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Auditor D. Thomas asks:
Why on earth is the dinner bill called a restaurant check instead of just the bill? “Check please!”
Whether you ask your server, “Please check!” or telling your dinner partners you’re going to “take the check,” the term has become so common in our lexicon that it’s easy to miss it’s a confusing choice compared to the more literal term “bill.”
One of the earliest known references to the use of the “cheque” in restaurants dates to the 1869 novel “Patience Strong’s Outings” by Adeline Dutton Train Whitney, which includes the phrase “I left her to settle for checks from the having dinner”.
There are other references to restaurant checks throughout the 19th century, including an 1870 New York Daily Herald article that read “waiter leaves check for $1.45 on table” and a newspaper clipping of 1883 from the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, which includes the phrase “Check, please!”
One of the entries for “verify” in the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “A means of ensuring accuracy, correctness, security against fraud, etc. which is what experts agree about how the term “verify” was originally used.
“The conventional wisdom is that the check (an Americanism) dates from the mid-19th century and was used because the bill was used to verify which dishes were billed,” explained Andrew Haley, associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi and author of the book “Turning the Tables”. “Everything was a la carte in 19th century restaurants and customers ordered a lot of dishes.”
“The Back of the House,” a book about New York’s Commodore Hotel published in 1925, sheds light on how the checkout process worked in restaurants at that time, said Rebecca Spang, a history professor at the Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of “The Invention of the Restaurant.
“It details that restaurant customer orders are taken ‘on a restaurant check by a waiter,'” Spang said via email. “The server receives the order, goes to the kitchen to collect the required items, then (my favorite bit) stops at the ‘checker’s counter for inspection’ – if the ‘checker’ finds he got all the right things, he’s ready to go back to the dining room!
Thus, the term “cheque” is not tied to concepts like a checkbook or the public treasury, as one might expect, Spang said. (In medieval England, an exchequer was a department or office responsible for collecting royal revenues.)
The check helped keep everyone honest because there was a culture of distrust of restaurants in the 19th century and early 20th century, according to Haley.
“Diners didn’t trust their servers, and servers didn’t trust management, and management didn’t trust servers or diners that much,” he said. “Everyone thought someone was trying to pull some kind of rapid on them.”
Haley explained how restoration operations at the time fueled those suspicions. Well-heeled restaurants in the 19th century didn’t have the plated dinners we have now, which come with, say, vegetables, a starch, and a protein.
Back then, depending on how long you were there and how fancy the dinner was, there could be three to seven courses or even more, Haley said.
If you look at the history of menus in the United States, they were much bigger than they are now.
“There was a lot of food coming and going, and that created opportunities for abuse,” Haley said. “Servers could slip additional fees. If, at the end of the day, you ordered dozens of dishes, someone might not notice if there was an extra plate of corn or peas that had been served.
To hold everyone accountable at some restaurants, checks would be placed in front of you on the table, where you could see exactly what you were charged for, Haley said.
He explained how a scam could have worked: “The waiter adds items to the bill, and the waiter – or maybe a butler who is in cahoots – collects the payment. But they only give the restaurant the cost of the food actually ordered, and they pocket the extra.
However, Haley said, some customers were suspicious not because of violations, but because they had biases.
“The servers were part strangers and part people who had expertise that you — who might be upper class — didn’t have,” he said.
At establishments in New York and other East Coast locales, you might have French, Swiss, or Italian servers, Haley noted. In Chicago you might have African American servers, and on the West Coast you might have been served by Chinese immigrants.
“So right away the relationship is strained,” Haley said.
Restaurants that catered to the masses in the 19th century were chaotic spaces that received a rush of business during lunchtime, Haley said, so errors in adding up the order could also occur.
Management was also concerned that servers were cheating their employer by being overly generous with customers.
“Waiters might give out freebies to try to encourage a higher tip. Tipping wasn’t a percentage in those days, so there was no incentive to raise the cost of the bill,” Haley said.
Then there was also the potential for fraud by customers. The Pittsburg Post noted in 1901 that some customers were ordering separate items from another part of the restaurant. They collected two “cheques” detailing the food they consumed, but presented only one when paying.
The restaurants were so worried about the scams that they “regularly put warnings on their menus in a way that we would find extraordinarily rude, asking their customers to beware of the cheating that was going on,” Haley said.
Haley pointed to a 1914 menu from a New York restaurant called Riggs which states, “Place a check on the table immediately in front of each customer, as you serve the order, and if the customer puts it in his pocket, ask please leave him in sight.
Haley observed that the verification process has influenced the way we dine today in that we get our receipt before we pay so we can verify what we ordered.
Yet we take it for granted that other companies do not follow the same practice.
“If you go to a store and buy a bunch of shirts, you take them to the cash register, they call them in front of you,” Haley said. “You don’t see the bill until you pay. You give them the money, then you see the list of items you bought on a receipt.
Special thanks for the research contributions of Gerald Cohen, professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology; Pierre Reitan, pop culture history researcher; and Barry Popik, writer, lexicographer and food historian.
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