Department of Deportment: How to Split a Check, Once and for All

Don't all go for it at once. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev/New York Magazine

It’s a depressingly familiar situation: After a meal with a group of friends, the check arrives, and out come the smart phone calculators and the angry recriminations. The back of the receipt is turned into a miniature accounting ledger. Inevitably, the money comes up short, and a friendly meal ends with a bitter taste.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Michael Pollan once famously wrote his basic rules for eating: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Splitting the check can be just as easy: Pay for the meal, not just the food. Split everything equally. Except maybe the booze.

Check-splitting angst begins when people want to pay for every little last morsel of food they ate. Not only is it difficult to apportion the proper fractional shares for tip and tax, it's missing the entire point of eating out together. It should be more about splitting the cost of a communal evening than it is accounting for everyone's individual calorie consumption. "You're paying for a shared experience," says Michael Bailey, director of customer relations at New York's Monkey Bar. "If you order a salad and everyone else enjoys steak, but you're there for the entire dinner, the bill should be split."

The caveat here is alcohol. The unanimous conclusion from the front-of-the-house staff we spoke with is that the only time a check might not be split evenly is when part of the group is drinking copious amounts of expensive booze and one particular diner is not drinking at all. “If a person is not a drinker and everyone is ordering bottles of wine and countless martinis, that person has the right to not pay for all the booze,” says Bailey. It's a fair point, and even this is an easy situation to handle. Caroline Roberts-Mason, general manager of Cole's in downtown L.A., says that if you know you won't be drinking, or think you'll have to duck out early, just ask your waiter when you're first seated to create a separate check for you. "It's not super difficult to separate things off the check if we know ahead of time," she says. It makes it easier for the non-drinker to pay what they owe, and the rest of the group to divide the remainder evenly.

The inevitable argument against this approach is that someone who has ordered less ends up feeling like they now must pay more than they would otherwise. We've all taken a hit at some point, but consider that the scale will always eventually tilt back the other way, too. Call it the Dharma of dining — and an investment in the group's collective happiness.

Turning dinner into a business transaction ruins the mood. Is it really worth saving eight dollars if it sours the meal? The whole point of going out is to have a good time, and the more people quibble about who-owes-what, the more that good time is compromised. So just remember: Pay for the meal, not the food. Split everything equally. Except maybe the booze.