When Splitting the Check Gives You a Splitting Headache

How I missed the NYT piece about splitting the check at celebratory restaurant meals I'll never know. Serious Eats friend Megnut was all over it, but somehow we missed it. Well, there's no use crying over spilled wine.

Why I am so chagrined is that piece spoke to me in so many ways. As a nondrinker I have been burned so many times it has probably cost me enough money over the years to pay for my son's college tuition for a year. A few years ago at a dinner for a colleague retiring from a trade committee, I remember being asked to pony up $200 for a dinner featuring many expensive bottles of wine, of which I had nary a drop. What was especially galling was that many of the people at the gathering were just going to expense the dinner, while I, as a freelancer, was going to have to reach into my own pocket to pay for a lot of wine I didn't drink and couldn't afford.

I don't have much of a poker face, and I'm sure I looked positively stricken as I reached into my pocket to fetch a credit card. I just felt too embarrassed to say anything, though everyone at the table knew both that I don't drink and that I had no entity to hand in an expense report to be reimbursed. And the fact is I regard all of the people assembled at the gathering to be caring, sensitive, kindly people. This was just a blind spot for all of them.

Just as I was about to place my credit card in the check folder, a famous food writer who worked for a very large media company came to my rescue. "This is ridiculous, Ed. This is an expensive dinner, and you don't even drink. I'm buying your dinner." I assumed she was going to expense my dinner and her own, but I was just so relieved and thankful I didn't even bother to ask if that was going to be the case.

But from that moment on I vowed to overcome my embarrassment and discomfort and speak up at these occasions. And my friends, family, and colleagues, who are a generously spirited lot, have all responded with understanding words and gestures of support. I still have to bring up the subject myself, but it's a small price to pay to avoid feeling taken advantage of.

The alcohol–no alcohol situation is easy to understand and do something about. When one person orders foie gras and caviar while another orders a cheeseburger and french fries, that is a more difficult issue to grapple with. I almost feel in that case that the fancy-pants orderer must step up and volunteer to pay extra for the luxury items. But if it's a matter of one person ordering the $20 pork chop and another ordering the $28 rack of lamb, that is a check I will comfortably split. It's all a matter of degrees. There are no absolutes here, are there? Are there other nuanced tactics for dealing with this situation?