Sunday, January 29, 2006

Stealth charges

Recently Frank Bruni had a piece in the Dining section about "stealth charges" at New York City restaurants. As I don't eat in real restaurants terribly often, I didn't think I'd have much to say on the matter. "Tap" versus "bottled" is pretty standard, and while it has the sad effect of making even a splurge-ready diner feel cheap, it is a situation where you have a choice. And choosing tap suggests a certain degree of sanity and down-to-earth tendencies, and so may well make a diner seem more reasonable in the eyes of the waiter. Surcharges for certain items on a fixed-price menu, the addition of extra courses, overpriced vegetable dishes--I don't think any of this is new, nor do I think it's unique to classy sorts of places. Ever had a Chinese restaurant's lunch special? Inevitably one dish is a bit more than the rest. And finally if a restaurant's wine is too expensive, fewer people will order wine. That is the definition of "too expensive" in a capitalist economy. All of these "stealth" methods strike me as quite reasonable from both the restaurants' and the consumers' perspective. Charge what you can for different things, and give diners as much choice as possible as to what they eat and pay for.

There is one technique, however, which is ridiculous and which, as someone who must simply radiate NYC restaurant-and-bar naivete (note to self: stop wearing middle-American university sweatshirts), I end up subject to a whole lot: the phenomenon of, "the menu says one thing, but the real price is whatever I say it is." It defies all logic, the waiter or bartender is clearly in the wrong, and yet at many places, the following sort of interaction is apparently acceptable:

A couple months ago, I was at the local Prospect Heights hipster-bar, where there was a sign that beer was something like $3 during happy hour. My friend and I went in and ordered beer. The one I ordered, I learned only once it had already been poured, was actually over twice as expensive. There was no way I'd have known this, no signs indicating anything other than $3 pints, and there was plenty of reason to believe that I or anyone else living in the area might have, say, not ordered that particular beer had we known. The reason given by the bartender, who admitted that there was no way I'd have known this? The keg was really expensive. Oh well.

Then recently at a French cafe on the Upper East Side, the same thing happened. A dessert listed as $5 on the menu was over $10 on the bill. When confronted, the waiter denied that the item was $5. Then another waiter, overhearing the problem, offered by way of explanation that, yes, the dessert was listed as $5 on the menu, but the larger amount is what it really is, it just hasn't been changed on the menus yet. Again, wouldn't have ordered it had we known. As my dining companion pointed out (not sure if this is something he'd want credit for, so no name given), the waiter could have told us that the "real" price was $1 million. What was stopping him?

Dining out or going to a bar is a social activity. What stops most people from being rude to an inept waiter or leaving a crummy tip isn't humanitarianism but a desire not to look like an ass in front of one's dining companions. Restaurants and bars have picked up on this. By demanding a price noticeably higher than the one listed, establishments turn the customer wishing to pay the list amount plus tax and tip into a miser, into one of those lame people who makes a fuss. Enough people fear being 'that guy' that restaurants and bars could presumably pull something like this for every, say, five people (so as not to make it too obvious) and let their earnings increase trememdously.


Anonymous said...

Over here if they don't charge the price on the menu they can get done by the regulatory bodies for false advertising etc.

Petey said...

Sheep deserve to be sheared.

After receiving your two beers and the lame explanation, you should have put $6 down on the bar with no tip, politely said thank you, and walked away.

There is a distinction between being an annoying pedant disputing a penny's error on the bill, and being firm about being treated properly.

Polite society frowns on the former, but smiles on the latter.

Weak people who don't understand the distinction deserve to be conned.

And finally:

"What stops most people from being rude to an inept waiter or leaving a crummy tip isn't humanitarianism but a desire not to look like an ass in front of one's dining companions."

Gentle men and gentle ladies act identically whether they are dining alone or dining with companions.