Separate Checks – When it’s OK. When it’s Not.

Just to touch on this topic since there seems to be a lot of confusion about it.

Most restaurants are equipped to easily calculate and print separate checks. Much of the time separate checks are a breeze and pose no problems. However, there are a few situations when it is better or proper for one or two people to pick up the whole check.

Parties constitute a situation where separate checks are improper. There are many reasons for this like etiquette – the person who invites is the host and the host should foot the bill, however the changing climate of the modern dinner scene has watched a lot of 20th Century etiquette fall by the wayside. The chief reason for one or two people picking up the bill is to make sure the people who have just provided your party with food and drink get paid. More times than not someone in a large party will not only leave without tipping but without paying at all.

Think of all the times you have been part of a large group at a restaurant. This should shock you – half the time a member of your party has skipped out without paying anything. They are not just stealing from the restaurant but also from the server who often has to pay for the meal out of their tips and they steal from the other people in their party as well. If I intend for this $10 of my hard earned money to go to the person who gave me service but you use it to cover your bill then you have stolen my $10. Skip outs are the main reason restaurants have to put gratuities on large parties – to assure that there is enough money to cover the total bill once the dust settles. One check solves this.

To make it easier to figure how how much each person owes before hand make sure that when you call the restaurant to make your reservation also tell them that you would like a set price menu. Most restaurants will work with you on this because it helps them better prepare for your group.

Generally a set price menu will consist of three or four entrées (usually one will be chicken for non-beef eaters or those with seafood allergies) and a couple of sides. They may also offer a starter option like soup or salad. They will customize it to what ever you want then they will set one price say $13 a person. The price will vary based on how extravagant you want your menu to be. Someone (usually the host) would then collect the $13 from each person then hand it over to the server when the bill is presented.

I mentioned calling to make the reservations, this is a very important thing to do any time you have more than eight or ten people. You need to call at least a few hours ahead of time if it is impromptu and at least a day if it is a preplanned event. Sure you don’t have to call ahead. You can just show up at the door with a group of 20 people but if three other groups did the same thing you could be sitting in a lobby for hours. The restaurant will do their best to get you in but it is really out of their control.

For the most part restaurants are not set-up for large parties just walking in. Don’t believe me? Count the average number of chairs at a table. You will find it is four. It is usually easy to put two tables together to handle eight people but beyond that you are really up to the random whims of the other diners. The folks at the next table needed for your party of 12 may be hanging out for a while having drinks.

If you call ahead you may find that they are already on a long wait, have several large parties already, or they may be closed for a private party. It also gives them time to schedule people just for you. And if you want a set price menu they may need a little time to put together a few proposals. Calling ahead helps assure a smooth dining experience for your group.

And coming back to topic, the other reason large parties should never ask for separate checks is because it becomes inconvenient for everyone. One person cannot check out 30 people at the same time, that is why WalMart has more than one cash register. And it never fails, someone will always be in a hurry which starts a snowball effect, suddenly everyone is in a hurry.

Which brings us to the other situation where it is not a good idea to ask for separate checks – whenever you, the customers are in a hurry. If you are truly crunched for time then you will pick up the check. Cashing out a check is a one to five minute process – when you go separate checks for three people you have tripled the cash-out time, up to 15 minutes. It is not the restaurant’s fault nor is it the server’s because when push comes to shove you getting somewhere on time is not as important as them getting their money.  So decide what is more important to you, the money or the time. As much as the server wants to provide you with both it simply is not possible all the time.  The choice is totally yours, as are the consequences.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less
Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards
2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
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2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up
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