I've been eating at Chicago restaurants hand over fist since 1975, since I slid my considerable teenage keister into a booth at the Blackhawk and watched them spin their famous—supposedly, at the time, if you could trust their word—spinning salad.
Having eaten at thousands of restaurants since, little throws me. Yes, my wife and I were taken aback with the trend of tiny pieces of food lost on enormous plates in the 1990s—I remember going straight from dinner at Cafe Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue to Dunkin' Donuts on Rush Street to eat something. I never approved of the show-off-slabs-of-raw-meat tradition at steakhouses like Gibson's. Kinda gross. And some of those intentionally wise-cracking waitress places could set my teeth on edge. I remember trying to get through a meal at Ed Debevic's without saying, "Why don't you shut up and bring our food?" But I'm not the intended customer, my kids were, and they liked it plenty.
Then the bill came. I grabbed it, as my role demands. About $70. Plus the 10 percent tax. Plus another 20 percent "Service charge." Which was what I would have left anyway. I'd never seen that before.
"This is unusual," I commented to the table as I reached for my wallet. "Usually they add the gratuity only if it's a party of six or more...."
At that moment the waitress swept in with well-practiced timing and explained that this was COVID related. The 20 percent was to cover the various plague-related challenges, and the blank tip space—which I had already drawn a line through—was for her. There was a note of entreaty in her voice. My wife suggested that perhaps they'd want to fold the COVID costs into the menu prices, and she said something about management change. So I broke a twenty—I've recently returned to the arcane practice of carrying cash—and left $15 for her.
Walking out I felt ... well, ripped off. Slightly. Like I had been forced to leave $30 in tips on a $70 tab. More than 42 percent. I'm all for supporting restaurants, but the psychology of this is way off.
Doing subsequent research, I see this that added COVID charges in restaurants has been an issue for well over a year. The surcharges range from 3 percent to a whopping 26 percent, which one restaurant promptly retracted when diners howled. At the very least, they should put a placard on the table, or a big red label on the menu, something to prep the diner for what is coming. I'm all for supporting restaurants during this time of crisis, but at least let us know what's coming.
And clean your coffee pots.