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Eating in the USA advice and etiquette: How much to tip waiters and more

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:13:53


Tipping a waiter or bartender in America is an inescapable reality, but watch out for a new phenomenon, "tip creep", in which gratuities are being pushed higher and higher due to the increasing use of touch screen payment systems. At coffee shops, customers are increasingly being presented with a tablet device and directed to add a pre-set tipping option of $1, $2 or $3, or 15%, 20% and 30%. (of course you can also add your own amount or if you dare, opt out altogether). It can be intimidating and result in the cost of a $3 coffee suddenly jumping to $5. So don't be bullied by technology, or succumb to a server peering down at you. Ordering a takeaway coffee should not warrant a tip, my friend, a born-and-bred New Yorker, tells me. "Not all tip requests should be honoured," he added.


America is known for its jumbo portions, but as obesity grows and the health warnings increase, a mini revolt is under way - half serves or splitting meals is a an emerging trend. At restaurants, it is not uncommon, in fact it is acceptable, for two people to split a main meal. Another tip is to do what Amal Clooney does and request a half serve of a meal. Some chefs will oblige if it is possible to do so. In fact requests to downsize meal portions are becoming more frequent, prompting some restaurants in major cities to list half size main meal options on some items of their menu. You'll save on your waistline and on your wallet.


The "flat white" has arrived in mainstream America via the ever ubiquitous Starbucks. The chain debuted the Australian import in January this year. Of course a number of Australian cafes that have opened in California and New York also serve it. A quick tip when ordering coffee in America - a short black is an espresso, and a long black is an Americano. Also, don't forget that at Starbucks, you can get refills of your coffee for 50 cents, rather than buying a second coffee.


Australians are spoilt when it comes to quality meat and as a four-year expat living in the US - and a meat lover- I've been left disappointed on far too many occasions when I've ordered lamb at a restaurant. Not only is it more expensive than most other meat dishes, but it has proved sadly underwhelming, even at high-end city restaurants. I have finally learnt to usually bypass it on the menu. Order at your own risk and lower your expectations.


Michelle Obama is famous for asking for a doggy bag (both in her hometown of Chicago and while in Rome in 2009) so don't be afraid to ask to take home your leftovers. Waiters are more than happy to pack up food that has not been eaten in a sturdy box or container for you to take back to your hotel room, or give it to one of the many homeless people sleeping out in America.


Bringing your own bottle (BYOB) to a restaurant is not encouraged in some states of America, so be prepared for city to city differences. In some cities, corkage fees can range from $US25 to $US70 a bottle at high end restaurants, with many trying to discourage the practice as they rely on their wine list for much of their revenue. Chicago is more BYOB friendly, and Texas prohibits corkage at restaurants that hold a liquor licence. It is wise to check the restaurant's policy as it may not be worth the cost. During a recent dinner at a posh Upper East Side restaurant, a friend was given a nasty surprise when the bill arrived - charged $US140 for bringing two of his favourite bottles.


Even though we are both English speaking countries, some of our food terms are different from the US. Arugula is rocket and coriander is cilantro. A biscuit in America is similar to a scone and can be served at brunch with eggs, or at dinner, dipped in gravy. Sports bars love to serve buffalo wings, which are simply chicken wings covered in a spicy sauce. A cup of joe is coffee. On restaurant menus, remember that entrees are not the appetiser or starter that we know, but main meals.


Servers can be very aggressive in their attempts to upsell as the bigger the bill the bigger the tip, so stay strong and stand your ground. The upsell will begin as soon as you sit down with a request for "sparkling or still". Most Americans opt for tap water, so do not be afraid to follow suit. Also be wary at restaurants that offer "share plates" or tapas in which servers will upsell by "recommending" two to three plates per person. I've found this is always too much food. Also, ordering sides with your meal can quickly add another $20 to your meal and again, you end up with too much food.


Many Australians who visit America want to visit the upmarket supermarket chain, Wholefoods, or as some locals dub it "Whole Paycheck" in reference to its exorbitant prices. For the best value on everyday items and convenience meals, head to Trader Joes, which is America's version of Aldi. You will find big savings on a variety of food including cheese, snacks, prepared meals and salads. An added bonus is that Trader Joe's always offer free coffee and a food sample station. Avoid peak times such as after work and Sunday evenings when people queue out the door.


Unlike Australia, many Americans like to dine out late. In the city that never sleeps, it is not uncommon to make a reservation for 9.30pm or even 10pm as New Yorkers enjoy late-night dining. In LA and San Francisco, restaurants tend to close a bit earlier than New York, which means dinner is usually about 8.30pm or 9pm.

See also: Sorry world, Australia's coffee is better than yours