Full disclosure: I've wanted to write something about freebies for a long time. Because as a food blogger, even one as infrequent as me, I get them. And while I am offered many more than I accept, I go to restaurant and bar openings and to media dinners.
And I think the meaning of free is changing as restaurant writing increasingly becomes the domain of utterly unpaid, expense-account-free bloggers (a number among which I count myself. Variety hasn't been associated w/ The Knife for many months; the ads are a function of me not having remapped the URL).
Namely: Without the free, it's a lot more difficult to get the coverage these restaurants desperately need. Not because free means bribery; it means there's no other way for writers to afford it. Any writer.
In a world where newspapers are laying off staff, cutting salaries or folding altogether on a daily basis, I'll make a not-very-bold prediction: The world in which people are paid to eat and write about it is about to disappear. It's untenable. Forget about the blogging competition; supporting a restaurant critic, with all the multiple visits and dining companions, makes absolutely no financial sense. Newspapers have no ad model for it; if Zachys were to pull out of the New York Times' dining section, there would be… almost nothing. And that sucks, but the New York Times has even suckier problems, like being a junk bond. And taking financing from a dubious billionaire. And wondering if it could face bankruptcy anyway.
More about writing from the freebie POV later, but as a preamble I bring this from my partner in crime, D.R. Stewart, aka my husband and frequent beneficiary of The Knife's largesse.
Filed from the frontlines of culture-war-torn Silver Lake, CA – They called it the Gravy Train when I was a kid. And if you’re lucky enough to hitch a ride, you will acknowledge it’s an aptly named locomotive. Due to a relationship I have, my passenger status has been validated for many years. So when the Gravy Train pulled up at the opening of Barbarella Tuesday night for free drinks and food, I was among the first to have my ticket punched.
Barbarella is a clean establishment on the hip-Hyperion highway that leads you into the Atwater Village for more hip adventures. Its food was serviceable; no wrong notes were hit, no popcorn shrimp went awry. The place is well-lit, open, with nooks & crannies to hide out and big spaces to dine in. I wish it well. The DJ was a dumbass, but that’s not his fault – that's really LA's DJ culture at fault. (Look at my cool set list that no one knows! Only bar mitzvah DJs would play songs normal people actually resonate with! Although I ride the Gravy Train, to paraphrase Joseph Walsh: “I shouldn’t complain, but sometimes I still do.” )
But my real complaint is not with a sad lil’ too-kool-for-school DJ – it's with the patrons at Barbarella that night. Who were all eating and drinking for free.
It’s simple, really: Tip the waiter. Tip the bartender. Tip them fucking well.
Why? Because you didn’t have to pay for a goddamned thing. Really. You sat there enjoying, even if it wasn’t perfect, a perfectly good meal and drinks for free. So throwing down a 20 spot to the waiter means you just had a night out in LA for 20 bucks. Poor you.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been comped in this town, be it premies, parties or product launches, but I can tell you the ratio of wallets I see removed for gratuity is somewhere around 10%. I don’t get it – on your own, you'd have to pay a $100 tab and then tip, but when something is free you can’t give the bartender a fiver? At least?
Here's a pitch on a purely selfish level: Giving service workers money when you just ate for free is good for the soul. Honest. People wonder why others still give change to panhandlers even though they are “just going to use it for booze.” They do so because it’s a direct exchange between someone who is really grateful. Which your servers will be if you just tip them. Because at some point in the night, whirling around like hor dervishes, they’ve started to notice that all these well-dressed industry insiders aren’t tipping them – at all.
Let’s take a visit to the Hall of Shite Rationalizations:
Oh, their tip is built in.
Really? And you know this how? You don’t know this. And it’s not. Quick calls to several bartender/waitstaff providers assures me of what I’ve always been told by the folks in the trenches: Tips are based on the kindness of strangers.
This is my one chance to save a little money.
Same logic could be provided to not tipping on food and drink you actually have to pay for. You already saved your money; you didn’t have to PAY for your night out.
They signed up do to the event. They know the deal.
Um, they do, but they also know when they bartend at most places, people tip. Even private parties. And how about the situation where you are getting your meal comped in a place that is otherwise a working establishment that night? So all the other waiters get a little something-something, but the one lucky enough to get cheapskate eating the free meal does not.
Finally, words of wisdom from Sir Anthony Bourdain – not only should you tip WELL when comped, you should do so in CASH. It keeps it outta Uncle Sammy’s hands for the most parts and those living the service-industry life desire the green infusion.
I hope the Gravy Train pulls into your town. And when it does, better ante up – or I’ll send the porter after you.