I’ve slung hash. I started as a busboy at Miss Colleen’s Chinese Restaurant. There was no future in it, as to graduate to a waiter you had to write in Chinese. But I got to take home all the leftovers. I then worked at a Jewish Deli (low pay and tips, no comment), a jazz club (no customers, no tips, but I could get drunk every night for free). By the time I was ready to retire – at 25 - from the ‘food services industry’ (i.e. toiling in Mafia owned kitchens) I was wearing what they used to call a monkey suit and was chosen to serve champagne to then President Mitterrand at a French Embassy event (I hid under the table but they found me). So I know what it’s like to work for tips. As I considered myself a very good waiter, who worked efficiently and gave a minimum of attitude, I’m both sympathetic and highly critical of bad service. But I know a girl’s gotta eat.
Mexico is a service-oriented country. There are a lot of people here whose work is doing something for someone else. Most middle class people have maids. People are available to carry your bags, pump your gas, shine your shoes, bone your chicken. Few of these people are well paid. Some aren’t paid at all.
Many foreigners, recent émigrés or visitors to The Big Taco are confused about tipping. One wants to do it ‘right’, do as the natives do. My father, who spent his last years in Japan, where they’ve never even heard of tipping, always told the story of having left a few yen on a restaurant table. His worried waitress came running out after him to give it back – not to offend. Likewise, my friends in Madrid wouldn’t let me leave a euro in the dish of a bar, claiming that wait-people are well paid in Spain. Not so sure about that. I think now, given Spain’s economic situation, these same friends would pocket my tip themselves.
Here is my advice on what gratuity to leave. Of course it’s subjective. I tend to err on the side of generous. Let’s face it, most of the people who serve you a 400 peso meal can’t afford one themselves and never will. I feel guilty when I buy a bottle of wine that costs what the bagger earns in 3 days. So I do what I can.
Street stalls - nothing is expected, and most people don’t leave tips
Market stalls/owner run fondas – I usually leave a few pesos. If the lunch is $35, I’ll leave 5. It’s optional – some people do, many don’t.
Restaurants (from Vips to Pujol) – Here, 10-15% is the norm (not 15-20 as in the US), although I tend to err towards 15. This is where you may leave more or less depending on the quality of the service. But remember that what you and I may think of as over-zealous service is here considered attentive. People are taught that it’s not nice to leave dirty plates in front of someone, so they are whisked away even when others are still eating. We may think that’s rude, here it’s good service. So don’t penalize your server for this. Wait service in Mexico is generally friendly – have you ever had surly waiter snap at you here? I haven’t.
A few high-end places add a ‘servicio’ charge of 15% onto their bill, as restaurants in France do. Although this is uncommon, it happens. I don’t like this phenomenon at all, because most people don’t expect it here, and leave a tip on top of the service. So, take the advice of my mother and always check your bill. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll find an error, and it never seems to be in your favor.
Bars – if you only drink, a small gratuity is the norm, in a dive, perhaps a couple of pesos, in a ‘nice’ place more.
Other, non-dining tipping situations:
Taxis – a tip is not expected. This will surprise New Yorkers where a full tip is not only expected but extorted. But I usually round off and give them a little extra. Come on, taxis are very cheap here…
Gas stations – Those Pemex guys expect a little something: 2-5 pesos, depending on whether they do extra things like wash your windows or check the oil. Let’s face it, it’s nice not to do it yourself, and it’s not sexy for a lady wearing high heels and a Little Black Dress to pump gas.
Gas delivery – tip those guys who carry the heavy cylinders to the roof - $5 (pesos) each. And give the truck 10 or 15 or they’ll never come back.
Water bottles – I give 2 or 3 pesos extra per ‘garrafon’.
Car parkers/'cuidadores' - we give these guys 5-10 pesos; sometimes more: the lady at the Lagunilla market (on Reforma) wants $20 to look after our car. It's worth it.
Baggers at the super – I’m generous with these people. There’s a sign in my local Superama (which is owned by Walmart, a company known for its miserliness) that clearly states that baggers aren’t paid at all. You just spent $70 on Haagen Daaz. Shell out.
Bogart to Ann Sheriden: "What do you reccomend?"; Ann to Bogart "Nothing, I never eat here, myself"
A note to my readers: Good Food in Mexico City has been included, amidst stellar company, in the New York Times' Diner's Journal
Text © 2011 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved