Last night I had dinner with four adults. One couple and one woman were accompanied by their babies (both well under the age of two). We were at a popular restaurant, but arrived at 6:30 when it was still empty. Over the course of two hours, we ordered appetizers, main courses, and dessert. We also ordered two bottles of wine.
During that time, the server was so-so in his attention to us. Our salad forks were cleared and no new ones were brought with our main dishes. When we asked for some additional items (another fork, salt, a fresh napkin), another server was short with us and exasperatedly asked, "Is there anything else?" After we finished our first bottle of wine, the servers cleared empty wine glasses rather than ask if we wanted more wine. They seemed irritated with us, as if they were trying to get us out the door as quickly as possible.
So, when the bill finally comes, our server puts it on the table and says, "The tip is included for parties of six or more."
I rarely mind when the tip is included for large parties, because I know they can be difficult. But usually the service that accompanies the included tip is well earned. I'm not sure that was the case last night. On top of it, we were a party of five adults. As I don't usually dine with infants, I'm not sure if it's common to include them in the count. But saying we were a party of seven seems like a stretch. Though I suppose we weren't a usually party of five either.
It felt like the server invoked the "six or more" rule because he found our table difficult and wanted to be sure of a large tip. We paid and left, but not before my friend (who herself had worked as a server for many years) left a note on the check saying the food was great but the service was bad.
So what I want to know is, is this common? Do babies count? Was the server in the right to invoke the large-party-tip-included rule? Or should we have protested? Or is this one of those nebulous areas of American tipping custom that make the whole process so frustrating you wish service were just included in the bill?