On Eating For Free; or, Gratis Means Gratitude

Gravy 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.

Barbar

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “On Eating For Free; or, Gratis Means Gratitude

  1. Definitely well put about tipping for an otherwise-free meal, some thing I definitely take to heart when dining gratis. However, I do admit to lapsing a few times at less-formal media tastings (between the camaraderie of networking with the restaurant folks and other writers/bloggers and usually leaving before the event officially ended, I just forget on my way out . . . will make a better point of it in the future.)
    As for the disappearance of critics, I’m still cautiously optimistic about it. Yes, there’s a whole new guard of bloggers, but I think it’s still important to have an official voice. Since their full-time job is to review eateries and watering holes, I would like to think they have better writing, palate and understanding of food, etc. even if I don’t agree with them.
    I don’t necessarily think the Food Section has to have a self-sustaining ad model, I think of it more as a supplemental feature that helps the other sections and their ads. Of course, that’s a harder sell to the top editors when they think who to axe next, but I personally won’t be surprised if people are drawn to buy papers on certain days for the weekly features or even the color comics on Sundays.

  2. Ohiogirl

    My husband is an ex-waiter. We are happy to have moved on, but we have not forgotten. We tip. We overtip if the service is good and we’ve been comped. Because we’ve been there, and we hope that we never forget. (We also hope that we’ll never have to go back to that, but that doesn’t affect their tip : ) )

  3. I started this young enough to cutely be able to say “I wanna be a food critic when I grow up!”…whatever that meant.
    But now as I grow older and realize the realistic odds of me one day making a living of this, I am mortified.

  4. Food is my life. It is my favorite form of entertainment, it is my comfort, it is my celebration, it is my love life, it is my friendship… I would dine out 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year (is that right?) if I could. That being said, I try make every dining experience a poetic one, which can vary between analyzing every detail of the meal or simply refusing to take notes & just enjoy it. I can justifying poor tipping by truly awful service, and justifying extreme over tipping by exceptional service and/or resplendent food. Now that I’m done rambling, I’m off to hunt down a Dutch Baby Pancake & some fresh squeezed blood orange juice. XOXO

  5. Thanks for the useful post! I definitely think leaving a big tip after a comped meal is a necessity — especially if you’ve gotten great service and you’ve really enjoyed the meal. It’s the least a food writer can do to balance out some of the dubious morality of comped meals.

  6. This post was highlighted in the March 7 edition of “Gratitude Watch.”
    Thank YOU for promoting the value of gratitude.

  7. @TheGirlPie

    Great point, well-made by good writing from D.R. Stewart — so true (for the servers), so sad (that the takers don’t give), and so very much needing to be restated frequently (like on the invite?)
    And without resorting to cliche or name-calling — ? That much better, good post.

  8. I always tip when I get free meals. Just b/c I’m not paying doesn’t mean the waiters don’t deserve to be paid for their hard work

  9. Pingback: B+S Notes—November 17, 2009

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