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
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
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