I HATE tipping. I wish it would go away forever and be replaced by the revolutionary idea that servers are entitled to decent salaries with benefits and that we all can pay a slightly increased price for our food and drink (which honestly probably wouldn't cost more than a decent tip). I personally see tipping as a subsidy that passes off costs to customers disproportionately to the services received. People say tipping is about service, but I think most people tip based almost entirely on other factors. At regular sit down restaurants I tip a fairly regular 20%, and more if we got a deal on food or drink or if the server did something really special for us. You have to really screw up and make no efforts to correct the errors to get a much lower tip from me, though indifferent service will get rounded down a bit. I do this because it's easy to calculate and the amount usually works out to something fair based upon the food costs, and I recognize it as part of the cost of dining out--not an "extra". I am actually more willing to tip a much higher percentage at really inexpensive restaurants (like a diner or cafe) when the service is good because 20% of a $20 bill isn't much and those guys bust their asses.
I don't like the weird fake confidential relationship that sometimes arises between you and your server. You both know you'll be judging the performance and leaving money accordingly at the end of the night, and it always feels kind of dirty to me. I really never took the time to articulate why I feel this way. But recently I read this insightful article about tipping written by restauranteur Jay Porter who has experimented with no-tipping policies and I think he gets it bang-on:
If it's TL;DR for you, what it boils down to is that tipping is in some respects another way in which society can dehumanize women and treat them as sex objects. The author has observed essentially that our societal perceptions of women's roles make it OK when your server flirts with you if you are tipping her at the end of the night, because you are essentially paying for it. If the salary/service charge is set however and she flirts with you then our societal values make her a slut. It's pretty specific to female servers/male customers, but as the author reminds us, 70% of all servers are female. And you can't deny that in fine dining restaurants there is still the assumption that the male at the table holds all the power, and if there are multiple males, then the oldest--the alpha--holds the power. The whole series (and the blog in general) is a good read.
I don't understand why it's such a foreign concept in America that servers should just do their jobs well, and their employers pay them appropriately, and charge accordingly for services and products. To some extent I blame restaurant owners who are comfortable with being able to just pay minimum wage (or half in some states) and let their employees work out how to get the rest of a living salary. This can be to the restaurant's detriment as there are some bars and restaurants where the employees give away the store to increase their tips. But not all restaurants do things this way and not all governments let them get away with it. When San Francisco decided to force restaurants to provide some sort of health care coverage for their employees, the outrage would have you expect that all the storefronts in the entire city should be boarded up right now. But it is no easier to get a good reservation on a Friday night now than it was 10 years ago, and the number of restaurants has exploded. Yes, the strong bubble economy of rich tech jerks (and some nice people) certainly has helped that.
Tipping isn't just for sit-down restaurants anymore, though. How much (if anything) do you tip at walk-up counters, coffee shops, and fast food restaurants? I'm clueless. For me I feel guilty if I don't at least throw my loose change or a buck in the cup. The fast food restaurant addition is new to me--I hardly ever patronize these types of places. Last week I dropped in to get a couple burritos and, confronted with a tip line and tip jar when I went to pay, I was like--"Aha! That's the reason why the girl rolling the burritos up was eye-fucking me!" One taco stand at the San Pedro Market even has a nifty little button you push yourself to give a 10%, 15% or 20% tip without having to do the math. I'm still not sure what this one was for--after all the girl taking my order didn't bother flirting with me at all. The cooks could have at least given me a wolf whistle or something if they wanted 20%.