There's Only One Right Way to Split a Restaurant Tab

Two of my favorite scenes in Jurassic Park involve computer nerd, Dennis Nedry, whose greed and malfeasance led to the collapse of the park and dinosaurs eating several people.

My second favorite scene is when Dennis is at lunch, and the bad guy, Dodgson, gives him $750,000 and a container to smuggle out the stolen dinosaur embryos.

When the server sets the bill on the table, Dennis looks at it, then looks at Dodgson. He looks back at the check and then back at Dodgson.

"Don't get cheap on me, Dodgson," Dennis says, forcing Dodgson to reach for the bill.

My favorite scene, of course, is when Dennis gets his face eaten off.

Have you ever wanted to do that at a restaurant?

Not to eat someone's face off, of course. That's rude. Rather, to force someone else to pick up the tab with an icy stare?

You're out with friends, having a good time, the food is excellent, and when it comes time to pay the bill, you stare them down and say, "Don't cheap out on me, Dodgson." Or whatever your friend's name is.

And your friend would pick up the check because they know that, without you, they won't get any of those sweet, sweet dinosaur embryos.

Except forcing someone to pick up the tab is kind of a jerk move. But what did you expect from a guy who steals dinosaur embryos and causes the death of innocent people? Personally, I'm glad he got his face eaten off.

So what's the actual etiquette when dining out with friends?

Years ago, I was taught that if you invite someone out to eat, you should pay for their meal. That is, if I ask you to lunch, I'm buying; if you ask me, you're buying.

Fortunately, not many people know this rule, which means we avoid all the awkward glancing at the check and calling each other Dodgson.

That's great for me because, I love going out to eat with friends, but I can't afford to buy everyone's lunch. So I can still eat and not feel quite so lonely all the time.

(That's a pity ploy to get you to take me to lunch.)

Thankfully, today's etiquette lets us ask the server to split the bill between everyone. But that's where people get confused.

The proper thing to do is for everyone to pay for the things they ordered. That is, if I get the cheeseburger, you get the fish tacos, and we share an appetizer, then that's how we split the bill: I pay for the cheeseburger, you pay for your fish tacos, and we split the appetizer, 50/50. And then we each tip 20 percent on our own bill because we're not jerks.

The wrong way is to split the bill down the middle. While this may seem like a fair exchange, it's actually quite rude. Almost as rude as trying to eat your dining companion's face off.

For example, I get my cheeseburger, because I'm a simple man of humble beginnings. A real salt-of-the-earth guy who has never forgotten his Hoosier roots. A brave and valiant man who—sorry! Sorry about that.

Anyway, I get my cheeseburger, but you get the lobster Thermidor. And instead of sharing an appetizer, you scarf down a whole plate of beef tamales, plus two cocktails. My brave-and-valiant cheeseburger costs $13, while your entire meal costs $87.

Then, when the server arrives and drops our check off with a thud, you say, "I know! Let's split it, 50/50." And now I have to fork over 50 bucks because you shoved your face full of lobster and tamales. That sounds rather unreasonable, don't you think?

Except it happens. I recently read a story about a guy in the UK who went out to dinner with his wife and two guy friends. The married couple ordered a burger, fish and chips, and soft drinks; their entire meal was less than £40. But one of the friends ordered a £40 steak while the other friend similarly pigged out. Plus the two of them drank cocktails all night.

The total bill came to £150, and the two friends said, "Hey, why don't we split this down the middle?" So the guy and his wife ended up paying £75 when their share was only £40.

Where's the fairness in that? What kind of friend sticks you with half the bill when it nearly doubles the cost of your own portion? (Certainly not one from Indiana, where we're honest and—sorry.) It may not seem like a big deal, but unless you've discussed it with your companions beforehand, don't spring it on them at the last minute.

In the United States, many servers avoid the issue by asking up front, "Will these be on separate checks?" to avoid the awkwardness at the end of the meal. Instead, you deal with it upfront so it can hang over the table the whole time.

It's perfectly acceptable to invite someone to lunch and then ask the server to split the bill, so you pay for the things you ate. I'm not paying for your steak and Lobster Thermidor.

Because if you stick me with it, I hope a dinosaur eats your face off.

Photo credit: iwona_kellie (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.