Tricks restaurants use to get you to spend more
Getting a bill at the end of your meal can sometimes provide a bit of a shock, but how much of this is your doing and how much is down to some underhand action by the restaurant?
Quite often, the moment when the bill arrives can be an awkward one; we aren't all made of money, after all, and particularly when someone else has been ordering the wine or you've perhaps had a couple too many shandies and ordered too much food, the surprise can be a nasty one.
Frequently, though, this isn't your fault - restaurants have a number of ways of coaxing more money out of you through some obvious and some less obvious means. Here are our top ways to avoid a hiccup at the end of your meal.
Order small plates carefully
Small plates are de rigueur these days. Frequently though, they can be a right old con and confusing to boot. Your secret to avoiding a large bill is being straight with your waiting staff - indicate how much food you like, how hungry you are and ask them what they would order. You'll get a good head's up if you get them onside. Small plates, medium plates and big plates are often found in fashionable locales where the food is sometimes style over substance - a blob of this or a couple of slices of that - I ate in a restaurant last week that even classed a bowl of olives as a 'small plate' worth £3.50.
Drink wine you can afford
While the sommelier may be your friend when it comes to choosing your booze, your waiter can often be your enemy. The sommelier's job is to choose the right wines to match your food and equally importantly, your budget. A waiter won't necessarily know much about the wine and may try a hard up-sell. A common trick is for the staff to hint that the wine you want is out of stock and will suggest an alternative for you, often at a much higher price, and rely on the fact you'll often be too embarrassed to say no. Well - hold your ground and tell them your budget. The simplest way round this is simply say "What else can you recommend around the same price range?" when told the wine you want is out. That way, everyone is clear.
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Order what you want to, not what you're told to
"A glass of champagne before your meal, sir, for you and the lady?" And you're trapped - you don't want to look cheap so you agree and before you know it two glasses of fizz are on your table and the best part of 25 quid is on your bill. Suggest a cocktail, or indicate that actually, you really fancy a glass of wine or a beer - it's what you want that counts.
Drink tap water
Water is free - just about. It certainly should be in restaurants; asking for tap water has become far more acceptable these days (and frequently tap actually tastes better than some mineral varieties that seem utterly devoid of flavour), but this wasn't always the case - and still isn't in high-end restaurants. Certain spots in London are charging up to £6 for a bottle of still or sparkling. Do not, under any circumstances, feel obliged to drink mineral water. The discerning palate appreciates tap as much as anything else.
Make a booking
The no-reservations policy works well for restaurants in busy areas (London's Soho is now packed with them) - it makes them look popular but also keeps you in the joint buying drinks while you wait for your table. You'll probably have spent £20 before you've even sat down. The same goes for the old "your table isn't quite ready sir, would you like to have a drink at the bar?" trick. You'll notch up a few quid on cocktails, which isn't half bad for the restaurant.
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Avoid sneaky supplements on set price menus
A set price menu often looks appealing - I've eaten in some restaurants where the set is actually better than the à la carte. But the latest trick restaurants are using is to encourage you there with a "3 courses for £25" deal and then slapping on a supplement here and a supplement there. Indeed, I've seen menus recently where there hasn't been a single dish without a supplement present.
Watch out for compulsory service charges
Service charges can be up to 15%, are often more for a 'group booking of more than six people' and are, in effect, now compulsory. The rewards culture that exists in America has somehow disappeared over here and unscrupulous restaurateurs often make up staff wages with tips. Yianni Papoutsis, founder of the Meatwagon , #Meateasy and most recently Meatliquor , his new bricks and mortar homage to US diner culture, doesn't put service charges on his bills but sees it from both sides.
"Personally, I can't stand service charges. I do, however, understand why so many restaurants feel obliged to impose them on their customers, particularly in the UK. We're very happy to complain and moan about bad service, but there's very few people who will tip properly for good service. You can't have your cake and eat it."
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...And cover charges
Another added extra is the 'cover charge'. Essentially, you're paying for bread and butter - and in some cases, a little more. Food bloggers TheCriticalCouple note "one Mayfair restaurant charged us a £2 per person cover charge which they claimed was for 'bread and napkins' though we had not asked for, or even nibbled on the bread. On querying this explanation, the waitress also suggested it was a 'British tradition' before settling on 'company policy'. They finally, and reluctantly, removed the charge on our insistence. For a restaurant that was charging £10 for our pre-dinner gin and tonic, such an extra on the bill in our view bordered on petty theft."
"There are clumsy ways [of boosting sales] adopted by restaurants like a famous Italian place in Soho which charges you for balsamic vinegar," says Iqbal Wahhab, founder of Borough Market's Roast restaurant . If a restaurant needs to charge you for bread, it's time to find somewhere else to have you dinner.
Vote with your feet and your fingers
I turned to my great friend and one half of London's most feared restaurant critics Dos Hermanos , Simon Majumdar about this subject. Having succeeded in the world of food writing with his book Eat My Globe, Simon is now a judge on America's Next Iron Chef.
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