No-tipping restaurants aren't exactly new; the practice is common throughout Europe, and restaurants such as Chicago's Alinea and Next have been including 20 percent service charges, in lieu of tips, for years. Just last week, The Radler, a German-inspired restaurant in Logan Square, announced a "Tip Abolishment" policy, opting for a built in, 18-percent service charge on all checks.
Nevertheless, restaurateur Danny Meyer's announcement Wednesday that he will eliminate tipping at his Union Square Hospitality Group's restaurants, which include such well-known spots as The Modern, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, and also the new Chicago restaurant GreenRiver (a joint venture not expected to be part of the new policy), might mark the turning point for tipping as it exists in the U.S.
It's one thing for ultra-elite restaurants to bypass the tipping tradition; these are establishments that make their own rules anyway. Union Square Hospitality Group's restaurants aren't quite so exclusive (you might have to accept an early/late time to book a table at Gramercy, but you'll get in), so the new policy will affect more everyday diners. And Meyer is by far the best-known, most-influential restaurateur in New York.
The inspiration for the change, according to a letter Meyer published online, was to "provide meaningful career opportunities" for the group's 1,800 employees, and to compensate them "equitably, competitively and professionally."
Translation: Eliminating tipping (and increasing menu prices accordingly) will allow Meyer's group to address the widening compensation gap between front-of-house (waiters and other servers) and back-of-house (line cooks and other kitchen personnel) workers.
"We believe hospitality is a team sport," Meyer said.
The first restaurant to make the no-tipping switch will be The Modern, the two-Michelin-star restaurant inside the Museum of Modern Art.
"Beginning with The Modern, in mid-November, we will gradually be eliminating tipping in our New York restaurants over this coming year," Meyer said via email. "Only once we see how things work, will we turn our eye elsewhere."
Meyer said the rest of the group's properties will be no-tipping by the end of 2016.
Phil Vettel is a Tribune critic