Touchy Subject. Restaurant Bills.

2013 update (first published in 2008)

This is a subject I have been toying writing about for a while. On the one hand, it probably is down to culture (you know, the Going Dutch and all). On the other, I seem to be more often than not stuck in endless conversations on how to … split the (restaurant) bill! A touchy subject in itself. Read on.

We love going out. A lot. Spur of the moment dinners out? The two of us, but often enough we are also going with other foodie friends. Other (couples) friends. Just the girls. Pre-gig dinners in a group? The more the merrier. With a big group come different appetites and different tastes. Should we order a starter or not. Should we order a side dish or not. Should we order the house wine or go for a recommended bottle. Still or sparkling water. And so on. Sound familiar? Needless to say that conversations at the beginning of the dinner can get pretty animated.

But we all come to – different! – conclusions, and order. The dinner progresses, the wine flows, the conversation gets louder. We might even order dessert. The calorie conscientious, perhaps a coffee? I usually opt for another glass of wine. Some go for a pousse-café.

And then the bill arrives!

Usually we encounter two scenarios: we either all agree that we ordered pretty much the same, and decide to split the bill evenly. Or the headache starts. Each and every one of us goes through the bill, identifies and crosses out the ordered items, and starts adding them up. After which the amount of the drinks gets split between the drinkers. The non drinkers agree to split-pay for the water. And finally, individually, we start paying. Which is hell for whoever is closest to the bill, who inevitably, ends up adding the total bill. Of course not forgetting the different payment methods everyone choose – credit card, cash or meal vouchers. How does restaurant staff feel about this I wonder?

Does it sound like a real mess? I’m glad. Because it is.

Before you start discussing the pro and cons, let me explain. I don’t have anything against splitting the bill per consumption. When we go out in smaller groups, it is always easy to add up exactly who ordered what. But – except in the very obvious cases (only ordering a starter, no wine at all etc) – are people really always that precise with their consumption? I know myself pretty well – I’ll skip dessert, but I drink a lot of water. And will have a glass of wine or two extra. Which never stopped me from splitting the bill and paying ‘my share’ of someone else’s dessert. Or someone else’s pousse-café.

I will also oblige, and if the dining group is so inclined, go through the bill and add up to the last cent what I ordered. Yet somehow, not sure if you noticed this, someone always ends up paying less. Despite the all mathematical adding up (yes, yes, I have seen calculators and mobile phones being brought out!) we always seem to be a couple of euros short. Which again brings me to the person closest to the bill who usually ends up paying those couple of euros extra.

When splitting the bill from the beginning, equally amongst all, we always end up with extra euros . Usually left as a tip.

To get the fire started, I prefer splitting the bill equally. Please bear in mind I am talking here about dinners out, with friends, where no receipt or expense claim is involved (business dinners are thus excluded from this). Dining out, involves also enjoying yourself. Which is why, when discussing who pays what becomes THE topic, I stop enjoying myself.

As said, perhaps I am talking here about cultural differences. Perhaps economic differences. Or simply, I enjoy going out with friends more than going Dutch.

Now you know where I stand. So:

Split the bill? Or pay for what you ordered only? Discuss.

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  • Depends. In a place where you basically order the same, split the bill. If the menu is so different from person to person, that half the table will end paying for half the dinner of the rest of the table, I rather go for the add it. So far we’ve never ended short of money.

  • I usually eat less than everyone, so paying for what I ordered only works just fine. The thing is, it is standard practice for me and my friends, when we are not sharing dishes, to pay for what we ordered. We know that when ordering, so we already anticipate how much we are to pay at the end of the meal. (But inevitably the cellphone calculator does come out.)

  • Gah – a touchy topic indeed!

    It was worse when you were a student with limited funds as there was always some rich boy/girl with funds from mommy/daddy who ordered the most food and the most drink and then would suggest to everyone (who ordered just one dish and one drink) that they split the bill! Ha! I also recall one dinner also where the bill was split (quite fairly) but then somehow one girl didn’t get around to paying yet and yet the bill was already covered. She *refused* to put down her money as a tip and ended up eating free on everybody else’s dime – I was livid!

    Lesson learned – just don’t eat out with those people again! And there’s been no problems since! My friends and I tend to split the bill somewhat evenly with those of us who know they drank/ate more tossing in a few more pounds.

  • Good debate!

    The fewer people there are, the easier it is, and luckily the people I tend to dine out with all eat and drink approximately the same as me so usually an even split is fine. With larger groups, we do occasionally go with a majority decision to total individuals’ consumption and se weldom have major problems with this. Maybe we are lucky with our friends!

    That said, once or twice we were badly shafted with the equal split method – at the start of the meal we assumed that we would each pay for what we had, but at the end it was just split up and you suddenly found yourself paying for other people’s wine binges and chateaubriands while you had a salad and a coke. Grrrr! These days if I can see that situation looming, I make sure I eat & drink my fair share, rather than to argue at the end 🙂

  • LyB

    Ask for separate bills! 🙂

  • Totally depends: if everyone prety much just ordered the same amount: then just split. The best though, is when the waitress/waiter agrees to do separate checks.

  • I know in some places in the USA they are able to subtotal by guest.
    I think with all the wine and alcohol and foods I can’t eat flowing I generally prefer to pay my bill
    But depending on the friends and such splitting is okay too I guess.

  • As a former server for almost 10 years (catering, golf club, restaurants, pubs), I implore you: PLEASE ask for separate cheques at the BEGINNING of your restaurant experience, and the server will keep you straight the entire night. Easy, right? That’s especially handy at a pub or other venue with live entertainment, where you stay a long time and drink so much you may lose count (and inevitably argue with the server and your wife/husband about what you actually consumed).

    If you’re too cheap to split a bill evenly at the table and you INSIST on using a calculator/cell phone to find out exactly how much you owe (how tacky!), either a) round UP a few dollars, b/c when you round down and then add a buck or two as tip, the last person paying gets off easy and only contributes the remainder of the amount, usually screwing the server; or b) have one person pay the entire thing with a credit card, and have the other people be prepared to sort it out later, when you go back to your place for nightcaps or in the parking lot. Don’t waste your server’s time – we’ve got better things to do than stand there and stare at you while you do quick math – and don’t be CHEAP. It’s emabarassing and we DO remember you next time you come in with your cheap friends. You’re guaranteed to get poor service if you look too finicky with your extra $3 or $4.

    Anyone who is a server will be able to relate to this.

  • Since moving to Germany I have come of learn and enjoy the concept of “going Dutch”. Everyone pays for what they ordered and everyone goes home happy. Nobody thinks twice about if it going to hurt somebody’s feelings or if the bill should be split. With out German friends and friends who have lived in Germany for an extended time this is always the case.
    When our American friends and family come things start getting complicated with requests to pay the entire bill. Or who is going to treat who.
    Another thing I didn’t know when I first moved here is that when you invited a group of people out to dinner for your birthday, the birthday person pays the whole thing.
    Bills here are also always split by the weighter(-ess) and tallied on a note pad. So, when you are in a large group it doesn’t matter. The waiter will come by with his not pad and have a line next to how many drinks and specific menu items have been ordered. And, you keep track of how many beers you have had by letting the weighter put a line on your paper coaster for each drink you’ve had. So, later on there is no trying to remember if you really had 3 or 4 drinks.

    So…I am for going Dutch every single time unless it is previously stated or agreed on (before leaving home to go out to eat) that “I would like to take you out to dinner”.

  • Bronwyn

    Depends on how hungry I am. I don’t mind splitting the bill if I eat the same as or a bit less than others, but if I’m hungry I prefer to pay separately – or I won’t feel able to eat as much as I want to.

  • For me, I usually plan to just split the bill whenever I go out in a group. You’ve had a nice meal together, everyone has enjoyed themselves – seems kind of a shame to bring things down by haggling over the bill. I don’t drink much, so it’s often the case that I end up paying a little more than my fair share. But I don’t really mind – if it was that important to me to pay for exactly what I ate/drank and nothing else than I could have just gone out by myself. Much rather spend the time with friends and if it costs me an extra few bucks so be it.

  • Always split equally. Pay a little extra this time, a little less next – it always evens out. The only difference comes if someone’s not drinking (pregnant, driving) as we all drink quite A LOT, and it’s so expensive in restaurants. I do my best never to drive ;p (and never to get pregnant of course…)

  • The demonstrative comments by Meghan Baxter are ONE of the reasons my wife and I will NOT eat in a restaurant.

    The other TWO reasons are low quality/high prices, AND very questionable sanitation standards at every level of the restaurant process, INCLUING server’s personal hygiene.

    We never have to worry about “splitting the bill” when cooking and serving gourmet meals at home.

    DocChuck and Dr. E

  • You could do it the Chinese way and just have different people take turns fight over paying the bill.

  • I roll with the punches, so it depends on what the rest of the party want to do. My preference is to just split the bill and not fuss about it, but like I said, I’m easy.

  • Actually, since I was once again drunk from cheap vodka and anti-depressant pills, I posted as “DocChuck” (immediately above),

    I simply get depressed when I think about my mother Aida, the factory -worker Italian harlot who raised me after my father ran off with a 16 year old floozie. He was a milkman, and VERY horny because my mother Aida was so ugly.

    Then I have to impersonate people like “DocChuck” and his wife.

    I am very sorry that I did that. But my friends at the CassandraCrossing will help me when I try to commit suicide again (chiffonade@cassandracrossing.net)

    Louise (“therealchiffonade”)
    Clearwater Trailer Park
    Clearwater, Florida

  • Haha that’s the the worst,
    One time I went out with a group of people,
    It was one of my friend’s brother’s birthday,
    One of the guy was so “cautious” about the bill,
    He calculated even beyond dolloars,
    ….
    He paid something like $25.47 dollars…
    …..
    Now that’s a headache.

  • I can’t believe I just found this while searching for something else and this exact thing came up this weekend. A large group of us were out of town for a soccer tourney and we were made up of several teams mashed into one so some people we knew well and others not. Waiter refused to do separate bills.

    It was a busy day and some people went home and relaxed after our games, some went out to lunch, some started drinking. So by the time we hit the restaurant, there are 14 of us who have very different needs. Some order an appetizer only, some order a full meal and drinks, some just drinks. Obviously, the price of each person bill varied greatly. At the end people start throwing in money and we threw in more because we ordered a bucket of beer and refused when they tried to give us money back (why should I make salad and water girl pay for my dinner and 4 beers?). Unknown to me, at the other end of the table someone judged to just divide the bill by the number of people and forced people to pay her. I don’t know where my extra money went (hopefully not to the waiter because after delivering our meals – and he forgot one – he never came back). Afterwards I found this out and said that I wish I had known because I would have been the pain in the butt person to work out what everyone owed individually.

    When I go out, I don’t want to pay for your bill because you had 12 beers and I had a salad, and I don’t expect for anyone else to cover my bill if the roles were reversed.

  • Did you enjoy that photo of DocChuck’s obese LPN that I posted on this blog, you know?

    I mean, after all, I have to expose these people for what they are, you know.

    I am “therealchiffonade”, the operator of the CassandraCrossing website, the SENIOR ADVISER of SeriousEats website, the most famous food blogger on the internet, you know.

    My mother Aida (before she died) was my inspiration, and she told me that I would eventually be the STAR of the food blogs, you know.

    Have a good day, you know.

    Louise (also known as “DocChuck” and “therealchiffonade”)

    Clearwater Trailer Park
    Clearwater, Florida

  • Adrienne

    I don’t drink alcohol, but like to eat out with friends and most of them drink…sometimes a lot. Almost always the bill is split evenly and so I pay for more than I consume. But I am happy to do it because its worth the few extra dollars to avoid the cell phone calculator. Going out to eat isn’t just about the bill at the end but what its worth to you to enjoy a meal out with others.

  • Andrea

    I am a server in Florida US. In my restaurant most people split the check individually by what each orders. If there are items being split like a bottle of wine or an appetizer there is an option to split it equally onto each separate check. It seems fair and that way there’s no counting or concern over some paying more than others. It does make a little more work for the server but most will do it happily to save stress at the end of the meal. I have a question for non Americans… Do servers in your country get paid a strait wage or are do they make their money like in the US based almost solely on tips? I’ve noticed some foreigners either don’t tip or tip a much lower percent than Americans. I wondered if in some cultures it isn’t the custom to tip. It would be great if we just got a decent hourly wage and didn’t have to depend on the whims of tipping costumers. Although they probably get better service because of that. I do well financially but for most in America being a server is a temporary job until a better job can be found or schooling is finished. Just curious. Love your blog!!

  • Jame

    That’s funny! I just posted about this very topic. I agree I just split, among friends it evens it self out. It when people try to take advantage of the situation and go crazy that i get annoyed.

  • As students I always coughed up for myself. I think it depends on how much money you have too. It makes my parents feel awkward when friends want to go Dutch because they’d rather take turns in paying for meals – sort of give and take. These days I rather feed people at home. 😉

  • My SA friends whip out their calculators, credit cards and pens – start passing the bill around and ticking off “their” consumption…. And yes, there is never enough money in the pot…

    My friends here in Brussels split the bill… Our rationale is that we eat out a lot together and sometimes you pay more (eat/drink less) and sometimes you pay less (eat/drink more) but in the long run – it all balances out!

    My preference is splitting the bill equally!

    And don’t even get me started on the tip story………..

  • bartje

    Generally, we pay each our share, if it’s not complicated, at the table with someone doing the maths, but mostly by paying at the cashier, where items can be paid separately. Tipping is left upon the individual’s discreation, mostly some spare change. In Belgium, I find it customary to pay for a round in bars, and get a round paid back. No big tips in bars.
    And Andrea, servers are paid a decent, yet not great wage in most European countries. It’s the restaurant owner who employs you, not the customer. So yes, we tip, but don’t like being forced to it, it should be a gift, not part of someone’s paycheck. Tips are translated into drinking money in French, Dutch and German, so it often means some spare change, to buy yourself a drink with, afterwards. I mostly tip in restaurants, but I prefer to leave the money on the table after having paid, and when leaving, in bars I rarely tip, although I will often offer something to drink to the bartender.