Fake Padding

Spot a pumped-up meal a mile away

Know the true meaning of à la carte. When the server asks if you'd like the rice pilaf or the potatoes lyonnaise with your filet mignon, you'd better damn well find out if you're going to be charged separately for the starch. Steak houses in particular are infamous for pulling this kind of scam, offering side dishes as if they automatically come with a meal. Variations on the theme include asking customers if they would prefer soup or salad first. Unless the menu states that soup or salad is served complimentary, don't assume it's all part and parcel. You don't have to be gauche about requesting information, either. A simple, "Oh, I didn't realize salad came with it; that's a lot of food" should get you the right answer. That said, I can't tell you how many times I've been taken. Suffice to say I still fall for it. On a related note, always, always ask about market prices, prices per pound (as in, say, a lobster), and the prices of specials. At Ruth's Chris we were startled by a $90 lobster that quite frankly wasn't worth it, and at Blue Moon Fish Company in Fort Lauderdale, we were socked with a $45 veal chop and a $20 soufflé, both of which were specials.

Check per-glass prices against bottle prices. If you are a solitary wine drinker at the table (for whatever reason), don't automatically order a glass of wine. Do compare prices of glasses to bottles. If you're planning on drinking more than one glass at $10 a pop, you're economically better off ordering a $25 bottle of the same stuff. Even if you have some left over -- though I have strict rules against walking away from wine -- the value is in ordering a bottle.

Determine who's at fault. Who, in the end, is padding the bill? The restaurant, the server, or both? If you think the restaurant's policies are at fault, as it is with minimums and covers, address the manager. But do tip the waiter accordingly -- he's just an employee. If you believe the server has snoggled you, however, inform the manager and then deduct from the gratuity; any server who misrepresents side dishes, for example, should not be rewarded for his behavior. And don't be afraid to speak up, even if, like one reader, you don't "want to make a fuss or seem unsophisticated at a fancy place." You wouldn't pay for a dish you hadn't ordered, right? I will confess that at the erstwhile Victor's Café, my party was charged for dessert even though we hadn't ordered any because, the waiter informed us, we had sent back our food. Rather than make a scene, we paid the bill and left. Of course I had recourse -- the scathing review I wrote -- that most diners don't. Then again, complaining to the management may not have any effect if the managers and owners are the ones who have written the game plan. On the other hand, when I protested at Mai-Kai, I was charged only half the entertainment fee. But do make your objections known, keeping in mind the following: On average it costs a restaurant three times more to win a new customer than to keep an old one happy (and returning) by reducing the bill. Either way, though you may not realize it at the time, you get your due.

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