I’ve dined in 34 countries. Here’s where has the best service (and highest tips)

Mon Dieu! What has happened as Paris limbers up for the Olympics? I had thought service est compris was practically written into the French Declaration of 1789?

Yet, I hear, Parisian restaurants are starting to push their patrons to tip. As more people pay by card, customers in the city are increasingly finding that, at the end of a meal, a monitor is thrust their way requiring them to choose one of several pre-set tipping options, up to 20 per cent. Might this start another revolution?

Tipping is one of the trickiest parts of travel etiquette, with the expectations of waiting staff and customers varying widely between different countries. Among US customers, the average tip is 13.4 per cent of the bill, according to YouGov research published last year. Diners of Great Britain, meanwhile, tip an average of 6.1 per cent.

Unless you’re a frequent visitor to the US, many Britons will find its tipping culture jarring. Noël Wolf, culture expert at language learning platform Babbel says: “Historically, tipping hasn’t been customary in Europe.

“Instead, restaurants may include a service fee in the bill or patrons might simply round up their tab to the nearest euro for good service.”

She adds that the Americanisation of European culture, including through television shows, films and tourism, has influenced some European countries.

But only, perhaps, in places that receive a lot of American visitors. The change in Parisian tipping is very different to my experience last summer in Collioure, for example. The Catalan fishing town in south-west France is where Matisse rediscovered his mojo and invented Fauvism. I bet he wasn’t charged for service when drinking and eating tapas in Les Templiers. Neither was I, at La Cuisine Comptoir, a little slow food gem, where I dined alone, twice, over a weekend break.

The wait staff’s knowing advice on the alluring menu, with sides of extra chat about art in Collioure, was so sympathique that I visited again. I didn’t tip the first time as service was included, as shown on the bill. I was warmly welcomed back the second night. And, yes, I did leave a little something then, much to their surprise. The waiter came after me thinking it was a mistake and I had dropped a note from my purse.

Perhaps it is different in French cities? Yet friends just returned from Montpellier say not.

Over the border in L’Escala, Spain, last September, I arrived at La Taverna de la Sel towards the end of evening service without a reservation. I was greeted almost like a long-lost friend, encouraged to linger over three courses and asked amiably about my plans. No tip was expected and there was no prompt on the dastardly payment machine. But there was a beaming recognition when I returned for a drink the next day.

My general experience in Spain’s cities, from Girona to Barcelona, is that the Spanish really do not tip. Only the foreign tourists do. A few locals might leave a €20 bill on the table after a truly good evening out or leave the change if not paying by card, but that’s not the norm.

While parts of Western Europe are still laid-back about tipping, it feels like a US-style approach is taking hold in the UK.

How different my experience in Spain was compared to my birthday last November when I arrived for a late lunch with friends. We had booked weeks before, at a much-fêted pub-restaurant in Suffolk.

Yet we were made to feel like sinners for arriving at 2pm, the time I’d reserved, and were hurried into ordering. We quickly chose a few starters as we felt they couldn’t wait to get us out of there, so that they could close. Most dishes were unmemorable. The brioche, accompanying a terrine, was dry from being overly reheated.

The disdain our server showed us when we chose not to tip – with a curled lip and curt manner – on top of the 15 per cent automatically slapped on, left a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t help noticing that the same waiter revved his car aggressively and
zoomed off while we were still chatting to our friends in the carpark.

Only earlier this week, at a cafe in St James’s in London, where I ordered a coffee and croissant to take away, I was flabbergasted. A gratuity was requested on the payment machine. The barista had barely moved from their station.

London is taking on New York habits, it would seem. I haven’t visited the US since pre-pandemic, yet even then I found tipping was getting out of control. I visited a food hall in Manhattan with a Danish friend from my school days. She bought us some fabulous freshly cooked seafood fritto misto. I noticed the mechanical prompt for service.

“Why? We are not even sitting down?” I queried.

My friend shrugged and added 15 per cent. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so I wasn’t going to argue. It seems that today’s technology makes it harder, and more embarrassing, to say no.

I understand restaurant wages can be shockingly inadequate in the States (the average median wage of wait staff is $31,940, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics) and servers rely on customers’ tips to make their take home pay a living wage. Surely employers, not diners, should step up as part of building a reputation for their restaurant and rapport between customers and staff?

Sure, I’ve waited in restaurants myself, and know a generous tip can make you feel on top of the world. I also write about restaurants and understand how tough the climate is for the people who own and run them. I understand why prices have gone up, but don’t make the customer feel guilty for not paying a huge tip. Afterall, they are helping to keep your business afloat.

food dining out scandinavia copenhagen
Sudi has found that places in Scandinavia have the best service
(Photo: Getty)

Tipflation is rife now in the US. An American friend who works in the food industry tells me that if you’re going to a restaurant, get ready for the bill coming along with a card machine “giving” you the “option” to add 20, 25, 30 or 40 per cent. A table for two comes out practically paying for three.

Americans are known to be generous tippers when abroad as they can’t get their head around different cultural norms.

It is all far more civilised in Scandinavia. I was in Norway’s still under-the-radar-foodie destination, Trondheim, very recently. I ate a dazzling meal at restaurant-of-the-moment Tollbua (Christopher Davidsen, who won the Michelin star for Spielsalle at the extravagant Britannia Hotel, has just moved to this Nordic Gourmet Bistro).

No tips were sought – staff are paid a decent salary. Yet, as I was there as part of a large and rowdy group, we left an extra 10 per cent.

It is the same in Copenhagen. There is no rule of thumb.

“For exceptional service, 5-10 per cent would be a kind gesture”, advises Danish-born Kristian Brask Thomsen, global culinary ambassador and founder of Bon Vivant Communications, who has eaten out at even more restaurants worldwide than me.

So much for the prevailing assumption that Scandinavia is the most expensive region in which to dine. Refreshingly, what you see on the menu is what you pay. I am planning a trip to budget-friendly Aarhus later in the year.

In all the places I’ve dined out, in at least 34 countries, I’ve found New York expects the highest tips (and is happy to shame you into paying them) and Scandinavia has the most together service in every sense of the word. It leaves you with warm feelings of hygge conviviality.