Check Please

For all the uniqueness to be found in every restaurant, there is one process handled in a strikingly similar (if not identical) fashion by all of them; "the check" or "the bill".

Let's first make note of the cultural distinction between those terms. If you receive a "check" in the mail, that's usually a good thing. You now have money you didn't have before. A "bill" that arrives in the mail is the opposite; you now owe money you had just a moment before. Yet, Americans traditionally refer to the "meal invoice" as a "check".

Obvious as it might seem for a restaurant to tally up your meal and give you a summary - their per-unit cost multiplied by the number of units you ordered, totaled at the bottom with the ever-present sales tax - a quick Google search indicates that the entire idea is patented. Who knew?

For those in a hurry at the end of a meal due to prior obligation, the company at the table, or in my case, an insatiable need to get up once a meal is "over", the universal sign language for "check please" (scribbling with an imaginary pen in the air or against the other hand) conveys silently what whistles and finger snapping presumably did in days gone by.

A good server will squeeze every dime from a table before letting it go, injecting dessert menus, inquiring about after-dinner drinks, and the "Anyone for coffee, latte, cappuccino?" ploy before surrendering.

The arrival of the bill is an awkward moment. I'm not sure I dare proffer the parallel between prostitute and "John" whereby, still reveling in a moment of bliss, "John" is handed the financial reality of their relationship. It's a 5-second transition fraught with nuance.

Restaurants which follow the European method (the diner needing to request the bill) run the risk of seeming inattentive, while the American variant can cause a server to deliver the bill too early and come across as "okay, time to get out, we gotta turn this table." Some places will put the bill down along with a whispered assurance of "no rush, whenever you're ready..." It's like breaking up with someone and leaving their valuables near the front door, but with an assurance of, "Yes, it's over, but no rush getting out of here."

The server delivers the bill, clad almost universally in a black vinyl American Express-branded folder, to a neutral position on the table. It's then up to the diners' to begin their own dance.

Servers know that a bill sitting on a table ages like a flounder on your desk, but much more quickly. For any micro-power struggle at the table, a gauntlet has been thrown. There it sits, beckoning to those fans of the over-handed and unnecessarily-firm handshake, waiting to be snapped up.

One should never be too eager to pounce on a check even if that person is presumed (or known) to be the one picking it up. To the other members at the table, it can seem like eagerness to get on with the evening or to arrest the current conversation. A bill can sit quietly on a table until its presence has faded from attention. Then, a casual reach while resuming the conversation obliges others to remain focused on what you're saying rather than on what you're doing. A quick glance ensures it's the correct bill and, like a good poker player, never wince at the total even if it's 3-times the amount you ever imagined it would be. Slide a credit card into that well-worn and often broken pocket, sticking visibly out the top so servers know it's available for collection. Those with a keen interest in secrecy about the total will keep hold of it, perhaps even gesturing with it while talking lest someone else slide a card in sideways.

Off it goes, and fingers are crossed that the credit card bill was paid in time. Those of us who've had a "sketchy" credit history from our youth cringe at the thought of the card being rejected for any number of random reasons.

The bill returns, having made two friends in the form of credit card receipts. A smart server will do away with the itemized bill as it (in California) gives a quick method of calculating a 15% tip. (Double the tax, and you're in the ballpark.) Making people do math in their heads, especially over the age of 40 and after a bottle of wine, must surely result in people rounding up rather than down. Clever. If cocktails preceded the bottle of wine, servers are smart enough to wrap your copy of the receipt around your credit card to ensure you sign and leave the correct one.

Here is where the entire process is seemingly broken. There are two ways this can go:

1. A "carbon copy" receipt - one white, one yellow, you sign both and take the yellow one.

2. Two very similar copies - One of which says "merchant copy", the other "guest copy", but, 95% of the time, they're IDENTICAL! The other 5% of the time, the one the merchant keeps has a complete credit card number on it, the guest copy only shows the last 4 digits. I've been tempted to sign and leave the guest copy just to see what would happen.
In almost all instances, a cheap pen accompanies the "bad news", gripped by the spine of the folder which is inevitably cracking from months of fatigue.

Restaurant bills are, I propose, the most typographically-boring devices ever imagined; for all the diversity in a restaurant, the final transaction often feels uninspired. Even the shiny, curly, flimsy inorganic thermal paper "feels" sterile.

In the upper echelons, well-beyond where general celebrations and expense accounts usually reach, the process is modified. Stratospheric dining establishments recognize those final moments as being as unique and memorable as the dining experience itself.

Alaine Ducasse (at least for a while) would present diners with a choice of high-end pens with which to sign the check. Cartier, Mont Blanc - fussy, perhaps, but I admire his attention to every last detail. Why give your guests sticker shock from an Alain Ducasse meal only to have them sign it with a cheap pen on paper that tries to curl up on itself?

It's an idiotic method anyway. Presumably the credit card companies charge a lower fee if you can convince someone to sign a piece of paper as it lowers the credit card company's risk slightly. I just imagine a vault somewhere holding trillions of signed slips of paper, all of which will fade before they could be burned thanks to that lovely thermal ingredient.

Perhaps it's too complicated a process to tinker with, but I'll applaud the first restaurant to put a new spin on this worn-out task.


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