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damage control

The question

I wonder if you could help my wife and I deal with an issue that threatens to adversely affect some of our friendships. It goes like this: Couple A will be celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, and will invite us, along with couples C and D, to dine together at a restaurant. There has been no prior discussion among the parties of the pertinent details, as in "Why don't we all go out for dinner together, what do you think of …?" A lovely time is had by all, but then: Separate bills! We have hosted a number of such evenings, and always pay the whole shot, so are totally gobsmacked when we are expected to ante up. Needless to say, affordability is not an issue. On the last occasion, when the invitation was extended, I had the temerity to ask if our hosts were treating. The resultant chill almost gave me frostbite! So who is out of touch here? Are our expectations unrealistic, or are our hosts being cheap as well as ungracious?

The answer

First of all, if "affordability is not an issue," as Sollozzo says in The Godfather when Vito Corleone calls $1,000,000 "financing": "Te salut, Don Corleone."

"Affordability" has been an issue my entire adult life.

Of just about any phenomenon that crosses my path, from tuition to dog food to renting a jet-ski, inevitably my first thought is: "Can I afford this?"

Usually followed by agonized soul-searching: "Oh my God how will I be able to afford this?"

Restaurants have always been a bête noire of mine, because I always feel ripped off in them. So, you're going to dredge a piece of veal in flour, fry it in butter, squeeze a little lemon on it, proclaim it a "piccata," nestle some undercooked vegetables next to it and suddenly it's $34? I could do that at home in 10 minutes for next to nothing and the wine would cost me a third what it costs in the restaurant.

Of course then you'd have to do the dishes, but I digress.

I've had agonizing experiences along the lines of what you're talking about. I remember as a penniless starting-out writer, going to an oyster bar, everyone festively celebrating someone's birthday with oysters and martinis. Not wanting to participate in the bill, I sat the whole time with a glass of water – only to have one of the birthday boy's lieutenants pick up the whole tab at the end! It was a knife in my heart. I love oysters. And don't even get me started on martinis.

It's always made a big impression on me when people pick up the tab for a table full of people. It is a gesture I would call "grandiloquent." I might not even like the person, then suddenly at the end of the evening they're waving around a credit card and my whole night turns out to be free. And from that point on, if someone were to say something bad about that person, I'd take a swing at them.

So first of all, hat's off to you for picking up the restaurant tab for a giant table of people. If indeed affordability is not an issue, I think it's a great way of spending your money, earns you hell's own amount of drag with the people around you.

In my view it is not only generous and festive, but no less than a life-affirming gesture. And I love it when people do it. As Woody Allen says in Anything Else: "Never trust people who fumble for the check … Trust me, if you want to pick up the tab, you will."

And that's always been my experience. If you really want to pick up the tab, it's amazing how soft the resistance is.

But if the idea is to split the bill, then split the bill. What's money? You yourself said a) "affordability is not an issue" and b) "a lovely time is had by all."

Life is short. Or long, depending on how you look at it. But I'm inclined to agree with Samuel Beckett vis-à-vis the brevity of our sojourn on this Earth: "They give birth astride of a grave. The light gleams an instant then it's night once more."

So, are we really going to sweat who picks up restaurant tabs when affordability is not an issue? If it were an issue, I might be giving different advice, but in this case, I'd say don't sweat a bit, pony up your share and have fun with your friends.

Maybe when you throw one of these things, you can hit them with a little tit-for-tat action and not pick up the tab – but as I say, it's an excellent gesture and I'd hate to see it go.