Tipping in Restaurants and Cafés
Let’s get something straight right away:
- You are not required to tip in restaurants.
- You are not required to tip waiters/waitresses.
- A 15% service fee is automatically included in ALL cafés, restaurants, bars, etc. as part of the price of each item (not on top of the total).
- Servers in France get salaries, paid vacations, health care, and living wages.
Don’t bring your ingrained tipping anxiety — “What percentage is polite?” — with you to France. This is not the United States. No workers are allowed to work for less than a full wage like they are in the US. No one will yell at you or shun you if you pay your bill and leave a restaurant without tipping.
Having said that, it’s always polite to tip when you’ve received good service (wow, what a novelty). The French usually round up to the nearest euro or two. My rather affluent French friend who eats out for every single meal (he’s a bachelor) never tips under €2 or more than €20, even when dining at a Michelin-star restaurant. But if you WANT you can leave more, especially if you’ve been a particularly demanding client (ie: did you even try to order in French?)
Explanation of the “15% service compris”
A lot of the confusion comes from the vocabulary. If you ask the server if the tip is included, they will say no. This is because in France a tip is actually a tip, and what is called “service” refers to the part of the total bill that goes towards paying for the staff. Historically the French used to leave 15% for the service PLUS a tip. In 1985 the French government passed a law requiring all employees to be paid at least the minimum wage (known as le SMIC in France), thus outlawing the system of depending on clients to essentially pay servers’ salaries. To make sure the French clients understood this, all menus state “15% service compris” (which also justified restaurants raising their prices to cover that). So, no, the server doesn’t take home 15% of your bill in cash at the end of their shift, it simply means their salary is covered. French people still leave a small tip if they feel like it, but they know it’s “extra” for the server.
In the US what we’re really paying is the service, the server’s wages; not a tip. Which is probably why we feel so bad when we don’t leave the full recommended (or, let’s be honest, obligatory) 20%. Leaving a tip should feel good, not fraught with confusion and bad feelings.
If you pay with a credit card, there is usually no place to add a tip (except in the most touristy restaurants). If you plan on tipping, bring cash or be prepared to ask your server to add it to the bill before you pay (although when and if they actually see any of that tip is debatable).
NOTE: The VAT (or TVA en français) has been lowered to 5.5% for food, but remains 19.6% for wine and some luxury foods, both itemized on your bill, but it’s part of the actual menu item prices, not added on top at checkout like we do in the US for sales tax.
Don’t Tip for Bad Service
If you have had rude service, don’t let them guilt you into tipping. Don’t guilt yourself into tipping for bad service. It brings down the level of service. And we don’t need that in France!
52 Martinis Podcast: Where Heather & Forest Discuss Tipping
It’s customary to tip hairdressers (unless it’s the owner), tour guides (although this shouldn’t be obligatory either), theater ushers (although I read an article stating this is actually illegal, too, if it’s in lieu of minimum wage salary), and parking valets. In hotels it’s customary to tip luggage handlers, room service (except for breakfast) and to leave something on your pillow for housekeeping (especially if you’ve been a slob). In some places (like cloak rooms) you may see a sign that says pourboire interdit (tipping forbidden). I never tip a taxi driver more than a euro, usually I round up to make it easier for them to give me change.
For your building concierge, domestic help, and other household employees, there’s usually a holiday bonus given with a little gift, as these are considered to be employees. It’s illegal for municipal workers like trash collectors to go door to door asking for holiday bonuses, although firefighters and postal workers get around that law by selling calendars. Beware of fraudsters doing this to get into your home; in Paris and other big cities, you should never feel guilty for not opening your door to any strangers claiming they’re collecting tips or selling something (better safe than sorry).