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  • Recently I had lunch with a colleague at a seafood restaurant. My friend had a fisherman's platter and, trying to be good, I had steamed mussel appetizer, a small salad and a side of rice. The food was pretty good, and when the bill came my friend owed 27.50 and I owed 14.75. I tipped the waitress 2.50 (about 17%). My friend tipped similarly, adding $4.75 to his bill.

    As we were walking out, my colleague observed "You know, why should I have to tip twice as much as you? After all, I got one plate plus some tarter sauce and you got three plates plus some melted butter." I had to admit he had a point. Our waitperson schlepped more for me than for my friend but got a smaller tip for her efforts. Why should restaurant tips be based on the price of food and not on the work involved in serving and clearing it? We agreed we should think about that.

    A couple of weeks later I was able to test his theory when I took my wife out for dinner for our anniversary. We chose Le Pauvre Sommelier, a Euro-fusion bistro whose chef personally selects range-fed animals from certified organic farms and ranches and the sous vets produce from regional artisanal farms. Likewise the sommelier visits vineyards to obtain their best wines at their peak. All of this means you need to make reservation two months ahead.

    We were seated with aplomb in the American-themed dining room, its teal and puce toile wallpaper graced by formal portraits of Jerry Lewis, Jim Morrison, Julia Child and, oddly, Elvis, all painted on black velvet and set in gilded frames.

    After the maître d' scurried away, our server came, a short man of sallow complexion and uncertain age. He looked like a cross between Peter Lorre and Yogi Berra, and spoke with an unidentifiable accent. Deftly, he welcomed us before reciting the specials of the day.

    "I em Claude end will be your sevur tonat. Woud you cere fur dlinks frem zhe bah?"

    We ordered twin gin and tonics with lime and dashes of bitters. Claude said "Veddy gut, I weel bling zhem rat away" Before he could flee, I decided to apprise him of our tipping policy, so that there would be no disappointment later on.

    "Claude," I said, "I know it is unusual, but it is our family's tradition to reward our servers with tips according to their effort. So we generally tip two dollars for each course and drink served. We feel that is fairer for the staff than a fixed percentage of the bill."

    "Veddy gut, monsieur," replied Claude impassively as he retreated. "I undestan."

    My wife was looking at me like I was Groucho Marx at a garden party. "This isn't the right time or place to start reforming food service compensation," she hissed. "I have a feeling this won't end as well as I'd like."

    "It's fine, love, fine," I purred. It's a very fair thing to do and Claude seems perfectly agreeable. Besides, I'll top off his tip if he serves us well."

    "OK," she answered, "but I'm not sure if he will."

    We huddled over the menu. We had already agreed to order the same thing, which is what we had done on our first date. We settled on Medallions D'agneau Aux Epinards et Champignons Forestier (Lamb fillets on a bed of spinach with wild mushroom sauce), with wild rice and sautéed baby vegetables. We both love lamb and mushrooms. Wild rice ain't bad either.

    When Claude came to take our order, I specified how we wanted the lamb done and ordered a half bottle of Chateau Inconnu Côtes de Rhone, one of the few wines on the list that cost less than forty dollars. "A veddy gut selectsin, monsieur," crooned Claude as he backed away.

    Shortly an aide-serveur brought us goblets of water, a bowl of bread and bread and dinner plates. He also set down a dish of extra virgin olive oil and a cruet of grated cheese ("for the salade, monsieur"), although we had ordered no salade.

    We chatted fondly, holding hands across the table. Before we could successfully reminisce, Claude abruptly appeared, tray on high. As he placed it on the serving table I noticed it was overflowing with dishes, although we had ordered just two entrees.

    "Poor Madame," Claude announced, swooping down to place a carefully plated nest of naked roast lamb atop her empty dinner plate. He quickly deposited a dish of baby vegetables, a ramekin of wild rice, and finally a cruet of mushroom sauce. Then he executed his performance again as he deposited my dinner, until our table was covered with food items.

    I spooned some sauce on my lamb, some on the wild rice, and surveyed our table. Making conversation, I said "This presentation is rather unusual." After she finished chewing her slice of lamb, my wife replied "You asked for it." I didn't know how to take that so I changed the subject.

    When we were barely finished, Claude materialized and asked us how we enjoyed out meals. "Veddy gut," I told him. My wife nodded assent with arched eyebrow. As he whisked away our plates and side dishes, Claude handed me the dessert menu. "We already know what we want," I told him. "Can you bring us a sacher torte mit schlag to finish with, please?" (We have this thing for the Viennese chocolate cake and whipped cream.) "We'll share one piece." (Just enough decadence for the occasion.)

    In a flash, Claude was back with two dessert plates, another holding our wedge of chocolate goodness, and a ramekin of whipped cream, as the aide-serveur poured us coffee.

    As we picked at our torte and sipped java, my wife remarked "You promised to tip Claude by the serving. Did you keep track of all of them?" I had not, so we started to itemize.

    "We each had a plate of lamb, a bowl of rice, the spinach, the vegetables, and the sauce," I started. "So that adds up to 10 things."

    "Then there were the dessert plates, the tort and the schlag, so now it's 14 items," she added. "And don't forget our bread plates, the bread bowl and the olive oil. Now we're at 18, but there is still the wine, two wine glasses, and two glasses of water. And the coffees."

    "Twenty-five things in all," I concluded. "Gosh, that's a lot."

    " By your reckoning, that comes to a fifty dollar tip," my dear partner said.

    Claude materialized and slipped a wallet onto the table. "We 'ave enjoyed serveeng you tonat. Zhank you fer coming." I peeked inside to see the damages. They came to $118, plus tax.

    "That was lovely, dear," she says as we leave, pecking my cheek. "We'll always remember this occasion as the 25-course meal with the 40% tip."

    @image: From Mr. Punch's After-Dinner Stories, reissued by Project Gutenberg
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