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Ask Hans-Torsten: Restaurant tipping

Knowing how much of a tip to leave when eating out can often be an scary experience. In another of our regular advice columns from Hans-Torsten Richter, he sheds light on Berlin tipping etiquette.

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Hans-Torsten Richter answers your questions about surviving and thriving in Berlin. Write to [email protected].

Dear Hans-Torsten,

I’m American and new to Berlin, and I’ve already had a few clashes with friends when dividing up the bill at restaurants. After dishing out more than my fair share (I always calculate about 15 percent, but some European friends barely leave half of that), I’d like to finally understand how people should tip here. It stresses me out.

Michael Tyler

Hans-Torsten: Last time I was on the other side of the Atlantic I was flummoxed by the cost of dining in the US: not just the 5-9 percent sales tax, but also the widely accepted tipping rate of 20 percent. Complain to your American friends about it and they’ll be quick to explain that waiters would starve without tips on their $2/hour wages. Hence the “Hi, my name’s Tammy, and I’ll be checking back every 30 seconds to see if there’s anything you need” sort of service you find over there.

So, how much are you supposed to tip in Berlin? I quizzed waiters at three restaurants – a large old-school café in Mitte, a trendy Korean next door and an American diner in Prenzlauer Berg – and all seemed to agree that 10 percent was an acceptable account. Since you’re rounding up, it’s not always going to be precise: for a bill of €19.10, you would round up to €21. But what do you do with a bill of €19.60? Well, if the food and service were ace, give at least €22, €21 if they were efficient but unfriendly. and if the waitperson stood around playing with his or her lip piercing – more likely in your Friedrichshain or Kreuzberg cafe than your Mitte fusion eatery – leave a very small tip, and they probably won’t even bat an eyelid. They can pay the rent with their €7/hour, thank you very much.

Staff seemed to agree that “English-speaking young people” hardly left any tips at all. Other non-tipping groups they mentioned: Dutch, Swiss, Italian and French. They share one theory for tip-reluctance: the misconception that the 19 percent “Mwst (Value added Tax)” listed on receipts is in fact the tip, already included in the bill. Hence the “TIP NOT INCLUDED” one sees on some receipts these days.

For the absolute novices among you: to leave your tip, round up by simply telling the waiter the full amount of money you’d like to pay. Don’t just leave a pile of small change on the table; it’s seen as demeaning. One more thing to consider while deciding how much to tip: in most places in Berlin the takings are divided up by the wait- and kitchen staff equally at the end of the night, so if the service sucks but the food is great, or vice versa, have some mercy on the non-offending party.

Originally published in issue #117, June 2013.