Picture: Staff at Pineapple & Pearls serving an amazing and intricate dish.
From time to time the question arises: how much should you tip? My answer is twenty percent. Always. Including wine. Extra for really good service. For many this is standard, but not for all. So I take to the soapbox, with the argument below as one more reason why.
One of the complaints heard in almost mantra-like fashion over the years was that service in D.C. restaurants did not measure up, especially to New York. Those days are over.
Looking over the new Washingtonian Top 100 (and which we analyzed in great detail), there were a number of places on the list that are new or at least of recent vintage. Elle and St. Anselm still have the new restaurant smell about them. Others like Himitsu or Kinship/Metier had a couple more years to settle in. It is a crazy moment in the D.C. food scene that so many places can be financially supported (can this keep going?). There is an additional level of support that is also required for these places: talent.
In an industry and city that traditionally faced a deficit of service, dozens of new places are opening and straining that talent pool. In February 2018, about a quarter of all net job growth in D.C. was in the food service industry, which was an increase over a pretty aggressive 2017 in the field. More importantly, the talent pool turns out to be deep enough to support the demand. In the last few years the restaurant scene saw serious additions nearly every month. The entire Wharf stood up from scratch and continues to build out. When I think of recent meals at upscale, refined places (1789), casual, refined places (Red Hen, Tail Up Goat, Poca Madre), and casual, casual places (Sorellina, Green Almond Pantry), the service was uniformly good. In most cases it was charming, knowledgeable, and excellent.
If you are thinking right now about that time service did not measure up. Hold your fire. We all have stories of when service went awry. I’ve seen it here and seen it in New York too for that matter. Pot legalization did have an impact I suspect; a space-cadet bartender or a server having to be asked twice for something became more frequent. Even if the talent pool is deeper than we thought, it is not infinite. A recent story flagged a shortage of sushi chefs in D.C., another a bartender applicant who could not name a single grape varietal (or more likely didn’t know the word varietal). Standing back from these anecdotes, the overall trend is positive.
Maybe the talent pool improved because food became more interesting and drew more money. That might explain why some many well-credentialed and talented sommeliers have either come to town or risen in the ranks. Not to mention beer experts and bartenders/mixologists. Maybe the restaurants themselves invested in training to keep up a high standard. Maybe those in the industry rose to the occasion, mentored each other, and work their tails off. It is likely a combination of these and other factors. Such quality is not inevitable, however.
The bottom line goes to the bottom line. Regardless of where you stood on the recent Initiative 77, it highlighted the tight margins those in the industry live on (link contains offensive material, including the idea that tipping is not required). So, respect the laws of supply and demand and compensate accordingly.
One more thing to keep in mind. Tipping is built into the wage structure of restaurant staff. This system is rickety and crumbling, but it what we have for now. The system shifts a portion of the labor costs to customers. Staff compensation is predicated on customers contributing in daily, small increments to keep down the restaurant’s labor costs. That means your tip is expected, not contingent.
Follow the Kantian imperative of Jonathan Gold: Tip 20%. Always. On everything. Even wine. And if they are really good, throw a couple extra bucks in. If you enjoy the bounty of great places in Washington, then remember we are the invisible hand that keeps this going.