Here comes the check. And there are eight people at the table. But some who ordered appetizers, and some who didn’t. Some who drank eight glasses of wine, some who don’t drink. Some who didn’t eat communal courses due to dietary restrictions, too. How to handle this piece of paper? Pass it around, and see if everyone pays their dues on their own (drunken) accord? Split it up evenly? See if someone decides to be the check calculator, naming the price for each diner? Then, there’s the tip. Do we split up a lump sum percent, or leave it up to each person, and their consideration of the service? How much tip do we leave, anyway?
There are many ways to deal with the grand finale of restaurant outings, when pulling out one’s wallet is required. My favorite is, “Here, I’ll get this one.” But treating for an entire meal is an indulgence that requires deep pockets and faith in your friends — that they’ll do the same another time. It’s easy enough to do when the dinner is for two, but for tables of more mutual friends on no special occasion, it seems to be a dying gentility. Not so long ago, this was more common, and divvying up a check was social taboo. Now, even in wealthy circles, even splitting is more and more the modus operandi. And among my friends, factors like the ones above are increasingly influencing the pay break-up, or at least causing feathers to ruffle.
This is the point when I conveniently make a run to the bathroom. Two years of not eating out has made me extremely rusty at handling such sensitive operations — the sticky arithmetic as well as the social skills surrounding the check. But since re-entering the world of restaurant eating last fall, and encountering the occasional large-group dinner a few times, the landscape has seemed to change somewhat. Or, I completely forgot how miserable it is.
I’m not the only one at the table who’d rather be hands-off; I suspect most people don’t want to wrap their heads around the check, nor care enough about how much they’ll have to pay and whether the calculations will be correct. “Just tell me what I owe,” they say. I’ll call these folks the Loafers.
Then, in any group no matter it’s two or twenty people, there is always a person who steps up to the plate and actually seems to enjoy figuring out the check. The Enforcer, as it were, is a Type A personality and borderline bully. He or she might not be a bully in other, day-to-day atmospheres, or get a chance to exert any power in his or her life and career. He or she probably insisted on those oyster shots for the table, or ordered the most expensive entree. If the latter is true, he or she probably wants to sway the table toward the even split; or in the reverse situation, and this person only had a salad, he or she will attempt to calculate what everyone owes (in disproportion to his or her own tally).
When the Enforcer is at work there are usually a number of Sniffers, whose eyebrows crinkle as they lean in to get a view of the check in his or her hands. The Sniffers are probably wary of the Enforcer for reasons that extend beyond the scope of the meal itself. They are concerned about how much they will pay, and what’s fair for everyone, including the waiter. They may also be checking to see that everyone’s course is rightly accounted for on the bill. They may not have minded being the Enforcer themselves.
In cases where there is no truly zealous Enforcer, then we have the Reluctant Enforcer. This is the best person at math at the table. Or, just the least drunk. And as such, is probably very quiet and un-assertive usually. The Reluctant Enforcer does the deed according to standards and exact calculations, no questions, no personal feelings attached.
Once the check is paid up, a huge weight is lifted from the table. Now we can all relax. We can go back to being ourselves, and not the Loafer, Enforcer, Sniffer or other dining-out alter-egos that may exist in us. We can be the party girl or guy, the intellectual, the freakish foodie, or whoever we normally are — and we can talk about other things! And that’s the way I prefer things to be.