"May I take this for you?" I grabbed the little glass cup with his ticket and a credit card poking out of it.
"Sure. You saw what he did, though, right? The ol' bathroom trick. Took off when the check came."
He was saying it with a smile. But intentionally or not, he was right. His date that night had pulled the classic Powder Room Pull Out, the deft act of excusing one's self to the restroom when it's time to pay the tab at a restaurant. It's not a common occurance, but it no doubt happens from time to time; enough that I overhear people talk about trying it while their dinnermate is out of earshot.
Who is going to pay for dinner? Whether on first dates or business lunches or simple, friendly, spur-of-the-moment outings, the question looms large.
People ask themselves: "What is the best way to pay for this meal we have shared without seeming like a complete tightwad?" Or "I paid last time, can I count on him to cover it now?" Or the even more complicated, "We are dating so perhaps he should pay, not every time, but maybe on occasion, like this one, but if I don't offer will I totally blow it, ohmygodwhatdoIdo?" I've seen tell-tale signs of all these internal questions being asked on the faces of those who see me coming with the check.
Thing is, I'm a server, and even I don't think there are hard and fast rules about who pays and when to split it down the middle and when to go so far as to ask to pay separately down to the penny. Each situation is unique. And let me tell you, watching people hash out what to do about that inconvenient money part at the end can be pure spectacle.
The most dramatic (and my least favorite, by far) of all the things people do when the check comes is the Big, Loud Fight. That ridiculous thing diners do when they snatch the bill off the table (or even out of my hand) and hold it aloft in the air screeching loudly that they've "got it." Inevitably, because the production demands an equally showy response, the other person at the table tries with exaggerated movements to take the check from the person who has now hidden the check behind his back. Things escalate. There is lots of hemming and hawing and NO, NO, NO, and finally, after much ado, one person relents and in turn gets a free steak.
I dislike the Big, Loud Fight because they often get me involved in their fake war. "Don't take it from him! Don't take his card. I demand that you let me pay," all while the other guy is saying the exact same words. I'm there to provide service to both guests and asking me to pick who pays is just unfair. I have no idea who paid last week or who makes more money or whose turn it is. Leave me out of it.
That said, there is a sly way to go about paying for dinner without a lot of fuss. Be smooth. Keep your card in your hand from the outset and when your server comes to tell you about wines, make eye contact, then quickly hand it to her. If you don't trust your server to hang onto your credit or debit card for the length of the meal, even just signaling to her that you have the card out and ready will result in a smart server bringing the tab discreetly to you at the meal's finish.
But people love to put on airs. The Big, Loud Fight over the tab is often cultural, too, with some families going to great lengths to attempt to pay the bill in order to save "face." To not make grand gestures to pick up the tab is considered gauche in many circles, and so I've learned to sit back and watch rather than let it bother me.
Except when I'm in the weeds. In which case, let me know when you've got things sorted out. You play Tug of War, I have to go pour 15 waters.
[Photo by Steve Snodgrass]