If you grew up, as I did, in a part of the world where tipping isn't expected then life in the US is fraught with frustration and puzzlement. Do I tip here? If so, how much? How one knows is beyond me. I know you don't tip at McDonalds but I'd sooner starve than eat there anyway so that knowledge isn't of much use.
Back in Australia you tip if the bill runs to a hundred bucks or more a head. 5% if the service was barely adequate, 10% if average and 20% if it's the kind of place where a cigarette lighter magically appears over your shoulder when you stick a ciggy in your mouth. As an aside, I've never appreciated that; I'm perfectly capable of lighting my own fags and it can get quite annoying to have that lighter appear just as you've lit your own. But I digress.
As I've recently discovered, it's much the same in France. One doesn't tip unless it's a 5 star or better restaurant. Of course, compared to most of the restaurants I've eaten at in Phoenix, almost every restaurant here is 5 star but it's pretty easy to judge when a tip is expected and when it isn't.
Not so in the US. Dennys for example. I don't choose to eat there but when you're participating in the bringing up of two teenagers sometimes you have to settle for third best. Third rate food and second rate service and yet you have to leave a tip or else! Village Inn is much the same and the only good thing I have to say about Coco's is that they serve wine!
Of course we know why this is so; in the US they pay minimum wage to the serving staff. That would work out to about $220 a week before income tax and medical and the whole folderol. Hardly a living wage. Thus the tip has become an essential supplement.
I posted a while ago about marked prices versus real prices in the US. It seems to me that the whole tip thing is another facet of the same issue; the essential mendacity of pricing in the US. Whenever I'm reading a menu I have to be constantly reminding myself that the $22 for a steak isn't the real price at all. On top of that are the taxes and the tip. That $22 steak will probably end up costing me $30.
Frankly I'd be a whole lot happier if the steak was marked $30 and that was the price I paid at the register - but only if it's also agreed that the serving staff get paid a living wage and don't have to rely on tips.
It'll never happen in my lifetime. Oh wait a moment, it happens in Australia and France :)