This is a copy of the email that I sent to Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema.
This is mostly a gripe although I'll attempt to frame it as a question since I am genuinely curious as to why this happens/what could be done about it.
A few weeks ago (Saturday after thanksgiving) I had dinner with friends at Hook, we were a large party, 10 of us from high school who still get together when we're all in the area. Some of the food was quite good (the entree's) some of it wasn't so good (the appetizers and crudo) and the service was poor at best.
Our sever disappeared for long periods of time, constantly left us searching for attention to get more wine, order dessert, etc. When he did come by he was more interested in telling us the score of the Missouri college football game that was on at the time. Descriptions of the food were lacking even when in response to detailed questions, if specials are served at Hook (which may well not be the case) we certainly didn't hear about them. We ordered two complete rounds of the crudos which were unceremoniously dumped on our table without any explanations or descriptions leaving us to guess what each might be, we repeated the detective work with cheese plates later in the evening.
While it wasn't anything we were interested in making a scene over, the caliber of the service certainly detracted from our enjoyment of the meal and the overall experience and we would have liked to reflect its quality or lack thereof in the gratuity. Unfortunately when our check arrived our server had already included a 20% tip for himself. The general feeling at the table was that our server had decided to plug in a 20% tip from the start of the meal and simply phoned in the rest of the evening.
The question I've formed is twofold.
Where and how did the practice of adding the tip in for checks at large tables originate? I understand the possibility of getting shorted by a large group exists and that many restaurants follow or allow their servers discretion in using this practice and often say so on the menu (I don't know if Hook had a printed warning or not). We can't be the only group that's ever felt taken advantage of on this front though. In an unscientific survey of our party, the six of us who have waited tables in the past all claimed to have never added a tip on to a check, choosing to trust our customers instead.
Besides griping to your local restaurant critic and telling your friends that there are better places to get a good piece of fish, ones where the food is also well prepared, the service is up to par, and your dollar will go quite a bit further (Blacks in Bethesda comes to mind - full disclosure I have worked there), is there something else we could or should have done.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, I apologize if I was a bit long winded. Voicing my complaint to someone with a lot of weight in the local food scene was very cathartic.