This is the tipping point, Sydney

Leaving a tip for waitstaff after a meal in a restaurant. Image: Alamy Stock Photo.

Tipping for service: who, what, when, where, why? Guy James Whitworth weighs in.

When I first moved to Sydney from London almost twenty years ago, I remember having ‘that chat’. (No, not the birds and the bees – it was Australia, I’d already been informed these things and more were out to kill me.) It was the chat about whether or not to tip in cafes, bars and restaurants. 

The tipping point, if you will. 

I was advised that in Sydney there’s no need ‘unless you really want to’.  

Unfortunately, dear reader, it isn’t that simple. Allow me to share with you a tale riddled with regret and room temperature falafel. 

Last night, I went out for dinner with some mates to a delicious Lebanese restaurant I’ve been to many times before. 

We all ordered food (entrées and mains) and everything proceeded pleasantly and deliciously garlic soaked as usual. 

Chat, chat, wine, wine, yum, yum! 

However, when it was time for my three friends’ mains, they were delivered promptly and they started to chow down (as is the recognised decorum: cold food – wait until all are served; hot food – dig in like you’ve been kidnapped and locked in a cellar for a week).

I waited for my main. And waited and waited. I tried to catch the waitress’s attention a few times but she was off chatting idly with other customers. 

“She may as well have screamed at the top of her lungs: ‘I do not deserve a tip! No, I really do not!'”

– Guy James Whitworth

Now, it’s worth pointing out I wasn’t exactly starving. We’d already scoffed down the entrées and there was enough pita bread and hummus on the table to see Tasmania through winter – but I did want to eat my main meal at the same time as my friends.   

I could actually see my food (a delicious vegan platter, thanks for asking) sitting on the serving hatch. Just at the point where I was going to get up and retrieve it myself, the waitress casually sauntered over, had a casual micro chat with another waiter (which in all fairness, could have been about finding a cure for cancer – although was more likely about her Aunt Beverly’s curtains) and then, at a glacial pace, finally popped my food down in front of me. And off she sauntered without a word of acknowledgement of her malicious conduct.   

She may as well have screamed at the top of her lungs: “I do not deserve a tip! No, I really do not!” Or as my friend Roger put it, “The only tip she’ll be getting from us is, ‘Don’t eat yellow snow.’”

Now this seems pretty darn textbook – bad service equals no freaking tip. 

But it’s no longer that cut and dried in today’s world. And as somebody who works in the arts in Sydney (and therefore has to take part time jobs in the service industry every now and then to survive) I like to tip when I can afford it. I like to share my (often fleeting) prosperity with those I know also need that extra coin to survive.  

I feel good service should equal something approaching a 10 per cent tip, with no upper limit for truly awesome service (go more than 10 per cent if you want, knock yourself out!).

Two decades after my initial tipping enquiry, Sydney still seems unsure on how, when, if, why and who to tip. 

Does it depend where you are eating and how much the meal costs? For example, in the fancy end of Bondi, do you tip at the Icebergs? (Sorry, I really couldn’t help myself.)  

As we all know, in our current economic climate, many people are struggling to get by, so the ‘haves’ (such as, mostly, me) should consider the ‘have nots’ (occasionally also me). But where does that begin and end? And does my sluggish waitress with her chats about Beverly’s curtains deserve extra compassion? It’s a common saying that in the modern world, the biggest act of defiance is being kind.  

The popular belief is that in Australia, serving staff are paid a liveable wage, and that we shouldn’t need to supplement their earnings. (Obviously, it’s different in third world countries, like the USA.) But this argument positively reeks of privilege and the ranks of those who know what it means to struggle are growing, due to Covid-19 and its economic effects.

Sydney comedian Frenchy and friends take on the issue of tipping in the US. Video: Frenchy SungaAttack/YouTube.

So, am I saying we should still tip from our place of compassion and awareness, even if we get bad service? Look … kinda, maybe. But my baba ghanoush had formed a skin; surely the back of someone’s legs needed to be slapped with a wooden spoon for that?    

This was my dilemma last night. I was as torn as Natalie Imbruglia was in 1997 – and as we know, that was pretty torn.

I believe the more grown up and empathetic answer is that we all need to make extra effort and dig deep when it comes to waiting staff and hospitality workers right now. 

Let’s be kind. 

Maybe we need to allow for easily distracted waiters and vaguely preoccupied service staff as part of the new normal. Let’s be honest, there’s a fair bit going on in the world at the minute!   

So what if Doreen-easily-distracted serves our food a little behind schedule or William-look-what’s-out-the-window takes our cappuccino to the wrong table? Maybe it is us that needs to work on our service skills.

Did we tip our waitress? Well, this is the shameful bit. Yes, but in an obviously passive aggressive way, we tipped minimally; well under the 10 per cent mark. When that’s happened to me before, it’s made me want to run after the patron and thrown that money after them like they were dancing drifters in a 1970s Cher song! (Good luck getting that song out of your head for the next week.) 

In short: don’t do what we did, be better people and help build a better new normal. 

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