Most of us appreciate padding in one form or another. Hockey players like it in their shin guards. Flat-chested women who can't afford surgery look for it in bras. Victims of carpal tunnel syndrome depend on it to cushion sore wrists and elbows. I find padding most important on my mattress, which, next to my computer, is the single object I love most in the world.
None of us, however, enjoys padding when it takes the form of a restaurant bill.
Miami restaurants have always been known for the rook -- of tourists, of foreigners, of naive suburbanites. Hence the automatic fifteen percent gratuity charge that often appears without notice on a check. Lately, though, a couple of readers have written to let me know that restaurants have expanded their practices of bill padding.
One such reader detailed an unexpectedly expensive evening at an upscale local eatery, where he says he was, without warning, charged a $35-per-person food minimum (beverages didn't count and racked up a separate bill). This diner insists such a fee was not listed anywhere on the menu; what's more, friends who joined the party later in the evening but did not drink or eat anything also were charged 35 bucks a head. The reader wanted to know if there is a body politic in Miami that governs the business practices of restaurants.
Another reader encountered a practice I particularly hate -- pumping up the water bill -- at a well-known establishment. She and her companions, who ordered Evian over tap water, claim, "As the evening progressed, the server kept our glasses filled extremely readily -- after nearly every sip. We all drink lots of water, but we were nevertheless shocked when we received the bill to see that our water consumption totaled $48! (More than our $40 bottle of wine!) ... In most establishments the server will ask whether we want another bottle of water before serving it and adding it to our bill." This reader also queries if, given her experience, I should perhaps warn other readers.
Lack of a culinary ombudsman, such as a Better Business Bureau, that could intervene between customer and restaurateur is a disadvantage in a town that tends to take advantage. The only way to guard against being cheated is to be your own watchdog. And to do that, you might need a little inner-circle knowledge. That's why I've compiled some ways to keep your check average down and your acuity quota up:
Ask about entertainment fees. If a restaurant has any form of entertainment (and this goes for a piano bar to a house band), inquire beforehand about cover charges. Honorable establishments will be up-front about covers; likewise they're ethically if not legally required to post drink or food minimums, sharing charges, and service fees (the last of which, incidentally, you are not required to pay -- automatic gratuities should be treated as suggestions, not mandates). Really aboveboard places that put on more elaborate shows will even inform callers when they make a reservation that there's an entertainment charge. Don't count on it, though. At Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, I was never enlightened about the cover charge for watching the Polynesian hula show that, by the way, was unavoidable, given that the stage is in the middle of the dining room. In short there's usually no place to eat in a restaurant that offers live entertainment where you can escape it -- and the cover -- so ask first rather than pay later.
Control your thirst for designer water. I am the most vocal one to acknowledge that Miami has some of the lousiest-tasting H2O in the nation. It also looks unappealing, often with a brown or yellowish tinge. At home I have a water cooler, which I use for all consumption. When I go out, however, I request tap water. I simply can't stand blowing a wad of cash on something that is served for free -- it's like paying for bread (another practice that occasionally pops up). My reasoning is this: Most reputable restaurants have filters on the taps, which make the water taste better than the stuff you get from your sink at home. After all, restaurateurs and chefs do a lot more with water than simply drink it. They boil your pasta in it; they mix up sauces, doughs, and batters with it; they even use it to make ice. Don't think for one minute that a chef is about to open a bottle of Evian to add to a recipe. Hence the filter: a nice compromise. Nor should you fool yourself that the water with the designer label is any better for you (community well water is fortified with flouride and other chemicals that the body requires to keep it healthy) or that it's even what you're paying for. The media periodically run stories about "designer labels" that bottle the same foul liquid you get from a tap.
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SHOW ME HOW
Read the entire menu. When judging how expensive a restaurant is, many of us only look at entrée prices. In the general scheme of things, we think an eatery that lists main courses for between 15 and 20 bucks is within fine-dining range. Maybe it's even on the low side given the inflated prices at a lot of our so-called better places. Don't be fooled. Restaurateurs who charge $15 dollars for a main course are deviously capable of commanding nearly as much for an appetizer or dessert. I can't even count how many times I've been confronted with a dessert bill of $40 -- 10 or 12 bucks per sweet. If you've ever wondered why restaurant critics usually only sample one or two pieces of something, that's the reason: The dessert bill wreaks havoc on the budget (and yes, we do have budgets).
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.