Taking a tip from Paris

“Bonjour,” said one of the three waiters hanging around the front door. Two were paying attention and the other one was smoking. The world over, there are good waiters and there are not so good ones. And that goes double for bartenders.

“Entre-vous s’il vous plais,” he said, holding open the front door with one hand while pushing the plastic curtains aside with the other.

It sounds like a simple operation until you realize that this restaurant is located smack dab in the middle of the world famous Champs-Elysees, the fabulous avenue that runs 1.2 miles from the Arc de Triomphe to l’Obelisque in Paris, and is one of the busiest, trendiest places on the planet.

My waiter pulled out the small round table and implored me to sit, facing out of course, before sliding the table back in and busily setting the table with all the accoutrements necessary to dine. I imagined his name to be Claude or Jacques or Francois, something typically French. After leaving my steaming café au lait on the table he was off to do the same for another customer whom he also intercepted at the front door.

Part of the restaurant exists as an island entity in the middle of the sidewalk, and the other part sits back along with the rest of the shops — Cartiers, Peugeot, Chanel, et al.

You haven’t lived until you’ve watched a waiter weave in and out of the unbelievable pedestrian traffic on the Champs-Elysees carrying trays of drinks and food. Picture “Flight of the Bumblebee” in white aprons and black vests. Luckily pedestrians in Paris move differently than pedestrians do in the Bay Area. When your profession involves observing human behavior for subtle clues — a glance at an empty glass, a proffered credit card — you notice things. Like how two Parisians will approach each other on a busy street, each making a dozen or so tiny adjustments to make sure that they don’t run into each other.

Nobody in Paris walks out into traffic while on his cellphone or marches down the middle of the street carrying a giant bag and expecting the rest of the world to get out of her way. And trust me, they have giant bags in Paris; giant, trendy, and incredibly fabulous bags.

In and among these bags and the people who wield them wove the waiters at George V. Café au lait over there, chocolat chaud over there. Vit, vit, vit — quick, quick, quick — is the motto there. In Paris the gratuity is automatically included and it is reflected in the service. The more people they wait on, the more money they make. No matter what.

There is a debate going in the United States about discontinuing the practice of tipping, and after visiting Paris I am all for it. When the gratuity is included it changes everything. Now granted, I was only in Paris for a week, but I ate out every single meal and I was there to observe. My observation was that when service is included it removes the squeaky wheel factor. A waiter or a bartender (or a car salesman, Realtor, etc.) is only going to spend so much extra time dealing with problem individuals, because frankly, they don’t have to. A server in Paris could drop a tray of drinks on someone and he’s still going to get his 15 percent — it’s the law. So if they don’t refill your water fast enough, or take too long with your coffee, or don’t laugh heartily enough at your jokes, they are still getting their full pay.

The thing is that the service in nice places is still quite good. Good business is good business, period. Including the gratuity doesn’t change that. But what doesn’t happen is the obsequious sucking up type of service that so many people are coming to expect here. People get what they get and they seem to be quite happy with it. Paris is known for its busy cafes and restaurants after all. Including the service hasn’t changed that. I imagine the same will happen here, too, eventually, but only time will tell. Meanwhile at Charles V life will go on, vit, vit, vit.

When I left I slipped Jacques-Claude-Francois an extra 5 euros; good service will always warrant extra.

“What is your name?” I asked, needing to know.

“Mon nom est Todd.”

Reminding me that sometimes what we want, and what actually is, are entirely different things.