Should diners tip a standard 15% or 20% on wine as well as on food purchases in a restaurant? To take an extreme example, if you were to order, say, a $200 bottle of wine (don't laugh, it happens), should you leave a $30 or $40 gratuity for its presentation--when a $20 bottle would have required about the same effort on the server's part, and would have merited only $3 or $4?
This question was posed in my Aug. 24 column asking readers for their opinions. A number of responses have arrived--from both sides of the serving tray, as it were.
One gentleman from Long Beach (no names here for the moment) scrawls proudly, "Here's how I've handled tips for years: food only." He tips nothing on alcoholic beverages, in other words. His justification? "The mark-up on drinks covers the tip on that." This is rubbish. The mark-up on both wine and hard liquor might well be too high in many restaurants--but if it "covers" anything, it is operating expenses of various kinds, or maybe proprietors' profits. No waiter or waitress gets near the money made on alcohol--unless he or she is also an owner of the place that serves it.
What this correspondent is saying, in other words, is that he doesn't think the people who bring him his liquor deserve his money for their trouble. I wonder if he applies this philosophy to other kinds of service he receives?
Another gentleman, from Beverly Hills, reveals that he tips a straight $2 per bottle of wine, whether it's Richebourg or Gallo. How he arrived at this figure is not clear. What is clear, though, is that if he does order Richebourg, or anything else in that price range, and leaves a mere two bucks, he is not only not paying for service, but actually costing the server money. The IRS, rightly or wrongly, assumes that waiters and waitresses are tipped a minimum of 8% on all the food and beverage sales they are responsible for. If a bottle of wine costs $25 or less, $2 is 8%--or more. But if it costs, say, $50, then $2 is only 4%. The server, then, has to pay income tax on twice the income he or she actually received from the transaction. I wonder how the man from the hills of Beverly would react if he were told that he had to pay income tax on twice his income?
A number of other readers, in different ways, have made a very good, very obvious point about the whole question: Food prices vary just like wine prices do, and if you tip a smaller percentage on a $50 bottle of wine than a $25 bottle, why not tip a smaller percentage on a $20 main course than a $10 one? Not that I'm suggesting this, for heaven's sake! The point is that, if you accept the whole idea of percentage tipping as a reward for service in the first place (not that everyone does, of course), then it seems to me that you're in for the whole thing. That's my opinion. If you disagree, and want to work out some complex system of sliding scales and two-buck rules, be my guest. But just remember that a good server works as hard for his or her money as you do. And that if you can afford a $200 bottle of wine, you can probably afford a $30 or $40 tip.
POOR TASTE OF L.A.: When organizers of last month's Taste of L.A. food and wine fair announced that profits had been negligible and that they were probably going to be unable to donate any funds to the local charity organizations that had been designated as beneficiaries of the event (50% of the proceeds were to be handed over), a number of local restaurateurs who had participated in the fair expressed their strong disappointment. At least one of them has done something more: Pierre Dupart of Dar Maghreb in Hollywood has taken the small profit he himself made at the event, $603, matched it with a like sum from his personal account, and sent the whole $1,206 off to LIFE (Love Is Feeding Everyone), a Hollywood-based organization that was originally scheduled to receive some of the Taste funds. I think this is a wonderful idea. I suspect that some other local restaurateurs may have done the same, and if they haven't, I hope that they will.
RESTAURANT STEW: Lalo and Brothers in Encino celebrates Mexican Independance Day tomorrow with a special prix-fixe menu featuring authentic Mexican dishes (including a taste of huitlacoche , the famous corn-fungus "truffle" of Mexico), to the tune of live "Cancionero" music. . . . Jean-Marc Weber, former chef at the Hotel Mondrian on the Sunset Strip, is now executive chef at the Hotel Meridien in Newport Beach, under general manager Bernard Jacoupy (ex-master of Bernard's in the Biltmore downtown).