Why Eating Out In Large Groups Sucks

A column in the Sunday New York Times Style Magazine humorously confronts the all-too-common and obnoxious issue of splitting the check at a restaurant with a large group of people, especially when you don't even know half of them.

Back in the day, when I still thought it was fun to drag 12 people to dinner for my birthday, I remember fretting for hours to find just the right priced spot so no one would feel robbed. The stress (and guilt) of it all finally broke my will, and I stick to smaller gatherings these days.

But sooner or later, you find yourself at a table with a crowd, having to fork over way more than you anticipated. A split check among close friends is one thing. It all comes out in the wash. But among coworkers and casual acquaintances, the split check can create a lot of tension.

After paying $25 for a sandwich and water time after time with coworkers (it's always someone's birthday, isn't it?), I started ordering with less frugality. Appetizer? Why not. Dessert? Sure. Beer numero dos? Oh yeah. But I always felt bad for the holdouts, still carrying the dimming torch of separate checks.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of check-splitters? Go for the lobster since you know everyone's absorbing the cost? Stage a subtle protest and attempt to get the waitress to let you pay separately? Or are you one of those "it-all-works-out-eventually" types? Maybe you flat out refuse to eat out in groups larger than five? Sound off in the comments.

And we won't even touch the issue of group tip calculations. For another day...


natalie@theliquidmuse.com said...

It is interesting to read this post because when I've been out in DC, I found people adamant about getting separate checks.

Which actually suits me fine because - if the service is good - I like to tip about 20% and some people refuse to go above 15%. (An average tip for a good restaurant should fall around 18% ... even if it is not a large party.) And, yes, I do feel a bit resentful to put in extra for cheapskates.

With like-minded friends, I am always happy to get a communal check though. Anyone I am close with is absolutely fair with money... and we usually end up trying to put in more than the other.

I just hate squabbling about money. It is truly vulgar.

Ultimately, my attitude is: "If you can't afford to tip well, you can't afford to eat out!"

Anonymous said...

One more reason to check out the new Vapiano in Ballston - each person gets an electronic card when they enter and so checks are automatically split. Pretty cool feature actually - to go with the tasty food.

Kate said...

It would be wonderful if restaurants would divide the total bill by the number of diners for you at the bottom.... to save me the embarassment of inevitably having someone at the table rattle off complex math or whip out their cell phone to figure out the per person cost, which for some reason seems to take longer than waiting for the first round of drinks to arrive. Dining out with a group almost always means splitting a check, and while some of the time I do wind up shelling out more than I should ($30 for a burger) there are times I wind up on the other side as well. It all evens out. Paying a little more than you would if you dined alone is the price of, well, not dining alone.

hoogrrl said...

If you agree to eat out in a group and you don't intend to split the check evenly with everyone for some reason (you're dieting, or maybe you don't drink alcohol), then you should make your intentions known in advance. Otherwise, the check ought to be split evenly even if you order less and you have to subsidize someone else's dessert. Why? Because you're not just paying for the food. You're also paying for the experience of being in a social situation. It's not just about the food and how much it costs. It's about the camaraderie.

PalacePool said...

I totally agree with Hoogrrl.

In general, things have gotten easier. Some in my group of friends have seen a progression

-first stage: bill is split by diner, and you are always short

-second stage: bill evenly split out and you are over

-third stage: Bill is evenly split out and you are perfect with tip.

Claire @ Cookthink said...

Yeah, it's a constant problem - but as someone just getting out of school, I'm amazed at how much easier it is now. When you're a student and the difference between a 15 and 20 dollar bill is significant, it's so much harder to deal with.

Now, 5 or 10 bucks either way is less of a concern, and more and more people can spend their time focusing on the experience of being around people rather than the cost.

Still, though - if I want to have a large gathering, 9/10 times I'd rather just cook at home - everyone bring wine, and that way there's no bill at the end of the night. Just cleanup.

Eileen said...

Friends -- split check and let the difference work itself out over time.

Coworkers and casual acquaintaince/cheapskates who I at least see regularly or can email -- pay check with credit card myself (get lots of frequent flier miles), get copy of bill, total everyone's individual bill up, email itemized bill to them, and then make them pay. You have to be a decent bill collector to do this.

Groups of people I don't see regularly: Make sure we go someplace cheap and split the food. I don't drink alcohol and usually will object if someone tries to force a group to split a huge alcohol bill, but I wouldn't quibble over a couple of dollars.

My pet peeve is when it's a large group and everyone does their own totals, the pooled money is a little bit over the total (even with a 20% tip), and the cheapskate who tipped 15% decides to pocket some of the overage.

Amanda said...

I agree, Claire, about cooking at home. And friends who do dishes are way better than friends who skimp on tip!

Anonymous said...

Yeah I go to dinners like this frequently. This is timely for me, I recently had a Steak $37, half an appetizer $5 and an ice tea $3. My "share" of the bill was $150. I mean at some point it gets silly. I think they should allow drinkers vs. non-drinker bills, if you are splitting only food the bill is usually 50%.

kmbaker said...

Maybe I have just been lucky, but I have had success in big groups with this plan:

After the check comes, grab it and don't open it then ask everyone to throw in what they think they owe. When everyone forgets what it is they bought, they often throw in more than necessary. At the end of the day, I have wound up with more totals way over the actual bill (including a 20% tip) than I have under the bill plus tip. On the few occassions we are under the bill, I either throw in the difference or ask for a few more bucks from everyone. When we are over, I either leave a huge tip or give everyone a buck or two back.

It ignores the idea of splitting everything down the middle...but also makes sure that the person who ordered a salad doesn't pay for half of the surf and turf as well...

DC Food Blog said...

OK, I'm going to have to represent for some of the pro-pay-for-what-you-order crowd. Now certainly there are times where everyone eats the appetizers and most people have a drink, etc., and it just makes sense, but more often than not, our larger group includes: A couple who are vegetarians. One rarely orders appetizers, the other sometimes, but they will never order steak or seafood items, which are sometimes double the price of the meals they order. On a recent trip, each has a $12 pizza ($24). They drink water. Meanwhile, my partner and I each order an appetizer ($16), one of has drinks wine throughout the meal ($18), and our entrees are $22 and $20 ($42). Our order is $76. Why on earth should they subsidize me? I have friends who insist on the equal split. They are often the folks who have ordered bottles of wine and imagine we are all drinking with them.

Our $76 and their $24 averages to $100 before tip. I could not, in good conscience, expect them to pay more than twice what they ordered.

I can pay my own way and yes, when there is a $5 difference here or there, I get it. It's easier. But at a certain point, writing it off to paying for an experience, etc. seems not only ridiculous, but lazy. It's addition. And though there can be problems, I somehow have not really had a problem figuring out my bill.

I do love the solution of having people throw in what they think they owe before looking at the check. Another way I have seen is for a group that dines regularly to have a designated person or couple be in charge of collecting the $ and either making up the difference or sharing how short or over the table is. That seems to satisfy those who wish to be a bit more accurate, and those who wish to just take care of it and move on.

DC Food Blog said...

Oops, that was "averages to $50"

Amanda said...

I forgot to bring "credit card roulette" into this discussion! The mean way: All cards go into a pile and the waitress chooses one without looking. That person foots the bill. The friendlier way: The card chosen doesn't have to pay, leaving everyone else to absorb the difference.

Among close friends it's fun. Anyone ever play?

41 said...

I go out to eat with meetup groups fairly often (mostly strangers), and most of these groups have it down. We pay for what we eat plus add roughly 30% (10% tax + 20% tip). Sometimes the organizers bring post-it notes and we stick them on each credit cards with the amount to charge, or each of us writes our name and amount on the back of the check so they can match it up with the card. It's really easy.