Photo-Illustration: Grub Street; Photo: Getty Images

Emma Steiger is the director of guest relations and private events for Oxalis and Place des Fêtes in Brooklyn. She is currently serving as general manager for Place des Fêtes as well.

When restaurants reopened after the shutdown, and as diners have continued to come back to dining rooms with increasing regularity, I thought that everyone would return with a clearer sense of boundaries — people would be excited to dine again, and all of us would be grateful for some sense of normalcy. Anyone who works in a restaurant can tell you that is not what’s happened, and a strange power dynamic has emerged. Of course, some guests are still happy to come in and feel taken care of, but others treat our space as an opportunity to be in charge: A guest recently fought with my host about our wait time, while another sat himself and refused to move, even though we needed the seat for a reservation.

In my job, I’m trying to exceed the expectations of pretty much every single person who walks into our restaurant — I want to make sure every detail has been considered. But more and more, my role involves monitoring and policing, and that is especially true with tipping.

Like it or not, tipping is a non-optional aspect of dining out in America, and the expectation is that diners will add a tip of around 20 percent to their bill. You can argue with the system, or point to its flaws, but by now, we all know the rules, and this money is our staff’s living wage. Anyone who is eating out in 2023 should recognize the work that goes into great hospitality.

Instead, at least once a night and often more, I am put in a position where I have to speak to a guest who has decided to undertip. This wasn’t happening three years ago. It can be a very awkward thing to risk ruining somebody’s night, but part of my role is to have conversations with those guests to find out what happened. Hopefully, the conversations help, and if they don’t, we could end up losing a return customer, but my feeling is it’s not a huge problem to lose a customer who doesn’t want to hold up their end of the social contract of dining out. As a manager, I don’t receive any part of our restaurant’s tips, but I am always going to be an advocate for my staff.

Last week, it happened twice in one night. The first table was especially surprising because it was somebody in the industry, so they know how crucial tips are. My server flagged that this party had tipped a little under 12 percent on their bill. I have no problem going up to tables and making sure that their experience is okay, so I went over and asked. They told me, Oh my God, it was so great. I said, “Okay, I just wanted to check in, because you did leave around 12 percent and tips are how our servers make their livelihoods.” They looked at me almost dumbfounded that I was even having this conversation with them: Oh, was it that low? I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but it was very clear that this had been intentional.

Later that evening, this poor server had a table that ended up being the last of the night. The restaurant was empty, and these people had paid out. They were lingering for a really long time, but they weren’t going to order anything more. So our server picked up the check. They’d tipped 6 percent, which is insane. My server said they weren’t from the U.S., but if you’re eating here, you should know how it works. (Yes, we run into this problem with European guests, and I recognize that there will be times when people simply don’t know — but we also run into it with influencers, so cultural differences aren’t strictly to blame.) I always encourage my servers to tell me, but it’s gotten to a point where they sometimes don’t even bother. It’s as if they’ve become complacent, and I don’t want to see that happen. We are constantly having this negotiation, and now it’s happening even more frequently.

Maybe it’s because things are more expensive, everywhere. I never want to be somebody who deters people from coming out, and I don’t presume to know anyone else’s life. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve gone out to meet a friend, ordered one drink, and somehow I’ve instantly spent $20, but I’ve spent it and that’s that. If you don’t have the money to tip properly, you probably shouldn’t be going out to eat right now. I don’t want to scold anyone, but I do want people to understand the ramifications: A bad tip affects the entire service staff. The more people try to take advantage of this system, the more our employees are hurt.

I’m not saying the entire idea of tipping is right or that it’s wrong; it’s the arrangement that we have. I want everyone in our restaurants to have the best nights of their lives. Now, however, I am taking on the weight of these guests, who are frustrated; I’m taking on the weight of my staff, who all have different things going on in their own lives; and I’m put in a position of having to ensure that everyone is doing their part in a system over which I have no real control.