Separate Checks, Please

By Alexandra MacRae

There may be no more fraught scenario than the presentation of a single restaurant bill to a table of diners. The little black leather folder seems innocent, but really represents a minefield of faux pas waiting to happen, from miscalculating the tip to the ultimate crime of revealing yourself as a cheap ratfink by requesting that each person simply pay for what she ordered. Having recently returned to Canada after a weekend in Chicago I had some time to reflect on this and found that it wasn’t the math test lurking in the black folder that freaked me out, but the fact that there was only one of them. It left me wondering why the most obvious solution to this problem — separate checks — hasn’t been widely adopted.

Separate bills as a concept do exist in many restaurants. Though not even close to all, and the circumstances under which you may request them so as to not inconvenience the server are hotly debated. As a result, diners can be hesitant to request them. In order to truly enjoy a check-splitting-free existence they need to be the default setting. Knowing you’re only responsible for what you order, you can dine without fear of getting screwed when the bill comes by the very companions whose presence is supposed to bring you joy.

There is a notion that requesting separate bills too late in the game is hard on servers, but I have to wonder how much more complicated it is to cover your own bill than to hand the server six different credit cards to be charged equally for the payment of one bill. As a former server, albeit in different circumstances (Canada), providing each diner with their own bill was a non-issue. Separate checks were made simple by entering each diner’s order as it’s own entity, within one table.

Even if I was waiting on a four top that was so obviously a family celebrating their kid’s graduation because there was a diploma taking up one chair, I would still painstakingly enter each order on its own, not assuming the parents were taking the check. Of course they did, but the point is that each order was entered as its own, for the ease of printing them separately at bill time. This did not take longer.

The other, and I suspect stronger objection is that the act of requesting separate checks is somehow seen as cheap or gauche. But from what I’ve witnessed, the arduous process of splitting one bill is worse, because it requires too much discussion. Fussing with the bill and diverting conversation from regular dinner topics to what amounts to a small mathematical interlude is what brings down the sophistication level of a dining experience, not the expectation of having to pay only for what you ordered.

Under the current system, you must agree on a plan of action, whether it’s an equal split regardless of who ordered what, or one person covering the whole bill in the hopes that the favor will be returned in equal measure. The execution of that plan results in a jumble of multiple payment options, or frustration over being made to pay an equal amount of the bill when your own meal was vastly less expensive. It may indeed be churlish to mentally nickle and dime your own friends, but let she who does not carry resentment over being overcharged on a bill cast the first dinner roll at my plea for universal separate bills.

There is a better way, so picture this: Two friends are out to dinner and the server asks if it will be separate or together. Each person simultaneously murmurs “separate” and are presented with two bills and continue conversing while paying via a portable debit machine; the server briefly guest stars in the banter about weather and Christmas music. Now you can go home and instead of immediately grousing to your roommate about the way the bill was handled, again this time, you recount the pleasant dinner and the restaurant’s latest creative innovation with lentils. Or better yet, you can grouse about other things your friend did, like how she continues to insist that The Walking Dead is her favorite show but you can’t discuss the latest season because she hasn’t even started season five yet, even though it’s been a year.

Certain restaurants have recently announced plans to phase out tipping in favor of paying their workers a better wage, forcing a discussion on the whole practice and whether we should simply scrap it. I’m not coming down on either side of that issue (that’s a whole post for another day), but I do admire the desire to move away from dated customs towards a more logic-based system. Why not take restaurant reform a step further and begin utilizing the separate bill option where it already exists, eliminating all group dining anxiety at once. It may be initially awkward to be that person but making bills simple will free up the end-of-meal conversation, creating room to argue about other topics, like when it is acceptable to start begin playing Christmas music.

Alexandra MacRae is a writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow her on Twitter @alliejandra_m

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