Of all the aspects of the restaurant experience, paying the bill is probably the least fun. Aside from the whole how-to-split-a-check quandary, there's also a chance for an establishment to be totally obnoxious. Whether it's the display of Cartier and Waterford pens presented to diners to sign their checks at the famously grandiose (and now closed) Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, or an illegibly scrawled bill at Mara's Homemade in New York City's East Village where—I kid you not—the gratuity was purposely written in the middle of the list of food and drink so that diners not paying close attention would add an additional tip at the end. Yes, restaurants can behave badly.
That's why it's nice when management makes an effort to jazz up what's usually a pretty mundane process. One of my favorites is at The Mermaid Inn in the East Village, where servers present a "Fortune Teller Fish" along with the check: You put the red plastic fish in your palm and based on its movements, the fish will tell you if you're passionate, fickle, or jealous. (Because, you know, a plastic fish can sense these things.)
Half the reason I go to Landmarc in Tribeca—and skip dessert—is because of the scrumptious homemade caramels that come with the bill. And there are a bunch of other New York City eateries that give you a little extra something to play with along with the check, from the sketchbooks at The Little Owl (if only to see what Steven Spielberg wrote when he stopped by) to the mini wrestling rings at La Lucha.
In any case, in today's economy—and with diners having lots of choices when it comes to spending their money—it's wise of restaurants to focus on the little things. Because a caramel here and there can go a long way.