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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Dining Out

Na Chai
Charles Borden

oscow visitors often ask, “How much do I tip the waitress?” Eighteen years after the end of the Soviet Union, the answer is still uncertain. Many visitors apply tipping habits from home, but still wonder if they got it right.

The Russian slang for tip is “na chai,” literally “for tea,” the words delivered in an off-hand, almost apologetic way, as a small token, certainly not for service, which both giver and receiver know would have been “exemplary” anyway.

In the Soviet era, there were few restaurants in Moscow. Many bore city names: the Prague on Novy Arbat, Peking at the Peking Hotel on Mayakovskaya, or the Sofi a across Tverskaya that now hosts a Rostik/KFC. All are rumored to have been well equipped with listening devices for foreign guests.

The populace considered restaurant workers privileged because they had access to food and drink the average sovok never saw—why would a waiter need a tip? In Soviet society salaries varied little with job and position and tips were ideologically incorrect, non-egalitarian. The free market concept of service was also missing. The story runs that when McDonald’s arrived, it had to train its staff to smile, and there is the anecdote about the hungry tourist arriving at a restaurant at noon to find a sign that read, “Closed for lunch”.

Most Russians outside the emerging middle class in Moscow and St. Petersburg still have little experience with restaurants let alone tips. They seldom dine out except for a bite at a kiosk. If they do, it is as guest at a wedding or birthday party. However, the middle class is growing rapidly in Russia and with it a restaurant culture. Both diners and waiting staff are increasingly coming to terms with tipping.

Based upon conversations with restaurateurs and others in the industry, there is still no clear rule for tipping and habits vary depending upon whether the venue is one of Moscow’s elite establishments or one of the more “democratic” cafes or bars, and how far the restaurant is from the centre.

Paul O’Brien, one of the founders of Starlite Diners and Uley, one of Moscow’s first upscale restaurants, found the tipping situation socially complicated when he first arrived. “Average salaries were less than $300, so when someone ran up a $1000 bar bill for a group and left a $150 tip there was a serious disparity,” Paul says. “That situation has of course changed dramatically, particularly in the past couple of years.”

According to executives at two restaurants at the pinnacle of the Moscow’s food chain, the best tippers by far in their houses are Russians, but they are also the most demanding on staff. Naturally, guests at these establishments can afford to tip as well as they can eat and drink. If Moscow is home, regular diners know a good tip brings proper attention on the next visit. Serial restaurateur Douglas Steele (Papa’s and Beverly Hills Diner) also reports that, “at the Beverly Hills Diner, Russians are now the biggest tippers.”

At restaurants distant from the centre or in the regions, tips tend to be less. Robert Greco, owner of Beaver’s, an American-style sports bar and restaurant in the Marino district at the edge of Moscow, reports that “tips tend to range from 5-10% for our crowd, which is almost entirely Russian and younger.” According to several sources, tips in the regions range up to 10%, but one ex-pat restaurant owner commented that he leaves a lower percentage in Moscow because the checks are higher.

Many American and European visitors bring habits from home, which for Americans means leaving 15-20% depending upon service. In many European countries, service is included in the bill, and the reports are that Europeans tend to be more stingy. However, Doug Steele commented, “I’ve been shocked recently by poor tips from some Americans. Someone recently left a 20 rouble tip: that’s 75 cents, on a two thousand rouble check. He probably thought that 20 roubles was a lot of money for a Russian waitress.”

One long-term ex-pat opined that, “Perhaps visitors come with early 90s ideas about the condition of the country. I was just in an AT&T Phone Store in Chicago getting a SIM card. When the salesman heard I was from Russia I was surprised to hear, ‘I heard you can make a lot of money by bringing a suitcase of blue jeans to Russia’.”

Another common question is: “Do waiters and waitresses get to keep the tips?” The professionals report that waiting staff retain tips at most reputable and upscale establishments, and tips make up a good part of a waiter’s compensation. Waiting staff that retain tips sometimes pool with their colleagues, and share a small percentage with servers and dishwashers. At one well-known pub, the waiting staff share a percent of each evening’s take.

To make sense of it all, here’s the Passport Guide to Tipping: at most ex-pat haunts and better-known restaurants a tip of 10-15% is adequate depending upon service. If you have an expense account and the service was great, a higher tip will be appreciated; a tip of 7% to 10% should be adequate when traveling to the regions or in out-of-theway locations.

If paying by credit card, never add the tip to the check. Leave cash. Even the establishment is reputable, there are tax issues that would complicate a pay out to wait staff.

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