Last week was an interesting one for the San Francisco culinary scene. The big news, of course, was the release of the 2015 Michelin Guide and a new flurry of starred restaurants. At the top of the heap, Saison and Benu went from two stars to three (the ultimate accolade), joining The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood as the region’s top eateries. “The Bay Area’s got nowhere to go but up,” proclaimed Michelin director Michael Ellis.
Another story, floating just under the radar, was even more intriguing. Five restaurants—the most famous being San Francisco’s Bar Agricole—announced that they would add 20% to customer’s checks. The quintet will inform diners of the service charge, and not accept any additional gratuities.
Is this a coming trend? Last year, Manhattan’s famed Sushi Yasuda startled the restaurant world by eliminating tipping entirely. At Yasuda, however, the service charge was simply built into the prices, which were probably so high that no one even noticed. Their policy was more closely aligned with the European practice of including service in the net price of each menu item.
The distinction between service and tipping is an important one. In Europe, a basic fee of 12-15% is automatically awarded to the dining room staff; anyone wishing to leave more money for exceptional service is free to do so, but this is not expected. There are two assumptions behind this practice, the first being that servers deserve to make a living. The second is that most diners prefer others to perform basic tasks for them (opening and serving wine, dealing with screaming cooks, shlepping plates of food across the room), thus leaving them free to chat with their friends about politics or the opera.
In America, by contrast, the server is akin to a trained seal, an animal that must perform a series of clever and artful tricks in order to eat. Underlying the debate over service vs. tipping is the question of how we view the restaurant industry, and where we think it fits into the larger society. Is the culinary trade a legitimate profession worth of respect and a living wage, or do dining room servers constitute an underclass that exists primarily to facilitate our social life?
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); for more information, go to amazon.com