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Dinner theater
When dining out with a group, the arrival of the bill can bring high drama to the table. Split it evenly? Get out your calculator? Or play credit card roulette? Style senior editor Laura Wexler investigates.
By Laura Wexler
Illustration By Dominic Bugatto
Dinner theater

There’s a great episode of “Friends” in which the gang goes out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and Monica, Ross and Chandler— gainfully employed, all— order with abandon while Rachel, Phoebe and Joey who are, shall we say, underemployed, order far more modestly.

When the bill comes, Ross does the math then announces, “Everyone owes $28.” A second later, he realizes he forgot to include the tip and revises upward. “It’s $33.50 apiece.”

The figure stuns Rachel, Phoebe and Joey, who are still ravenous after consuming their meager vittles: a side salad, a cup of soup and a miniature pizza, respectively. Nonetheless, it seems as if they’re going to pay up and shut up, like the thousands before and after them… until Phoebe speaks out.

“No, not gonna happen,” she says.

Cue deer-in-headlights looks on Monica, Ross and Chandler’s faces, then a long, awkward silence. Finally Ross says, “OK, we’ll each just pay for what we had.” The rest of the evening and the next few days are rife with tension before everyone makes nice and lives happily ever after.

But in the real world, as opposed to TV land, such situations don’t always end so neatly. Amanda Krotki, a senior producer at baltimore.metromix.com, a guide to restaurants, bars and events in the city, recalls a similar experience when she was at The Ambassador one evening with a group of 10 or so people. “Some people were only drinking, some people were not drinking but were snacking and some people had full-on dinners,” she says. “Two people were drunk out of their minds and decided everyone should split the bill.” The tariff for each person? $50.

Though Krotki had only ordered an appetizer and didn’t have a drink, she was prepared to seethe silently while paying her share because she didn’t want to argue. “It’s completely socially un-acceptable to speak up,” she says. “It really is.” When one person in the group did exactly that, says Krotki, “it turned into a big, ugly scene. People were actually judging the person who spoke up instead of the two drunk people who wanted to split.”

In the end, each person paid for what he or she owed, but the bitterness remained. “I will never go out to eat with them again,” says Krotki. “They were just really rude and felt so entitled.” And though that was an extreme case, Krotki says group dining rarely works in her favor, at least in the financial sense. “I’m not a huge drinker and I don’t eat meat,” she says. “So a lot of times it does happen to me that I feel I’m being taken advantage of when we split the check evenly. The nights when I drop $50 on a $30 meal I go home really depressed.”

Like many people, Krotki is watching her budget closely these days, so she finds herself behaving strategically when it comes to group restaurant dinners. She turned down an invitation to Pazo recently because she knew it would be a split-check situation that would cost her $75. And, when she does accept invitations to go out with a group, her strategy is to order as much as everyone else, even if she wouldn’t do so if she were paying individually. “I’m not going to go order the steak because everyone else is,” she says. “But I definitely keep up with them in drinking because I feel like… if I’m going to be paying for it, I should enjoy it.”

According to the laws of behavioral economics, Krotki is acting the way most folks do. Back in 2002, three economists from Technion University in Israel did a study showing that people order more when they know the check is going to be split evenly.

But economics is one thing and fairness is another. So, even when the people at his table offer to split the check evenly, Denis Nash oftentimes will throw in more cash. “I like to drink several bourbon drinks at dinner,” says Nash, mid-Atlantic sales manager for Universal Financial. “They run $12 or $13 each. If someone has one glass of wine only and we split the bill, that isn’t fair.”

Nash says he tries to be conscious when his food and drink costs run more than the others in the group, and he appreciates when others return the favor. Recently he ate dinner in a restaurant in Las Vegas with a friend who likes fine wine. “My friend said to the waitress, ‘Hey, can you bring a separate wine check?’ I thought that was really classy and I told him so.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Nash stopped going out with a couple he was friends with because they’d order expensive wine— which he doesn’t drink— and then want to split the check evenly. Since the husband never carried cash, Nash would give him cash for his portion and the husband would pay with his credit card. Then one night Nash noticed that the husband gave the waitress a 10 percent tip even though Nash had given him enough money for a 20 or 25 percent tip. “I felt like I was in a ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ episode,” he says. “That was the last time I hung out with him.” (Tipping is another issue that can cause conflict. “My philosophy is that I tip what people earn,” says Krotki. “There are some people who will tip 20 percent no matter what, and if you’re splitting the bill, you’re stuck with that.”)

All this “check drama” raises an important question: why can’t restaurants offer individual bills? The answer makes sense to anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant, but may be hard for others to understand, says Scott “Scooter” Holt, a server at Corks who has worked in the restaurant industry 15 years . When he approaches a party of, say, six diners and they ask for separate checks, he tells them very clearly why that’s impossible. “I say that if I split the bill before the meal, you’re going to get your meals at six different times,” he says. Kitchens group food according to the bill, he says, so it’s logistically impossible to ensure that a party’s appetizers and entrees come out together if they’re not on the same ticket.

Regarding splitting the bill after the meal, Holt says some restaurants have computer systems that allow waiters to separate out individual meals and print off separate checks, but most do not. That means waiters would have to do the math manually— computing sales tax and a percentage of the 20 percent service charge that’s usually added to the bill for parties of six or more. “That’s time-consuming and time is money in a restaurant,” he says. “Two minutes can seem like an eternity.”

As a server, it’s certainly easiest for him if one person pays the bill and the other folks at the table reimburse that person. Barring that, Holt is happy to split the cost between several different credit cards, “as long as we don’t start getting into, ‘Put $14.98 on this card and $12.34 on this one,’” he says.
 
Ali Dryer, who waits tables at Dougherty’s on Thursday nights, has a strategy for just that situation. “When I get a big group who hands me a bunch of credit cards and wants different amounts charged on each, I give them a pen and a piece of paper and tell them to write the amount to be charged on the card and the last four digits of the card,” she says. “That way it’s up to them.”

Dryer, who waits tables to supplement her income as the creator of Pistol handbags http://www.pistolstitched.com, used to work at Petit Louis, which had a computer system that allowed her to split checks easily. These days, she sometimes picks up shifts at Clementine, which is at the other extreme. “We hand-write our tickets there,” says Dryer. “People need to be understanding when the server instructs them how it’s done at the particular place.”

But restaurant policies governing separate checks apparently generate as much heartburn as diners’ unwritten rules for splitting the bill. Last summer, when Baltimore Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large posted on her blog, “Dining@Large,” an e-mail from the owner of Birches about his restaurant’s refusal to provide individual bills for the members of a large party, some people commented that they’d never expect a restaurant to provide individual bills— “how tacky,” they said— but others argued that restaurants should accommodate customers’ needs or risk losing their business, i.e. “The customer is always right.”

Large, who has reviewed restaurants for The Sun for 36 years, says for her part, check-splitting is rarely an issue. “If I’m eating with one other friend and it’s a casual kind of place, I might ask the waitress if it’s OK to have separate checks,” she says. “I would never do that if I’m going out for a really nice dinner. Part of that is due to the pretense that money doesn’t enter into it. You’re having a wonderful time— why do you want to think about money?”

When Large asked readers on her blog how they handle paying the bill when out with a group, the comments ranged from “we always split evenly” to “each pays for what each ate and drank” to some combination of methods, as exemplified by this comment: “If she has chateaubriand and I have a cheeseburger, we’re not splitting the check. On the other hand, if each spends about the same amount of money (say, within $5), we’ll split the check. The other way to go is, ‘I’ll treat this time, you treat next time.’”

The treating trade-off is often favored by friends who dine out together regularly and figure everything will even out in the long run. It’s also the preferred method for those who have no money issues (financial or psychological), who enjoy the frisson of being generous— or who don’t want to risk the evening’s good vibe being dampened by a buzz-killing conversation about whether Joe should help pay for Jim’s appetizer since he ate five of his jalapeño poppers. Both Dryer and Holt have had diners slip them a credit card before the bill even comes so as to avoid such dreary negotiating, although Holt says other diners at the table can get very angry when one person pays the check on the sly.

In general, Holt says he sees less check drama these days than he did in the past, and he thinks that’s because people have gotten savvy about dining with people who dine at a similar level. “I think it’s a conscious thing: ‘Let’s go out with Bob and Sue because they drink wine and appetizers and so do we,’” he says. When he and his friends are planning a dinner out, they agree beforehand that they’re going to “go for it,” and let anyone they invite know as much. “We say, ‘Hey, we’re going to spend some money tonight.’ That gives the person the opportunity to back out beforehand if they don’t have the budget for it,” he says. “People need to communicate when they go out for dinner. Especially in this economy, people need to have these conversations.”

As much as Holt understands the plight of people who don’t want to get stuck funding others’ hedonism when they’re tightening their own belts, he doesn’t want to worry that he’s breaking someone’s bank when he’s dining out in a group. “I don’t want to go to dinner and worry about what I spend. I want to get the maximum experience,” he says, explaining that he expects to spend $100 or $150 when he dines out once every two weeks.

There’s no standard etiquette, as Large says; people have to figure out what works best for themselves, whether it’s avoiding group dinners, arriving late and just having dessert, or paying up and shutting up. Sadder but wiser, Krotki these days avoids dining out with people she knows will order the most expensive steak on the menu and drink three martinis and expect her to pay for it, and instead relishes outings with a group in which one guy tabulates the bill and tells everyone what he or she owes. “It is the fairest way to do it because everyone’s diets and preferences are so varied, no one is ever eating the same thing,” she says. “And he’s usually correct in his calculations.”

Still, if all this check-wrangling seems boring, you could try a radically different approach: credit card roulette. It’s a game in which everyone at the table puts his or her credit card in a bowl and the waiter picks out the cards one by one, leaving the person whose credit card is the last one in the bowl to foot the entire bill. “It’s part entertainment, part solving the problem,” says Todd Sniffin, a manager at ICF international consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. During the 15 years he’s been playing, Sniffin says the game has worked mostly in his financial favor. He escaped an $800 dinner bill during a reunion of his college friends in Atlantic City— whew!— but did have to pony up for a $300 bar tab in D.C. one time.

When the bill arrives at the table the next time you’re out with a group, why not yell, “Credit card roulette!” and try to persuade the others to take a chance on lady luck. Since paying the bill when you’re with a group is a gamble anyway, might as well have some fun.

MARCH/APRIL 2009

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