Angelenos have a reputation as lousy tippers. But while they still aren't coughing up as much as New Yorkers, L.A. restaurant goers appear to be getting more generous.

Based on the 2000 Zagat Los Angeles/Southern California Survey, which hits book shelves this week, 37 percent of 7,040 L.A. survey respondents said they tip 20 percent or more. That's up from 30 percent of those claiming to tip that high in 1996.

A scant 1 percent of respondents said they tipped less than 15 percent. The average tip in Los Angeles is 17.4 percent, according to the survey.

Waiters are more than a little skeptical.

"That's absurd," said Stirling Bradley, a waiter at Atlantic on Beverly Boulevard near Crescent Heights. "I wish that were the case."

Bradley estimates that 20 percent of customers tip below 15 percent, 70 percent between 15 and 19 percent, and only 10 percent tip 20 percent or more. While the economy has opened up a few more wallets, Bradley said low tipping "has been my experience across the board."

The Zagat survey is based on responses from diners though, not waiters. And L.A. diners say they're tipping more even as the average restaurant bill rises.

Eating out in Los Angeles now runs an average of $26.28 per meal, up almost $1.50, or 6 percent, from last year. That's one of the largest increases in cities tracked by Zagat, according to spokesman Allan Ripp.

Higher checks don't mean restaurants are raising their prices, Ripp said; it's a reflection of L.A. diners ordering more, or going to more expensive restaurants. "The fact that spending has been rising means that the strength of the economy continues," Ripp said.

While the cost of dining in L.A. rose significantly, New York remains the most expensive restaurant city, costing about $33 per meal. San Francisco ranks second, at $30.12.

And people in those cities are still better tippers than Angelenos.

More than 40 percent of respondents in New York and San Francisco claim to tip 20 percent or more, especially in formal restaurants, Ripp said.

Higher tips are no surprise to restaurant critic and radio host Merrill Shindler, who co-edited the survey. He cites a new appreciation for the premium, yet laid-back, service in Los Angeles restaurants.

"The style has long been generated by Spago and Michael's, where the service is friendly and chatty and comfortably dressed," he said. "(The servers) are also knowledgeable. They taste the wine, they taste the food. They try to make it an enjoyable, relaxed experience, instead of making you feel like you have to try to impress the waiter by not picking up the wrong fork."

Even so, the survey shows that Angelenos are more likely to be unhappy with restaurant service than people in the rest of the country. In L.A., 76 percent of survey respondents said service was their No. 1 complaint when dining out, compared to an average of 62 percent nationwide.

With all the variables involved in restaurant service from making reservations to the actual serving and preparation Shindler said service is the easiest place to find a problem. "It's eternally the No. 1 complaint," he added.

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