Dining out can be a lovely occasion, and the temptation to overspend is very great, because extravagance lends a sense of occasion to the meal. Restaurants do what they can to maximize the profits; they're businesses, after all. The reality for most of us, sadly, is that budgets are a way of life. Getting a nasty surprise on a little piece of paper at the end of a meal can ruin the occasion and generate ill will toward the restaurant. Restaurants would do well to remember that while raves about a restaurant are positive, rants against a restaurant stick far better in potential customers' minds.
Here are five restaurant "profit maximization" strategies we wish would shrivel up and die.
The Missing Alternative: Generally (but not strictly) confined to fast-food restaurants and ubiquitous chain coffeeshops, this is the practice of giving you choices but leaving off the cheapest or smallest choice. When you go to Carl's Jr., you'll be asked if you want your combo medium or large. Most people, figuring that those are the only two choices and wanting the smallest option, choose medium, only to find a 40¢ upcharge. At Starbucks, there are not three sizes of hot drink but four; short, tall, grande and pint-of-milk-with-two-shots-of-coffee. Guess which one is the off-menu selection?
The Great Water Ripoff: A subset of the Missing Alternative, this is generally (but not strictly) confined to fine-dining restaurants. "Sparkling or still?" the server asks as you order water, failing to mention that either option will add between $3 and $10 per bottle to your bill. It's even worse when you respond, "Tap will be fine," and the server sneers visibly. From the TAP will be fine, thank you, feel free to bring the HOSE in here and fill up a freaking TROUGH so we can stick our snouts in and get our fill. There is hope for this, though: at a recent dinner at Ciudad in downtown Los Angeles, there was a 50¢ per person charge for unlimited sparkling or still water, which they get through a fairly expensive filtration and carbonation system. Restaurants are entitled to recoup costs; they are not entitled to rip people off, which brings us to... The Bottomless Wine Bottle: It seems to be a rule that the more expensive the bottle (wine or water, it matters not), the more eager the waitstaff are to pour it and open another one. This puts the host or hostess in an awkward position: get everyone drunk and spend more than expected, or say "no" to the new bottle and appear parsimonious? Restaurant charges for wine are often 250% or more of the retail price you'd pay at a store. The way to avoid it? Let the server pour the first glasses and then take it upon yourself to do the pouring and ordering.
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The Salad Add-On: "And would you like soup or salad with that?" Given the excruciating markups on what ends up being a pile of yuppie weeds with some dressing drizzled on it, this can add quite a bit to your bill, which is exactly what restaurant management wants. Don't be too shy to ask whether it comes with the meal, and if you get a disingenuous answer like, "No, sir, we'll bring it before the main course," feel free to roll your eyes and give the server the patient stare you use on your four-year-old. Be aware that this particular rip-off happens with à la carte sides, as well.
The Mysterious Special: The recitation of the daily specials is one of the best parts of the special-occasion dining experience, but there's been a trend toward not mentioning the prices. This is fine when the specials' prices are in line with the menu, but when you've got a menu full of $20 plates and your special is $34, it comes as a nasty surprise. The lesson here is to ask, especially if the special contains delicacies such as truffles or shark's fin (which is a whole separate discussion).