Should a 25% Tip Be Standard at High-End Restaurants?

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A mysteriously sourced story is creating buzz that San Francisco servers want to make a 25% tip mandatory. While the talk is thus far unsubstantiated, the question remains: Should a tip ever be automatic?

The article first appeared in the Contra Costa Times. The author says “there’s a move” to make 25% the standard tip in San Fran, citing only unnamed “media sources” and unnamed “high-class restaurants.” Not exactly fact-checkable stuff. But news affiliates from California to London have picked the story up all the same because the mere notion of a mandatory tip revives that age-old tension between patron and provider: the servers want all the money, and the customers want all the attention. (The author has not yet responded to a request for more specifics.)

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Most of the men/women-on-the-street quoted in the Times article are decidedly in favor of tips being earned, rather than simply expected. “I usually tip 10 percent or 15 percent, which I think is fair. If they really want a bigger tip they might try to increase their service to justify it,” one says. “The whole tipping system is bad. People ought to be paid for doing a job. Any attempt to impose a percentage won’t work,” says another.

That’s proven true in other states. Yes, many restaurants impose “mandatory” tips for groups of six or eight customers, but in places like New York, case law has established that no gratuity can be forced, regardless of what a menu says. (You’ve gotta love that people have been so bent out of shape about their service that they were willing to shell out hundreds in legal fees to avoid paying a tip.) The idea is that, as one New York district attorney put it, “The discretion to refuse payment is an essential element of a tip or gratuity.”

Charges were dropped in Pennsylvania in a similar case in 2009. A group had terrible service, refused to pay their mandatory tip, and though the cops initially treated the refusal as theft, the district attorney reversed course, saying, “It’s not worth prosecuting. Gratuities are generally volunteer payments.” That legal sentiment reflects the the idea that tipping is about having the opportunity for work to be duly rewarded. (A sentiment generally cherished in America, outside of self-loving restaurants where the wait staff acts as if every drop of water they pour is a huge favor they’re doing for you. You know who you are, cool cats.)

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Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.