Michael Bauer, the restaurant critic for the SF Chronicle, brought up the subject of service charges at restaurants on his blog. Tipping, whether you like it or not, is still the standard in the US and diners are used to it. Up until recently, the only time that a service charge was included on the bill in lieu of a tip was when you had a very large party out for dinner. Some restaurants, notably higher-end places like Chez Panisse and Per Se, have flat-rate service charged tacked on to the bill regardless of how many diners are in your party, streamlining the process for those footing the bill and giving the restaurant staff an ample enough fee that some of that charge can be diverted to "tip" the back of the house staff.
More recently, in a strange hybrid between the two styles of gratuity payment, at least one restaurant has begun to add on a service charge to cover the back of the house, while expecting customers to tip the waitstaff. Incanto, in San Francisco, is the example that Bauer pointed to. He noticed that they added a 5% service charge to his bill with no explanation. When he asked his waiter, he was told that it was supposed to be in addition to the normal tip, although some customers deducted it from what they would usually leave. Clearly, having both additional fees wasn't working out well for the front of the house staff even if it did benefit those in the kitchen.
As Bauer points out, it sounds like we may be reaching a turning point in this country when it comes to tipping. He says he is "beginning to edge closer to the opinion that maybe an automatic service charge should be applied, or that prices of the menu should fully compensate the staff." It certainly sounds like a reasonable solution.