The past couple of years have seen an ever-louder cry from many in the restaurant world to end tipping once and for all. Both New York critic Adam Platt and Times critic Pete Wells have publicly called for an end to a system that they see as annoying and outdated. Several new restaurants are opening with no-tipping policies. Even Tom Colicchio is experimenting with a no-tipping policy during lunch at Craft. And this week’s report that Danny Meyer will do away with tipping at all of his restaurants — a group that includes spots like Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, and the Modern — is the most significant move yet. But does it really, as many people have said, spell the end of tip culture in New York City and beyond? Grub talked to Platt about his thoughts on today’s momentous announcement.
Almost exactly a year ago, you tried to go gratuity-free and called for the end of tipping culture. It didn’t work, but Danny Meyer eliminating tips feels like it will be the beginning of a much larger revolution.
This whole thing is interesting because Meyer is arguably the biggest trend setter in the city, right? His restaurants run the whole gamut from grand dining destinations like Gramercy and the Modern, to the famous burger joints. Traditionally, in the USA, the service charge/surcharge model works where people can most afford it, in upscale destination restaurants, like the Modern, which is filled with swells from uptown or Beijing or Cleveland, who won’t mind absorbing the imagined extra cost because they come in there once a year, or more likely, once in their lifetimes. So they won’t care about the newly inflated cost of their delicately rendered foie gras torchon so much. My guess is it’s going to be a bit of a shock as you move down the food chain, even within the Meyer food chain, to establishments like Maialino and the great pizza restaurant Marta, where diners will find themselves paying upwards of $30 for their pork ragu pasta and Roman pizza pies.
You think the shock will be for diners?
It’s going to be a shock to diners, it’s going to be a shock to the front-of-the-house staff who’ve built their entire careers around their uncanny and suddenly obsolete ability to extract tips, and it’s going to be a shock to the management who will on the one hand be relieved to be rid of the whole tipping rats’ nest, but also deeply fearful of driving their customers away.
No tipping is also catching on with lower-end restaurants. You’ve reviewed a couple of places this year, Bruno, which is a pizzeria, and Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy, which don’t take tips. Have you noticed any dips in the quality of the service?
I’d say no, I haven’t noticed any petulant servers or tragic clattering of plates into people’s laps at those places. In fact, the whole experience has been refreshing. But I think for a while you’re going to have a dichotomy. I don’t know that everybody’s going to be rushing to follow Danny into the breach, even on the high end. I mean, Maguy Le Coze at Le Bernardin doesn’t have a profitable burger chain to absorb her losses, if her faithful patrons suddenly object to paying, say, $50 for a piece of fish. At Le Bernardin and Daniel, and even successful bar-restaurants like the Spotted Pig, they may struggle with this issue for a while, and we’ll see which way they go. They’re going to be watching carefully.
Right. And the no-tipping format really runs into trouble at more and more casual places.
At local diners, you’re still going to be tipping. With your local barista, you’re going to be tipping. Until the arcane tip-credit laws are off the books, and the minimum wage gets up to a civilized level, the owners are going to pass as much cost as they can onto the consumer, especially when study after study has shown that the American consumer is happy to pay it. Of course, like I said, Danny can afford to take the risk. He’s also one of the great tastemakers in the business, and as an old-fashioned restaurateur, he knows the chaos that the arcane tipping culture causes behind the scenes. He’s been thinking about this issue for decades, and clearly he thinks the time is right. Being Danny, he’s also doing it in a very judicious, step-by-step way, which I think is smart. We’ll see how many people follow. I hope they do.
But at the high end, is this the beginning of the end of tipping?
Maybe it is, but we’ll see how fast events unfold. It wouldn’t surprise me if, say, Daniel Humm came out and announced a similar plan at Eleven Madison Park, which of course is an international dining destination. Whether he decides to do the same at, say, the Nomad Bar is another question. A good waiter or bartender really will make a lot of money for people at a restaurant like that. They will make a difference in whether you enjoy your experience, and whether you choose to return or not. If that person decides to go elsewhere because they’re not making their tax-free six-figure salary anymore, that could affect the bottom line.
As a diner, however, you’re still firmly anti-tip.
I’m on the record as being anti-tip. The whole custom is absurd, and there’s really nothing that’s voluntary about it. For somebody like me who’s going out all the time, you’re already paying 20, 25 percent. Why not just have it just be aboveboard? I don’t think that the service will suffer. I haven’t really noticed that in non-tip restaurants that I’ve reviewed. I really haven’t. What I have noticed is that there’s actually been more of a group spirit among the staff, a sense that we’re all in this together. And for the paying customer, what I’ve noticed, mostly, is a blessed sense of relief. It feels strange not adding this great wad of cash to your bill at the end of the meal for no reason at all. I mean, we’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dog over the years to add that 20 percent no matter how absurdly expensive the bill. I actually do a double take, like it’s some sort of strange optical illusion. Wait, this can’t be so cheap. You feel like you’re paying less for more, instead of the other way around.