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'SEPARATE CHECKS' -- NOT, ALAS, AN EASY REQUEST

Restaurant patrons don't like reservations that aren't honored.

They are irritated when they can't get a free refill of iced tea.

But there's something they really hate. According to the mail I get, what they really hate is not being able to get separate checks.

The complaints run the gamut from the timid ("I suppose it's silly, but I'm really not very good at arithmetic") to the bombastic ("I was going to bring a convention of over 100 people here, but now I won't because the restaurants in this town are so stupid").

But the common denominator is the same:

At some restaurants, even in so-called "fine dining" establishments, even if they ask before they order, customers are brusquely told that separate checks are not policy. No further appeal is allowed.

Now, there's no law that says a restaurateur has to give everyone his own check if the restaurateur doesn't want to. But Donald Spasiano, president of the local restaurant association, points out there's nothing to prevent him from giving individual checks, either. With new computer programs, he says, the kitchen can be notified that the orders are to be served together even if they come in separately.

That tends to lead to the conclusion that restaurateurs who don't offer individual checks -- when patrons ask for them before they order, at least -- are insensitive. At the worst, they are just plain dumb.

After all, it's a pretty competitive world out there. If an owner manages to offend enough patrons, he'll end up closing his doors.

There is one way to avoid restaurant math that most good restaurants are willing to go along with. That's when everyone in the party presents a credit card at pay-up time, telling the server to split the single check among the cards.

This presupposes, of course, that everyone is willing to pay the same amount. No "you had the shrimp cocktail, I only had coffee" claims will do.

And this method isn't absolutely free of peril. Let me share with you a restaurant story I've just checked out with attorney Gordon Gross.

Seems he was having lunch with a friend about two years ago at a well-known restaurant on Main Street. When the check came, they each put down credit cards, saying to the server, "Split it."

"Split it?" she asked. "Yes," they answered, "you know, cut it in half."

Two receipts came back, and so did two credit cards. But Gross' card was cut (with scissors) into two pieces!

"You told me to cut it in half," said the waitress, "so I did. I cut the card you pointed to."

Point of information: The cards had been stacked on top of each other. And Gross' happened to be the one on top.

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