Good veteran diners know exactly how to play the moment the waiter lays the check on the table, because they understand what lesser diners don’t: that an improperly-handled restaurant bill is a bomb waiting to explode. When one person picks up the check, the good times roll on. When someone says, “Should we split the check?” (which really means “We should split the check”) the night stutters and halts because good times and math cannot coexist in the same space.
SO PICK UP THE CHECK WHEN…
You are going to eat with these people again and again
Out with good friends? No-brainer. Someone else will get the bill next time, and so on. You’re essentially splitting the bill over a timespan of many years. In a way, it’s a pact. It signals trust. We will eat together again. I will not flee to Mexico to escape repaying this kindness.
Many good things happen when one person pays. The payer receives the gift of giving. The non-payers feel valued – like, hey, look at that, a friend. Non-payers seek ways to give back later in the form of free drinks and Lyft rides. You can make a good argument that the person who pays the check receives more in return, in a karmic and spiritual and cocktail sense.
You are given the opportunity to be a mensch
Say you know for a fact that an even split (which is how these things go in a group) is a burden for someone. There are people in our lives for whom $150 at dinner is nothing, and others for whom it is substantial. If you’ve read this far into an article about paying the bill at dinner, you’re about that economic dinner justice. Be the economic dinner justice you want to see in the world.
You’re with a friend who has I-will-be-on-the-first-flight-to-Mars money
If a super-rich friend insists on paying, follow The Standard Arguing With Your Parents Over The Bill Protocol:
PHASE 1: The Opening Gambit
You grab the check.
You: “I got it.”
They motion for the bill.
Them: “No, here, let me.”
PHASE 2: Escalation
You pull out your wallet/purse.
They deceive you into gaining control of the check.
Them: “Let’s take a look at it.”
PHASE 3: Dramatic Climax
You place your fingers on your credit card, everyone aware this is a symbolic act because you have lost physical control of the check.
You: “How about you get the next one?”
They put their credit card on the table with the bill – check and mate.
Them: “I’ll let YOU get the next one.”
Phase 4: Denouement
You shake your head in faux disgust and put your wallet away.
You: “You didn’t have to do that.”
Them: “My pleasure.”
Sometimes you do pay, which is great. The important thing is: to try. It’s about the dance – the half-hearted protests and empty gestures. The dance must be danced.
You are celebrating the day someone was born
When celebrating birthdays, two situations are common – single or coupled up. If the birthday celebrator is single, it’s common for everyone to pitch in and show how much they love their friend because being single in Los Angeles is a special kind of lonely that no amount of spin class, Netflix or Patrón can relieve. So, the whole group pitches in, because friends mean everything.
If the birthday celebrator is in a long-term relationship – and some of you may find this controversial, but embracing new ideas is how we grow as people, you guys – the significant other (or couple) should pay. Before the meal guests should be informed that the bill has been taken care of, allowing everyone to focus on the joy of sharing space and time and small plates of salt cod fritters.
Paying for everyone creates such better vibes and keeps the guests and birthday celebrator from mentally tallying the bill. Even more importantly, life does not devolve into a Portlandia sketch.
If it helps: Think of the bill as the money you otherwise would have spent to throw a party. Only it’s a nice party in an environment you won’t have to clean with a pre-onset hangover at 2 AM.
Your employer is paying (duh)
If you’re not getting yelled at by your company accountant every time you submit an expense report you’re doing corporate America wrong.
SPLIT THE CHECK WHEN…
You overindulged while everyone else partook at a normal human rate
Sometimes tallying your exact bill is the gracious move. Like if you had three more glasses of wine than everyone else in a non-“I’ll get the check” situation. If the check gets split evenly, your parasitic lush lifestyle is all everyone will talk about on the car ride home.
It would be weird if you DID get the check
Like with people you barely know – perhaps at a conference or with new classmates or with coworkers you otherwise would not spend time with if not for the dark humor of capitalism.
You’re dining with a beloved cheapskate
What about when you eat with someone who has the means but will never, ever reciprocate? Should you keep buying them dinner over and over and reward their cheapness? Here’s the question: Is their company worth, just to throw a number out there, $35 an hour? Do they tell great jokes or somehow enhance your too-brief time here on earth? Yeah? OK, then. But don’t complain about it – because you know the deal. Are they more of a $15 an hour friend? Different story. You don’t have to buy anyone anything.
YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN WHEN…
Who should pay has evolved into such a nettlesome issue that a single answer such as “The guy should pay” unfairly disregards a host of specific situations, personal experiences, lifestyle choices and other legitimate variables. We live in weird times. So let’s throw it out there. When it comes to paying for a date, what do you think?
Joe Donatelli is Senior Writer at Los Angeles magazine who normally does not ask readers to finish his articles for him. You can follow him on Twitter @joedonatelli and Facebook. He wrote If I Die in This Whole Foods Parking Lot: A Letter to My Family.