The question of “Who pays?” or, “Who gets the bill?” from the waitstaff’s perspective has an interesting and varied answer, and examines an “old” social code. However, the very short answer is the host “gets and pays the bill.”
In casual dining places in the US, the server will most likely establish how the bill/bills are to be distributed from the beginning of service, when taking the order. If the server does not ask who gets the bill, it will be placed on the table, usually in the middle, at the end of the meal, and the host will take it. Otherwise a friendly battle ensues.
In the highest-end restaurants, the answer remains the same; the host gets the bill—but, who is the host?
The finest restaurants train their staff to determine the host either by the name of the reservation, who ordered the wine, who acts like the host—who says, “after you”, or “you first, please.” If it is still unclear, the waitstaff will “drop the bill” with finesse at the end of service, placing the bill at the end of the table.
The old social code of the gentleman pays the bill, is out-dated and gone. Abiding by this old-fashioned thinking can be offensive and could create an awkward situation.
An interesting added element to this conundrum is when to ‘drop the bill’? Once the host has been established, when is the bill presented? In casual dining places, the bill comes at the end of the meal.
Interestingly, luxury environments vary by location. In the US, “dropping the bill” is considered part of the service and is presented with the first dessert—to ensure a guest will not have to ask for the bill. In the UK and on the Continent, it is the opposite—never wanting to appear pushy, the waitstaff will not present the bill until the guest requests it.
So how to avoid any potentially awkward situations? Quietly inform the waitstaff who will serve as host upon arrival.