The city's top restaurants, as you might expect during the holidays, are jammed. But when it comes to tips, you hear more and more gripes from captains and waiters at a number of the leading eateries, among them the Four Seasons, Nobu, San Domenico, Smith & Wollensky, and the Palm. Almost everyone, including the well-heeled, is said to be cutting back somewhat, and spendthrifts are rapidly becoming a shrinking breed.
All told, the size of restaurant tips is estimated at some restaurants to be down about 7% to 15% from a year ago.
Captains and waiters usually rake in the bulk of their income from tips, not from their wages. And if the tips are right, I'm told, it's not unusual for a captain or a waiter at a pricey restaurant to pull down, including Christmas gifts, roughly $100,000 to $115,000 a year, with an estimated 60% coming from tips and the rest from wages.
Deduct, though, more than a few bucks if you're a captain serving Donald Trump. That condemnation on the Donald's frugality comes from Romeo De Gobbi, general manager and chief captain at San Domenico, one of the city's leading Northern Italian delights, located on Central Park South, and for 16 years a captain at La Cirque.
Describing the Donald as "one of the cheapest tippers" he can recall among the powerful people he served at La Cirque, Mr. De Gobbi said "I can count on my fingers the times he gave me something extra."
Speaking of tips, Mr. De Gobbi, who has dealt in his career with many of the world's rich and famous, notes that the Donald isn't alone in his frugality. "Some extremely powerful people won't give you a penny," he said. The worst, he noted, are politicians, such as Senator Kennedy, and Europeans with titles.
Among his best tippers, he tells me, have been Frank Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone, Lee Iacocca, financier Ronald Perelman, who controls Revlon, and man-about-town Steven Greenberg, a former high-priced public relations advisor in the financial field.
In general, though, Mr. De Gabbi notes the days of getting a $100 or $200 tip from people who want a table when a restaurant is fully booked or who demand a special table are rapidly disappearing. The tips are way down, he observed. Even wealthy people, he went on, are becoming more frugal, a development he attributed to an erratic market, a weaker economy, declining disposable income and more cost-conscious corporate management.
"A captain lives on his tips," he said, "and every captain knows that the living is not as good as it used to be."
Jorges Marques, senior captain at the Four Seasons restaurant, also finds customers holding back when it comes to tipping. It seems to be the trend of the times, he said. And at Nobu, I'm told by one long-term waiter there, the size of the tips is off perhaps 10% to 15% in the last six months.
One veteran waiter at the Palm, one of the city's top steak houses, figures his tips this year - despite improvement in the stock market and the economy - will be roughly $5,000 to $7,000 less this year than they were a year ago. The business is still there, but not, he said, the tips, which he figures are off maybe 7% to 15% from last year. "Everyone seems to be cutting back," especially, he notes, diners in the fields of publishing, advertising, and television, such as CNN.
Another waiter at steakhouse Smith & Wollensky tells me 20% tips have been the rule for years, but that he's suddenly been seeing 15% and even 10%. "I don't get it," he said. "Maybe companies are telling people to cut down on their expense accounts."
Meanwhile, Mr. De Gobbi notes that business in the city's elite restaurants, excluding the holidays, is also not what it used to be. Competition at the high end, he said, is much fiercer.
Increasingly, he added, there are serious income-generating problems, and practically everyone is hurting to some degree. In response, he notes, restaurants are cutting their overhead, such as reducing the number of employees, and menus and some are also doing away with lunch. In the case of San Domenico, it has beefed up its business by opening Sunday for brunch and dinner.
Incidentally, our good captain is planning to write a book on his experiences. But it won't be imminent. As he puts it: "I'll have to wait for a few people to die first."