Read This Before You Pick Up the Tab for Your Whole Table

It takes a little planning, but here's how to win at the most generous game.

A person pays the bill at a restaurant

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It’s nice to go out to a restaurant and be able to take care of the check for the whole table. If you’re a parent dining out with your young children, it’s a given that you’re paying for everything. That is unless your kid has a part-time job that allows them to contribute to the high cost of craft cocktails. But when adults go out with other adults, paying the check can get complicated. Opening up a calculator app and going line by line, accounting for every penny each person spent can be tedious and awkward. The other option is to divide it equally amongst everyone, but someone always gets the short end of the stick. When one person enjoys a glass of seltzer with a salad for dinner while someone else indulges in lobster ravioli, a ribeye, and three glasses of wine, it seems less than equitable. If you are inclined to take care of the entire check and you’re in a financial situation to do so, go for it. It might seem as simple as handing a credit card to a server in a grand gesture of generosity, but there’s more finesse to it.

Don't Make a Scene

What you don’t want to do is make a big scene about it. Waiting until the check is delivered is not the time to announce you’re taking care of it. It will create a fiasco; people’s credit cards fly out of wallets and purses in feigned attempts at pretending they don’t want someone else to pay for their meal. It makes things painfully uncomfortable for everyone, especially the server who has to decide which of the credit cards being thrown at them they should accept. After surveying tens, if not dozens, of restaurant servers, there’s a general consensus on how best to pick up the tab. Although there are variations on how to do it, they all rely on subtlety. Generosity doesn’t have to be loud. 

Plan Ahead

The most definitive way to make sure you are the one who pays for the check takes foresight. Call the restaurant ahead of time and inform the staff that you are the one who will be handling it and then arrive early to make sure it’s understood. This scenario could be necessary in situations where others in your group might have the same idea. Parents of full grown children often want to pay the check so you have to be quick to beat them at their own game. Hand over your credit card to the server and know that you have taken the bull by the horns. Make it clear that no other credit cards should be used other than the one you are giving them and no amount of persuasion from others should change that. Grandparents are particularly good at convincing servers that they should pay, so factor that into your explanation. You will be paying the bill.

Be Smooth About It

Instead, you may choose to give your credit card to the server while they are taking your order. This method requires smooth moves so that no one else in the party knows what you’re up to. Imagine James Bond slipping a $100 bill into the hand of a valet to ensure his Aston Martin DB5 receives extra special attention. Now, you do it, but instead of a c-note it’s a credit card and instead of a fancy car, it’s the joy of knowing you’re treating your friends or family to a wonderful meal. After you order your food, hand the menu back to your server along with your card and a knowing smile being as sneaky as a snake.

Sneak Away If You Need To

If foresight isn’t part of your future or past, you can still make sure you are the one who gets the bill. At some point during your meal, excuse yourself to go to the restroom and then seek out your server or the restaurant host with your mission in mind. This approach is the most common and the one that servers most appreciate. By waiting until this point, you run the risk that someone else has already beat you to the punch. If that’s the case, you’ve lost out, because that someone also told the server to not accept anyone else’s credit card. Do not persuade. Game over. Please try again next time. 

Make the Big Reveal

When the check arrives at the table, that’s when everyone will start to sweat about how it’s going to be split. It’s time for the big reveal. Say, “I already took care of the check. It’s on me and I wanted to do it.” This is the cue for others at the table to start offering to take care of the tip, but it’s not necessary because you’re taking care of that too. You’re the only one who knows the total so you’re the one who knows what 20% would be. There will be lots of jokes like, “If I would have known, I’d have ordered another bottle of wine, hardy har har,” but it’s done. You have picked up the tab. Don’t expect the next time you go out with the same people for someone else to pay for everything. This isn’t a game of round robin. You did this because you wanted to. Generosity is best served with a side of grace and without a hint of any expectations in return.

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