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01 April 2008

Why I don't tip in restaurants

I haven't written a long blog in a while so I thought it was time to post this missive now that I've been living in London for 7 weeks.

I last tipped in a restaurant in December and I eat out 4 nights a week. So strictly speaking I do tip, when there's exceptional service and I want to say thanks (the last time was at Benedicts of Belfast) but so far I've been pretty unimpressed with London. Yet, some restaurants demand a 10% tip, there's no way to remove it from the bill and the service is pretty average.

I don't expect London to be cheap, but working in Whitehall, I can pop up the road from Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster and eat near the corner of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square at the Wetherspoons "Lord Moon of the Mall" for about a tenner including a drink. That's about as central as you can get, a stone's throw from where all the distances to London are measured and a few minutes walk from both the centre of government, theatreland, The Mall and The Strand. A decent (if somewhat basic) meal, a pint of beer and about a tenner. You pay at the bar so there's no tip added to the bill either.

Yet eat at a restaurant, even in more outlying areas such as Aldgate, Pimlico, Bayswater and so on and you'll usually pay over £20 for a meal for one in a restaurant for much the same meal. Eat in a pub, even a good one with "5 pints" on the website fancyapint.com and you get decent food, a drink and it's still around £10-£12. There's clearly a rip off market amongst restaurants who seem to think it's par for the course to whack on at least a 50% premium then look surprised when I don't want to pay the mandatory 10% surcharge on on top of that just because someone has carried a few plates 6 feet from the service hatch to my table then asked me if the meal was OK, cue reference to the "Maharaja Indian Restaurant", Queensway London which indulges in this nefarious practice.

Then you get the bill and have to ask for a VAT receipt. Usually this is some sort of semi-scribbled effort that if you're lucky has the total and the VAT number. Sorry, not good enough. Because goods are rated at different levels, in order to accurately know what the VAT amount is, you can't just guess that 17.5% was added on to the net amount. The receipt actually has to show the amount of VAT paid, just like the receipts I get when I shop in major supermarkets. So even if I was thinking of giving a tip for outstanding plate carrying to my table, the amount of tip I was going to leave has more than been eroded by the fact that the said restaurant is incapable of producing a proper VAT receipt with their VAT number on it, the total VAT paid and the total of the bill. There goes their "tip" - off to the VATman because of incompetency.

So if I get a square meal like I do in Benedicts of Belfast (the sort of food where people come from miles around to eat there) or even basic food such as Wetherspoons and pay £12 then I figure for a restaurant in an expensive area it's going to be around £15 including VAT, assuming I get a correct VAT receipt. I know it's economic to run a restaurant on that basis, the Lord Moon of the Mall in Whitehall shows it can be done for much less.

Any restaurant wanting £20 for the same and especially those with no VAT receipt have just used up my budget and gone over by a fiver. The tip has already been spent on overpriced food.

So that's what I don't tip (in London at least). It's so completely different in the US, where eating in restaurants is much cheaper, the portions are much bigger, the service better and you actually feel tipping is worthwhile and the server deserves it rather than in London where it's a surcharge on top of a rip off.

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