How much should you leave on the table when the service is slow and the food is mediocre, but you enjoyed the meal?

Last night my wife and I met with an old friend and dined for the first time at the First Station, located on the tracks of Jerusalem’s old railroad station. The setting was beautiful – wooden planks covered the area where we used to board the train on scenic, but aggravatingly slow rail journeys to Tel Aviv and Haifa. Carts and stalls were aligned in readiness for the biweekly farmers’ market, and a large drive-in-like screen stood stiff against the evening breeze, waiting for the next free film show.

There are a number of restaurants at the First Station and many of them are also open on the Shabbat. Only one eatery carries a Kashrut certification and that is where we sat down at an outside table with our friend, whom we hadn’t seen in 24 years. Nearby, couples, families and the occasional cyclist made their way over the former train tracks. It was a lovely evening for catch-up conversation and what we hoped would be a pleasant meal.

Our waitress was very friendly and helpful with meal suggestions, and the items on the menu, printed in both Hebrew and English, looked very enticing. We ordered a starter dish of crispy Halloumi cheese, which we would share with our friend. I asked for a bottle of ice tea, while my companions requested water.

It was great to see our friend after so many years, but we were starting to get hungry. My ice tea was served, but then we were left to be filled only by conversation and the whiff of good food from the other tables.

“Who ordered the ravioli?” a server asked. That was my main dish, so I pointed to the empty space on the table in front of me. “But what about our first course?” my wife asked. “Oh, that’s here as well,” was the reply.

First course is not necessarily first

We received our main courses and then the dish of crispy cheese was placed in the middle of the table. “What about our water?” my companions asked. That was brought to us a few minutes later.

The Halloumi cheese bits were tasty, but they would have been much better if they had been served warm. My ravioli and the dishes my companions ate were good, but nothing to write home about.

It took us some time to make eye contact with our waitress. We wanted to order dessert as the food had not filled us up and the conversation was still going strong. Okay, the place was crowded and our waitress was overworked. It also appeared that she was teaching another girl what to do. Finally we managed to order dessert and two of the dishes were served. “Sorry but we’re all out of the chocolate-sprinkle cheesecake,” my wife was informed. She chose a different dish.

The time came to pay the bill. As the meal was my treat, I produced my credit card. “Can I pay the tip?” our friend asked. “Sure,” I replied.

How much of a tip do you leave when the service is slow and the food is mediocre, but you enjoyed the meal?

In Israel it is common to pay one’s restaurant bill with a credit card and leave cash on the table for the tip. It is appropriate to leave a 15% tip and this is easy to calculate. You take 10% of the total bill, double it, and then pay something roughly in the middle of the two amounts.

But shouldn’t one leave a smaller tip to signify dissatisfaction with the service? Or possibly no tip at all? Maybe you should leave a note with suggestions how the waiters can improve their service, or what qualities management should seek when it employs new staff members?

But wait, you can’t not pay a tip! This is how, after all, the waiters and waitresses get paid. Their basic salary is so low it’s a joke, and their working hours are long. The only way they can make it through medical school is by earning a lot of tips.

So, that is why I am suggesting a new scale for tipping in Israeli restaurants. Leave a 21 shekel tip on the table and this will inform the staff that you felt the service could have been faster and the food could have been tastier. A 32 shekel tip will indicate good food, but mediocre service. A 43 shekel tip will thank the waiter for good service, but let him know that the food really wasn’t anything more than average.

If the service and the food were excellent, well, then you can calculate the 15% tip to your stomach’s content.