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Oh no! It's the check.

One diner orders lobster and another gets chicken. Should they split the bill? In this economy, all diners turn into mathematicians when it's time to pay.

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / December 8, 2010

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When Ellen Berlin used to dine out with friends — at Stella in the South End, or West in West Roxbury — the routine was always the same: The check arrived and the pals tossed in their credit cards. No one examined the bill. No one questioned whether they should divide it evenly. No one secretly seethed at the person who ordered the high-end wine to everyone else’s house white, or cappuccino when others settled for coffee.

Now? “The first thing that happens is we all go for our glasses,’’ says Berlin, a publicist, of Dedham. “The nonchalance is gone. It becomes the dreaded moment.’’

Welcome to dining in a lousy economy. The recession has famously driven diners from restaurants and forced those who still do go out to share entrees and skip dessert. But there’s also a less-discussed side effect. All this joblessness and belt-tightening has ratcheted up the tension and the stakes when the check hits, turning friend against friend, diner against waiter, couple against couple.

Bon appetit!

At Marliave, in Boston, things can get heated when the drink tab arrives, reports bar manager Ben Cogswell. Emotions flare when one guy is drinking $3.50 Miller High Lifes, his friend is downing $10 martinis, and the beer drinker suggests that they each pay for what they had rather than split the tab. “When the check comes, it’s sobering,’’ Cogswell says. “Now people are like, ‘I had this and you had that.’ You can see people getting upset.’’

But with money tight, and the desire to go out still strong, what’s a diner to do? Dean Mellen, a stylist at the Patrice Vinci Salon on Newbury Street, and a man who eats all of his meals out, says the best defense is a good offense. “When the waitress takes my order I always say, ‘I might have to excuse myself before the end of the dinner. Would you mind writing me a separate check in case I have to scoot out?’ ’’

When the group’s bill arrives at the end of the meal, he says, “I’m smiling and everyone else is all tense.’’

Mellen says he tired of paying for friends’ champagne, flourless chocolate cakes, and other extravagances, and the recession has given him an excuse to be blunt. “I’d rather take a vacation at the end of the year.’’

Some of the behavioral changes can best be seen not in what people do, but in what they don’t do. Jen Ziskin, co-owner of La Morra, in Brookline, says fewer diners slip her their credit cards ahead of time so they can host friends. Now it’s every diner for herself. “Before, one person would say, ‘Please don’t bring the bill to the table. I want to pick it up without any argument over it.’ ’’

The National Bureau of Economic Research declared the recession officially over as of June 2009, but Bay State residents aren’t buying it. A Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll taken last month found that more then three-fourths of residents say it continues in Massachusetts. Among other cutbacks, 51 percent said they are eating out less than they did a year ago.

And no one is too happy about it. Forty percent of adults report they are not eating out as much as they would like to, according to Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group for the National Restaurant Association. But, he adds, they are still trying to make a meal out possible. “They will act to preserve the event [going to a restaurant], but work on minimizing the cash out of their own pocket.’’

That’s an approach Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst at the NPD Group, calls “check size containment.’’ You can see it at Oleana, in Cambridge, where diners are more willing to learn about and order wine from smaller, and less pricey, vineyards. And at Hamersley’s Bistro, in the South End, some guests celebrating birthdays have started bringing their own cakes.

At Masa, in the South End, thrift takes yet another form. Some diners are exploiting the tiniest lapses in service as an excuse to leave a smaller tip. “Let’s say the server wasn’t keeping on top of keeping the wine glasses or water glasses full. In the guest’s head, it’s minus one [percentage point], so a 20 percent tip goes to 19 or 18,’’ says Mohamad El Zein, the restaurant’s co-owner and general manager.

Other diners, he adds, are trying to make up for stingy tips by being extra friendly on the way out. “Some people try to overcompensate for the tip by giving a verbal thank you. Then you turn around and the gratuity is 14 percent or sometimes even 10 percent.’’

Considering that not everyone is brave enough to bring their own food or ask for a separate check (or want to stiff a waiter), how can diners “eat, drink, and be merry,’’ not “eat, drink, and be so annoyed that you never speak to your friend again’’?

Candor is your only hope, says Manisha Thakor, coauthor of “Get Financially Naked,’’ and founder of the Women’s Financial Literacy Initiative. “I tell people it’s going to be awkward. The only choice you have is at what point in the outing it’s awkward. Do you want to take care of it on a full stomach, or when you are planning?’’

Honesty, about choosing an appropriate restaurant, and/or who’s going to pay, makes the meal more enjoyable, she says. “When you go out to eat, it can be an appreciating asset if it’s an experience you enjoy. Or, it can be a depreciating asset. You end up chewing up your enjoyment of the meal as Joe orders a $100 bottle of wine.’’

Hey, soon there will be an app for that. Next month, a South End startup called Fig plans to introduce iPhone and Android apps that allow diners to pay with their smartphones at participating restaurants. For check splitters, the app does the dirty work by migrating each diner’s tab to his phone directly.

“People want a solution to this problem, but they don’t want it to be too pronounced,’’ says Fig cofounder Dave McLaughlin. “They don’t want to announce they’re a cheapskate.’’

But when the check arrives, everyone is.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

(Illustration by Michael Cho)