service box, and it’s not always entirely clear how they should adapt tips to these new dining styles. Plus, with the advent of Square and other mobile tipping platforms that prompt customers to tip at the register with either a percentage or dollar amount, the whole business can feel a bit awkward. But it doesn’t have to be.

Here’s what to tip in just about any situation, according to dining experts and the people for whom tips really matter.

Cash or credit: Either is fine.

If you’re paying with a credit card, it’s absolutely fine to leave the tip on the credit card.

Sit-down restaurants: 20 percent — always.

In 2018, the precise amount you tip is widely understood to be a round 20 percent. Etiquette guide the Emily Post Institute may say between 15 and 20 percent is fine, but to tip well — and who wouldn’t want to tip well (aside from the aforementioned non-tippers) — 20 percent is the gold standard.

Eater NY chief critic Ryan Sutton says that 20 percent before tax is actually the minimum one should tip at a restaurant, “though for extra good service, 20 percent after tax instead of before tax is nice.” He also says that if the restaurant comps you an item, you should factor the full price of the comped drink or dish into the final tip. “The waiter should not be mathematically penalized for giving you a break,” he says. He adds that 20 percent is the right amount regardless of the kind of service, whether you’ve just finished a tasting menu at a fine dining restaurant or an a la carte meal at a casual chain.

Restaurant server Rachael Frank agrees that 20 percent is standard. She says that most people who come into the Los Angeles R+D Kitchen where she works know they should tip this amount, but if they don’t, suggested amounts for tipping 18, 20, and 22 percent appear on the bottom of the check to steer them in the right direction. And while she can understand that a bad interaction with a server could reasonably result in a low tip, she says anything but the worst service should receive — once again — 20 percent. “If the food comes out slow or if there was a mistake with the entree that’s not that big a deal, I think that you should still give 20 percent because it’s probably the kitchen’s fault or something higher up than them,” she says.

If you go big on wines: You don’t need to tip 20 percent on whale bottles.

This is one situation where you wouldn’t be faulted for not tipping a full 20 percent on the total. According to sommelier and Eater Young Gun Kaitlyn Caruke, who currently works at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Cafe, if you’re spending $1,000 on a bottle of wine, no one really expects you to add another $200 for the bottle onto the tip. That said, you should leave something to acknowledge the staff member who helped select and pour. “If someone has the ability to leave 20 percent or 10 percent or it might be 5 percent, like leaving $50 on a $1000 bottle of wine, just to show they’re thankful and they’re grateful, [they should],” she says. “They’re leaving gratuity for the service, but there is something that recognizes the wine has been served proper temperature, proper pouring, proper protocol and that the person pouring the wine knew a significant amount… you want to know that the guest appreciated the person behind the bottle.”

Gratuity-included restaurants: Don’t tip — really!

Because of the many issues with tipping, some restaurateurs have made the switch to eliminate it altogether. Danny Meyer calls the practice of factoring in service into the cost of the food “hospitality included,” and he instituted it at his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants in late 2015. Earlier that year, chef Amanda Cohen announced that she would eliminate tipping at her New York City vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy because of tipping’s history of encouraging harassment and exploitation, among other reasons. Cohen says that receiving a check with no line for a tip still confuses some diners, and some leave cash. But, she notes, she does not at all expect or encourage them to tip.

Folk co-owners Kiki Louya and Rohani Foulkes built their Detroit all-day cafe as a gratuity-free restaurant for many of the same reasons Cohen opted to eliminate tipping at Dirt Candy, including the fact that a hospitality-included model provides workers with a livable wage regardless of how busy the restaurant may be — a valuable provision in a place like Michigan, where cold weather can keep people indoors. “Customers don’t know how powerful they are in providing, or not [providing], food service workers with a living wage, and we’re trying to take control back,” Foulkes says. Louya and Foulkes want diners to remember that by not tipping, they’re “supporting a sustainable approach to fair wage structure for all,” as they put it on the Folk website. “It’s not just based on this idealized notion of ‘Oh, we want to change the world,’” Foulkes says. “But being two women of color who have worked in the food service industry around the world … this is what we believe in.”

Food trucks: Add a buck or two.

Food trucks are pretty much exclusively to-go operations. The interaction with staff is short and the level of service provided is minimal, so you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder about whether a tip is really necessary. While it’s not mandatory, a tip isn’t inappropriate either, according to Eater’s Dining on a Dime host Lucas Peterson. “It’s more a tacit acknowledgement that the food truck business is difficult and the people working there probably aren’t making much money,” he says.

Peterson recommends adding an “extra buck or two” to your total, if you’re feeling generous. However, tipping is a must if you’re placing a particularly large order, or asking for a lot of substitutions.

Bars: Dollar per drink at dives, 20 percent at cocktail bars.

The 20 percent rule holds true for bars — unless “you roll up to a dive bar and you get a shot [and a] Bud Light or a whiskey,” says New York-based cocktail and bar expert John deBary. In the latter case, a dollar tip is perfectly acceptable, but if you are sitting down and being served by a person at anything other than a dive bar, you should tip as much as you would if you were sitting down for food. It doesn’t matter if the bartender is preparing an intricate cocktail or simply pouring a glass of wine: “If you’re taking up a seat in space, you should tip 20 percent,” deBary says.

It’s not about how long it takes for a bartender to perform a service, says deBary, it’s about the time you’re spending in the establishment and with the staff, who are working on your cocktail even before you arrive. “Many people don’t see the work that goes into some cocktails. Even if they’re not super fancy, there’s still probably a lot of support staff juicing fresh juices,” he says. “Just keep in mind that there’s more than just the point of contact with the immediate staff that you have to think about.”

Bakeries and coffee shops: Add a buck or two.

Tipping is less vital at bakeries and coffee shops, but still very much appreciated.

At Detroit pie shop Sister Pie, the employees are paid more than the tipped minimum wage, but owner Lisa Ludwinski says they still deserve to be tipped. “Someone with more money gets to decide what someone is worthy of taking home, so my inclination is to say always tip — even if it’s a bakery — because chances are you can probably afford it if you’re at that bakery,” she says.

Like many bakeries, Sister Pie uses Square, and Ludwinski says the tipping prompts encourage customers to tip. That said, Ludwinski is aware of the problems inherent in tipping and is considering switching to the hospitality-included model with 18 to 20 percent worked into the bill.

The same goes for coffee shops. Adding a dollar or two per order goes a long way to say thank you for the baristas who are directly making your morning livable. And if you’re staying for a while, order something to eat or drink every hour or so, and tip on that too.

Fast-casual counter service: 20 percent

Cities across the country have seen an explosion of fast-casual options, where guests order at a counter but perhaps a runner delivers food and a busser clears it. In restaurants like this, tip 20 percent. “It seems casual, but everyone is pulling their weight,” says Moonlyn Tsai, co-owner and operator of the smash-hit fast-casual operation Kopitiam in New York City. “I just wish people were more aware of the work they’re doing: they bus tables, they run food, it’s more than taking orders. They keep the space tidy.” It’s changed how she thinks of tipping at other similarly set-up restaurants too. “Before working in this setup, I’d tip between 15 and 18 percent. Now I always tip 20 on the total.”

Tsai says that over half of customers at Kopitiam tip, and it’s not uncommon to see a guest opt not to tip when ordering, but then leave cash at the end of the meal, after seeing how much the staff does.

It might feel different at the massive fast-casual chains where diners are served cafeteria-style, but even then, do 20 percent if you can stomach it. The people working there deserve it. [NB: Operators, if you are serving guests from an assembly line, please shift to a tip-free model.]

Delivery: $5 minimum

Whether you’re using a newfangled delivery brand or just calling the local pizza place, as a diner, it is on you to make sure the person getting the food from the restaurant to your door gets at least $5. Assuming 20 percent of your order is greater than $5, do consider tipping a full 20 percent. This person went outside so that you can eat in your pajamas.

Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Andrea D’Aquino is an illustrator and author.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan


Please Don’t Tell Me About Every Single Dish on the Menu

The Move

You Should Always, Always Ask for Extra Sauce When Ordering Delivery


Honoring the Ancestral Tradition of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico