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April 1, 2008 at 8:30 AM

Tipping etiquette at the sushi bar? “Help, please!”

Reader Mike Lynch e-mailed me with the following comments, and a query:

“I’ve searched the internet and can find no definitive etiquette for tipping a waitperson while sitting at the bar in a sushi restaurant. However, since they simply don’t do as much as someone who brings me several courses of food, etc., I usually tip 10-12% for average service, 15% for excellent service and 20% if the waitperson brought something extra to the experience — mainly fun. My standard for full-service dining can be anything from 20% for expected service to well above that standard for an exceptional experience.

“I was taken to task today by a shockingly unprofessional waitress for the way I tip at a sushi bar I frequent. I must admit, though, to wondering if there is any merit to her complaint. She mostly gets 10-12% from me because she’s just lousy. Today I find out her poor service and attitude were willful. Now I’m not certain which came first, the chicken or the egg, but I informed her that her tips had always been commensurate with the quailty of her service. Tell me, please, what should I be tipping when sitting at a sushi bar? Although I may feel that at 10% I’ve been over-tipping her, I want to do the right thing by the rest of the staff.”

Mike is not the first reader to ask this question regarding sushi bars, and he won’t be the last. Fortunately I do have a locally sourced (if not definitive) answer to this question, discussed in a Taste of the Town column five years ago. And I can also direct him to a lengthy discourse on the subject at

But let’s have a little chat about that “lousy waitress,” shall we?

There are those who’d ask: “If her service is so lousy, Mike, why do you keep going back?” (I’ll try to refrain from asking that, my friend, assuming you’re not eating sushi in, say, Wallingford or Belltown, where you can’t throw a chopstick without hitting a good sushi restaurant and would have no excuse for not going elsewhere.)

Given the circumstances described, I’d be inclined to send a letter to the owner, explaining, in respectful terms, how much you like the sushi at his restaurant (assuming it’s a “him”) and why you think his lousy waitress is a hag. Be sure to describe her, in full, quoting eloquently from her unprofessional “task-taking” exercise. Of course there’s the chance that the owner, who may also be the sushi chef, will read the letter and think: “Hey! Isn’t this from that guy who always short-changes my favorite waitress — who also just happens to be my wife?”

As for her? Twelve lashes with a fat udon! She should have kept her mouth shut, as I always did on the rare occasions when I felt short-changed, tipwise, during my waitressing career. (Side note: I’m still telling tales about the well-know locally famous restaurateurs known for their stingy tipping habits. I won’t name names here, but hope to hear from waiters who know exactly who I’m talking about. Any guesses?). I always figured that for every lousy tipper there were ten really good ones, and I was usually right. Which is not to say you’re a bad tipper, Mike. Cleary, you’re a thinking man when it comes to tipping, and you want to do right by your sushi-staff, bless ‘yer heart!

Anyway, I hope my etiquette suggestions help. And I’m urging service staff at local sushi restaurants — from chefs to busboys — to chime in with helpful comments of their own. While we’re on the subject, how about tipping at conveyor-belt restaurants like Sushi Land and Blue C Sushi, where you’re “helping yourself” to most everything? What’s expected there? (For the record, I usually over-tip, but that’s just to keep them from snickering behind their hands, pointing in my direction and saying, “What a pig! Did you see how many plates she has stacked up?)

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