Do Americans leave money on the restaurant table or bar and leave?
September 4, 2014 2:28 AM   Subscribe

In the movies Americans often just leave money on the bar, or on the table at a cafe or a restaurant, and walk out. Does this happen in real life?

They rarely wait for a bill or ask how much they owe, they'll just put a few notes down and leave. Is this something that really happens or is it just in the movies? (Kind of like how in the movies Americans never say goodbye on the phone, they just hang up - I assume that's not how it is in real life.)
posted by UltraFleece to Society & Culture (49 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I love this question. When I see this happening in a movie, I always assume that the actual "paying the bill" transaction has been edited out, and the putting down a few notes part is the tip. I regularly pay for my bill with a credit card, but leave cash for the tip.
posted by hworth at 2:32 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]

I do that, if I am paying in cash and have enough to cover the bill and the tip- why wait around on the waitstaff?

Of course, I have the bill first to know the amount. At a bar, you already know the amount, if you're a regular.
posted by jenkinsEar at 2:49 AM on September 4 [16 favorites]

I don't think i've ever done this, or if i have it was only once or twice... but my dad regularly does this. He knows exactly what the check is going to be, and will leave the amount + a good tip on the table nudged under a cup or something and we'll just walk out.

It is a point that he only really does this at places he's been a million times, where he both knows exactly what it's going to cost and they probably know him... but it's absolutely a Real Thing People Do.

Kind of like how in the movies Americans never say goodbye on the phone, they just hang up - I assume that's not how it is in real life.

Oh no, people do that too -_-
posted by emptythought at 2:59 AM on September 4 [9 favorites]

I did this at a restaurant I used to frequent. Order the same thing every time, it's gonna be $12 with tip, and if I have $12 on me, I leave it and walk out. Never got yelled at for it.
posted by Etrigan at 3:14 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]

American here. One thing to know is that, in contrast to my experience in the UK/Europe, the bill is delivered much more quickly. Often, you'll still be eating and the server will come by and drop the bill off with a quick "No rush, take your time."

So by the time you take that last bite, you'll have the bill already and know how much you owe. In that case, I'll just leave enough for bill+tip and slip out.

I'm not sure if that's actually a contrast with other countries, or if I just had bad luck at restaurants, but I remember quite often being done with my meal, sitting around for maybe 10 minutes waiting for the waiter to finally come around and drop off the bill. Frustrating!
posted by losvedir at 3:25 AM on September 4 [9 favorites]

In the movies they might be trying to underscore how familiar someone is with the restaurant, that 'Joe is a regular' or some such, or just trying to skip boring bits, but it's still something that people do and can even do without guesswork if they're in a huge hurry, like if you have a bagel and coffee and you're late for work and it's busy you could leave anywhere between seven and ten dollars and have it covered.

We do say Goodbye on the phone though. That part is indeed bullshit. We were watching Masters of Sex last night and a guy proposed to someone and they talked a bit and then he hung up and I said, 'Well, I sure hope she wasn't planning on adding anything.'
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:32 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]

What losvedir says.... The bill is often dropped off while you're eating. And yes, I do this alllll the time in the US; I'm from California. I live overseas, so I'm not a regular anywhere either.

I live in Australia now and wouldn't do it here.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:36 AM on September 4

I do this at restaurants in the UK if I'm paying by cash and not waiting to collect change. (If I'm paying by card I generally still leave the tip in cash on the table too).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:38 AM on September 4

What losvedir said. If you already have the bill, you can do that. My experience with bars, however, is that you pay as you order.

You have to know the place and know the clientele. If the diner is both sketchy and busy, another patron can steal your cash/tip before the server gets to it. So if you do this, make sure you put it under something as a deterrent.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:40 AM on September 4

It's a movie trope, used as a timesaver, because who wants to sit through watching the hero pay his bill? But in this case, it does happen in real life, too.
posted by megatherium at 3:42 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]

I'm an American, I do this if I'm paying in cash and cover my bill + tip completely, because the bill usually comes right after the food with assurances of "no rush, whenever you're ready!"
posted by mibo at 3:55 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]

Yes, it's quite normal. I used to work at a fancy steakhouse in Los Angeles... where the bulk of the American movie industry is! Most people put it under an object (usually the salt shaker), or at the furthest point away from foot traffic (to make it less accessible to other customers).

More often than not, while leaving, they would make an effort to tell the staff (the server, a different server, a host...) that the cash is on the table.
posted by Xere at 3:56 AM on September 4

It depends on the restaurant. In some places, the server will bring your bill, then come back for your payment. If you are paying cash and don't need change, you can just leave.

In some (more casual) places, the server brings the bill, and there is a register near the door. You are expected to bring the bill and pay on your way out. It would be kind of rude to leave the money on the table, and they might think you're trying to skip out on the bill.

In most bars, you're either paying for drinks as you get them at the bar, or you have a tab you'll need to close out. You might leave a few bucks on the table as a tip to a server.
posted by catatethebird at 3:57 AM on September 4

I live in a small town in Central Florida.
I do this all the time. In my town, I leave the money and do not look back.
No one is going to take the money in my little town.

When I am Orlando or Tampa (a bigger city nearby), I still do it.
But in a city, as I am walking out, I will point out the money to someone, anyone working in the restaurant.
posted by Flood at 4:31 AM on September 4

I have done this, but only at places I have been a billion times when I've ordered the exact same thing as a billion times before and have the right bills on me.
posted by phunniemee at 4:53 AM on September 4

It depends on the restaurant --- some prefer to have you pay at your table, some prefer to have you pay at a register on the way out. Either way, you don't just toss down a handful of cash and run: even if you are at a leave-the-money-on-the-table sort of place, you get a printed bill so you know how much to leave.
posted by easily confused at 4:58 AM on September 4

"Kind of like how in the movies Americans never say goodbye on the phone, they just hang up"

In my experience, this never happens in real life (at least, not in America). There's a Reddit discussion about this (see also here).
posted by alex1965 at 5:08 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

Never occurred to me that this was a thing, like characters always finding a parking spot, that would seem false.

In my US experience as a server and as a customer this is unremarkable.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:53 AM on September 4

If I had the bill and the cash, I'd do this all the time, both in Scotland and in Canada. Why wouldn't anyone do it?
posted by scruss at 6:02 AM on September 4

[Sorry to be a stickler for protocol here: the question mentions phone etiquette only as a parallel, please stick to the topic of transactions, thanks.]
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:05 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

It depends on the type of establishment.

In a bar, if you're only ordering drinks, pretty much 100% of the time, yes. Especially if you have exact change (which is common in bars since it's very rare for a drink in a bar to come to a non-round number). If you're paying with a big bill, you'll usually hand it to the bartender and they'll make change, like any other retail transaction.

In a restaurant, this really only ever happens in ultra casual places like diners. And even then, like in a bar, only if you're paying in cash and don't need change.

This would have been more common back in the day, when cash was more prevalent. I also feel -- and this may be a sort of nostalgia or mistaken assumption about the past -- like at a certain point in the US most ordinary people were eating out in diners, cafeterias, lunch counters, etc. rather than either fast food or a more upscale dining experience (neither of which would be appropriate for just leaving cash on the table).
posted by Sara C. at 6:05 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

My experience with bars, however, is that you pay as you order.

That really depends. I don't think there is a bar in this town that would make me pay for each order, but in other cities I've run into it (and in some countries is simply the norm, of course). Leaving cash without getting the bill is normal when someone has just had a drink or two and knows the price. It would not be normal for a complicated order (three people, multiple drinks and food items) where you won't know the total until the bill arrives.

The scene that precedes it in the movies is the really unrealistic part, though: walking into the bar and ordering "beer!" or "whiskey!" without having to specify the brand, bottled or draft, and/or on the rocks versus neat. It's an odd fictional convention with no relationship to real life.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:12 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

This is after the bill has already been paid, and you're leaving a tip. However, nowadays all my tips go on the card.
posted by signondiego at 6:21 AM on September 4

I have done it and seen many others do it, when paying with cash.
posted by koakuma at 6:26 AM on September 4

Yes, if you have already been given the bill, it is standard to leave the money on the table and leave if you don't want change.
posted by Cygnet at 6:32 AM on September 4

I've always viewed it as a character dropping a wad of cash or a large bill on the table meaning "I'm in a rush, this $20.00 will more than cover my scotch and soda and tip."
Also I have started not saying goodbye on the is harder than you think.
posted by Gungho at 6:51 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

Dip Flash: "The scene that precedes it in the movies is the really unrealistic part, though: walking into the bar and ordering "beer!" or "whiskey!" without having to specify the brand, bottled or draft, and/or on the rocks versus neat. It's an odd fictional convention with no relationship to real life."

This is presumably due to the extra legal work involved when using an actual brand.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:12 AM on September 4

I do this only in the rare ovelap of circumstances where I have cash on me and the service is sooooo slow that I don't want to wait for the whole bill process. Of course, this leads to a little mental figuring, since I definitely leave a healthy margin over price+tax, but chafe at rewarding terribly negligent service with an extra large tip njust because I don't have the right change, but... on every rare occasion where I've done this, it's been so, so worth it to get out of there.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:17 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

Sometimes at places where they know me.

Outside of Canada and the US if you want the bill, you have to ask for it.
posted by brujita at 7:18 AM on September 4

Used to do it - stopped doing it when a friend of mine who was a bar waitress told me about witnessing people stealing tabs and tips that were left behind.
posted by plinth at 7:21 AM on September 4

American here.

I only do this if I am paying in cash, and have a reasonable idea of what my bill is going to be. I'll leave enough to cover it with a tip.

Usually, though, I'm paying with a credit or debit card.
posted by tckma at 7:23 AM on September 4

People are answering two slightly different questions here and it's making my pedantry muscle twitch.

Doing this after you've received the bill is completely unremarkable; I've done it and seen it done all over the world, and it's not the movie thing the OP appears to be referring to.

Doing it before you've been given a bill, or verbally told the amount by the bartender, is something I've never done nor witnessed being done, though it's clear from answers here that it does happen sometimes if you're a regular somewhere. Just randomly doing it in a restaurant you weren't a regular at would be taken as pretty strange here in New York I think.
posted by oliverburkeman at 7:37 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]

I've done this many times, but always after the bill comes. In many restaurants - especially more casual places, like diners or cafes - the server will just show up with the bill before you are done, say "no rush," and leave you alone. I do this in NYC, and nobody blinks an eye. If you acknowledge the server when you leave, usually they'll walk over to the table and pick up the cash.

In fancier places, usually you pay with a card, and usually you have to ask for the check. Still, there are a couple of semi-fancy restaurants I like that are cash-only, and I've definitely left cash on the table (with the bill) in them.

In bars, normally the bartender just tells you how much your drink is when you order, and you pay then and there (unless you are opening a tab). Sometimes, this isn't the case, though. I could see leaving cash on the bar and walking out if the bartender doesn't tell you how much your drink is, and the prices are posted somewhere.
posted by breakin' the law at 7:40 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]

We have a little breakfast joint we go to regularly. Frequently, they drop off the bill only a few minutes after we've started eating. Unless we forgot cash, and need to pay with a card, we just leave the money plus the tip and split. And honestly, we've eaten there so often that we know what it's going to be anyway. There's no reason to hang around once the money is on the table, and they have never asked us not to do it that way (and they know us at this point).

I would feel a little less comfortable doing this in a place I didn't know as well/hadn't received a bill for, I think.
posted by instead of three wishes at 7:43 AM on September 4

It is quite common here (Midwestern USA) to put cash on the table and leave after the server has left the bill.

Bars and restaurants frequently omit drink prices from the menus, so you might not be able to accurately estimate the total (tax rates can also vary quite a bit from one place to the next) until the bill arrives. If you're a regular who gets the same thing every time, it's not unusual to put the money down on the table and leave without waiting for the bill.

I don't do this in places where the money is at all likely to get stolen, such as at an outdoor cafe in the city.
posted by tomwheeler at 7:45 AM on September 4

We do this (in Los Angeles) at places we frequent and where we know the server has a good handle on his/her area. Reason being, our understanding is that if someone skips out on the bill, the server has to make up for it.

If the server has a good eye on their area (ie, isn't on a break, isn't in the kitchen for an extended amout of time), we feel certain they will see us leave and will go to the table quickly to pick up the payment. We wouldn't want the server to get penalized because they didn't know there was cash on the table, and some yahoo walked by and stole it.
posted by vignettist at 7:58 AM on September 4

I do this all the time. I would never do this in another country. When my parents came to visit us in South Africa, I had to physically restrain my dad from leaving cash and walking away. Every. Single. Time.
posted by mrfuga0 at 8:08 AM on September 4

Eating out in the US, and least in the Midwest where I am living now, is often an exercise in fueling up more than the social gathering with lingering over a meal I was used to. So often times the bills come while you are still eating because if it didn't people would just do what you see in flims. Leave money & go. I find this very rude as I'm from a culture where you linger at the end of a meal and talk to your dining companions etc. None of my US family think twice about it, wait staff like to turn over tables faster as they get more tips, if you linger it is polite to tip more to make up for this.

My US in laws will often just leave cash on tables, my FIL is a cheapskate & likes to pay cash as he can hide how little he is actually tipping as he flourishes his cash onto the table. Oh tips especially are left as cash if possible. So in the films what you are seeing may well just be the leaving of the tip and they edited out the boring paying the bill by credit card part.
posted by wwax at 8:11 AM on September 4

American here. One thing to know is that, in contrast to my experience in the UK/Europe, the bill is delivered much more quickly.

This was a big surprise to me when I was in London. The bill never comes! So you can just sit and talk forever (in a restaurant that isn't packed). In the US there is definitely more of a sense of needing to turn over tables so so you'll get your bill delivered sometimes right after your meal with a "take your time" and sometimes it's just a scrap of paper.

I agree with people upthread where this is something a "regular" would do (especially someone getting counter service at a diner, for example or getting the exact same meal) but it's a little odd to do in a more regular restaurant unless you are way overpaying (the whole "my $20 will take care of this grilled cheese and a coke" thing). Also in the US there is a bit of a "dash and dine" grifter culture, sort of a low-level scam, where you order a meal and eat it all fast and then run out without paying the bill. I assume they have this all over but I know it's a thing in the US. So, if I were eating in a restaurant, I'd sort of make sure that if I was just leaving money on the table and leaving, that it was clear I'd left money, enough money, before I walked out.
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 AM on September 4

I'm Australian and live in England, and do this - but only at say a small cafe and where I know how much the bill is. I've never thought of this as an American thing.
posted by goo at 8:30 AM on September 4

I have never done this, until after I have recieved the bill. Now, I have recieved the bill, left cash for the amount plus tip and left.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 9:14 AM on September 4

People aren't specifying region in most of their answers, and I sort of suspect that this might vary regionally, along with by the size of community, type of establishment, and familiarity with the business.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, and imo, it's pretty rare to see this, at least with paying the entire bill, to the point where I've laughed at/puzzled over some of those same types of scenes. Occurrences here are pretty much only in smaller, non-formal establishments, during less-busy hours, where the patron is quite familiar with the business and generally indicates to their server or another employee that they have left the money on the table, or has done so SO frequently in the past that it's habit for both.

In general, the first assumption - at least around here - wouldn't be that they've left money on the table, but that they've dined and dashed.
posted by stormyteal at 10:02 AM on September 4

IMO when you see this happen in a film or TV ... a women rushes away, you must follow ... throw down two $20 to cover what you know will be much less... and chase that dame!
posted by ScotsLament at 10:29 AM on September 4

Yes, this happens -- but you get the bill first. Then you put down what you owe + the tip in cash and leave without the server checking. That's normal. I've never heard of anyone putting money down without getting a bill first. Maybe in a rush?

At a bar, I have done this without a bill. If I know how much my drinks were, I've plopped down a $5, which is too much to be safe, and tucked it under my glass, and left. But this is rare. It's usually when I need to leave and I know finding a bartender will take forever.

However, I use usually my credit card which requires they swipe it and give me a receipt to sign before I can leave.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:40 AM on September 4

I used to live in Colorado and this behavior was regular. I have seen much less of it in Seattle. This could be tied to how likely a region is to use cash vs. credit cards. That said, my partner and I do this occasionally when we're using cash. But we only do this after we've received our bill (usually dropped off with our meals) and at smaller, less formal restaurants.
posted by stubbehtail at 10:46 AM on September 4

I do this regularly in places where I have appeared before, and am ordering the same thing and thus don't need a bill to know how much I owe.
posted by corb at 10:49 AM on September 4

Doing it before you've been given a bill, or verbally told the amount by the bartender, is something I've never done nor witnessed being done,

Super common around here, to the point that I have no idea what some bars even charge for drinks and the bar itself and tables are usually littered with cash (which no one takes) that the bartenders only pick up when people leave. If you meet friends for drinks and leave early you just toss some cash on the table and go. If its just two people having a drink and you know or can guess the amount it's normal to just leave it when you go.
posted by fshgrl at 11:14 AM on September 4

I've done this a fair number of times.

However, I did run into the problem once where the waitress didn't understand the protocol, and chased me down to pay the bill. She thought that the entire $15 was just her tip - and was quite unamused when I said that no, that includes the bill as well. So there's that, which may happen once in a while. I don't think it was malicious; she just had never dealt with this before.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:50 AM on September 4

I think I actually have left money for a small order on the table before the bill came, to escape with a screaming baby. But in the other case, after getting the bill, how else would you do it? I've occasionally had to ask the waiter for change, but after sorting it out, I'd have left the cash on the table as usual. Do you signal the waiter to come take it from your hand?
posted by SandiBeech at 12:14 PM on September 4

« Older I have a name that is similar ...   |  I would like to be able to und... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments