Salt Bae brags about Dh90,000 tip, but what is UAE tipping etiquette?

The National speaks to top chefs, restaurateurs and tastemakers to settle the age-old debate

Salt Bae with his signature Dh1,250 gold steak. Photo: @nusr_et / Instagram
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Salt Bae is never far from the headlines and last month the flamboyant Turkish butcher raised eyebrows once again by flaunting a Dh90,000 tip at his Dubai Nusr-Et restaurant.

“Money comes, money goes,” bragged the restaurateur on Instagram, beside an image of a Dh398,630 bill, which included Dh4,620 of baklava and Dh6,100 in steaks for a table of four.

Never one to shy away from controversy, Salt Bae – whose real name is Nusret Gokce – had no qualms about flashing the cash, but the rest of us, it seems, are more uncertain.

The culture of tipping – whether you should tip and how much you should leave – varies around the world. In a country so full of nationalities such as the UAE, this culture becomes even more complex, with huge variations across the population.

So, when should we tip, how much is enough and when should we decline? Here, The National speaks to the UAE’s top chefs, restaurateurs and tastemakers to settle the age-old debate: To tip or not to tip?

When should we tip and how much?

For some, tipping is always a no-brainer, mirroring the American ethos where diners are expected to fork out at least 20 per cent when eating out. For others, tips should be earned, and staff should be paid fairly to begin with.

American food consultant Courtney Brandt has lived in the Middle East for 17 years, and though she always tips for food delivery and services like valet and beauty, her approach to tipping in restaurants is less clear-cut.

“Because of what I do, I get most of my things complimentary,” she says. “I will still occasionally tip on comped experiences, but for the most part I look at my invitation as a whole complimentary experience.”

Last year, a survey by YouGov revealed that, after Americans, UAE consumers are the second-biggest tippers, leaving an average gratuity of 8.2 per cent.

Only 10.2 per cent of those asked in the survey said they don’t tip in restaurants, yet most gratuities are relatively small as a proportion of the bill, with 59.5 per cent leaving 10 per cent or less.

The UAE, however, is also home to the highest proportion – 5.8 per cent – of those who tip 26 per cent or more, re-emphasising the nation’s diversity in tipping etiquette.

The biggest tip that chef and restaurateur Reif Othman has received in his UAE restaurants is Dh5,000 for a table of 10, though gratuity is not frequent or expected.

“In Dubai, tipping isn't really the go-to custom for most people,” says the chef, whose restaurants include Reif Kushiyaki, Hoe Lee Kow and The Experience by Reif Othman.

“You'll find some tourists and locals who do tip, but it's not the norm. A lot of people figure with the service charge already factored in, tipping isn't necessary. It's not something we enforce, but it's definitely a nice little bonus for the team when it happens.

“Ultimately, tipping remains at the discretion of the guest, but it is generally not expected as a standard practice in the region. However, I feel when it comes to invites, people should leave at least a small tip to show their appreciation for the team and the service they have provided.”

Overall, Othman says 10 to 15 per cent is acceptable and especially encouraged in cafes or small restaurants where no service charge is applied.

This is echoed by Omar Shihab, the founder and chief sustainability officer at Dubai’s Michelin-lauded Boca, who believes 10 per cent is acceptable, rising to 15 or 20 per cent if staff have gone the extra mile.

“Tipping is important anywhere in the world,” he says. “Here in the region, people are very proud, so sometimes they might seem to refuse, but I think it's really important to tip people in the service and hospitality industries.

“I think people should tip every time a service is rendered, especially when someone has gone above and beyond.

“The biggest tip we’ve had at Boca was about 40 per cent of the final bill.”

When shouldn’t we tip?

The most common argument for not tipping is poor service, though restaurant culture in the UAE also means that gratuity can be overlooked.

“I think Dubai is quite bad at tipping,” says Ellie Keene, who is the founder of hospitality PR agency Keene PR. “Our culture is very much based on packages, whether that’s brunch, ladies’ night or a special dinner package.

“This means that you can easily forget about tipping because you’ve paid in advance or have a set amount in your mind.

“Often brunch is where staff work the hardest, making sure there’s a constant stream of food and drinks being served. Most people forget to tip at brunches, which I think is really disappointing.”

Keene tips upwards of 10 per cent and encourages influencers to tip for free meals. Her advocacy has its limits, however, and she expects good service before parting with her hard-earned cash.

“I have withheld a tip before when a server was particularly rude, or when the service charge has been added and they try and pretend it hasn’t, so you pay twice,” she says.

“I think it’s always a bit awkward when staff hover over the machine to watch if you tip or not. That’s something that should be a private choice for the guest.”

Founder of impartial restaurant review website, Samantha Wood typically tips 10 to 15 per cent of the total bill, but only if food and service impress.

“It’s a small gesture towards the long, arduous days and low-salaried roles within the service sector. With tips, salaries can often double,” she says.

“However, if the dining experience disappoints, which it sometimes does, then I definitely don’t tip. Why reward a bad meal or service?”

A survey conducted by UAE food community and Facebook group Best Bites and commissioned by The National, this week found that many of us have the same approach to experience-led tipping.

From about 450 consumers questioned, 60 per cent said the amount they tip depends on the level of service, while 9 per cent said they only tip if service is “over and above”.

From the group, 22 per cent said they routinely tip 10 per cent; 3 per cent tip 15 per cent; and 2 per cent tip 20 per cent. Only 4 per cent said they don’t tip at all.

“People routinely tip 10 per cent, but most will only tip if service warrants it,” says Rachael Partington, founder and chief executive of Best Bites.

“Another key takeaway is that tipping is a problem when food is being delivered, since so rarely do we carry cash in small notes these days.”

What is service charge and who gets it?

Often service charges are added to high-end restaurant bills, with Salt Bae charging an inclusive 7 per cent at Nusr-Et.

This leads most diners to believe that the tip is taken care of, which is not always the case.

“It’s important first to flag that tipping and service charge – the latter often seen on restaurant bills – are two different practices,” says Wood.

“The challenge we have is that the average diner is largely unaware and lumps these two components together.

“Not all restaurants will add these dirhams to staff salaries or distribute in cash. So unless we tip, employees don’t often benefit. My advice is to ask the waiter what happens to the service charge, to help decide on tipping.”

What is good tipping etiquette?

Modern Etiquette Consultancy coach Samira Hammadi has seen tipping trends evolve in the UAE from a spontaneous gesture to being somewhat expected – she encourages all satisfied diners to leave a token of their appreciation.

During the Abu Dhabi Formula One weekend, she reports that one customer tipped Dh82,000 at Yas Marina's Ishtar restaurant, though says 10 to 15 per cent is culturally acceptable.

“The unwritten guide for tipping in restaurants is between 10 to 15 per cent of the total bill,” she says.

“Customers have the flexibility to adjust the percentage, however, based on the quality of service and their level of satisfaction.”

Despite being a welcome custom, Hammadi believes not every occasion calls for generosity.

“While tipping is genuinely admired, customers should not feel pressured to tip in every situation,” she says. “It is encouraged when the customer is satisfied with the service provided.

“A tip should be withheld if the service delivered falls short of the customer's satisfaction, such as instances of rudeness or a lack of effort from the staff.”

Updated: February 10, 2024, 2:42 PM