Going out for meal at a restaurant is all about treating yourself - letting your belt out rather than tightening it. But none of us can afford to be careless about what we spend these days. Even when we’re eating out, we usually pay much closer attention to the price than we used to.
So it’s particularly galling to find, when we get the bill, that those carefully researched prices have been dramatically inflated through underhand means.
Andrew Shanahan, a freelance food writer, says: “The various tricks and ruses used by the industry to fleece punters are legendary – there’s a good reason for the culinary setting for the phrase ‘cooking the books’.”
Can I take your order?
This sleight of hand often starts the second you sit down, with a ‘cover charge’ of as much as £2.50 a head.
Sejal Sukhadwala, a food writer for titles including Time Out and The Good Food Guide from Which?, says: “Restaurants often give you food and drinks at the start of a meal, which you might innocently assume to be a freebie.
"So when the bill arrives, it can be a shock to discover that these items are included under the cover charge.”
Sukhadwala adds that you also need to be aware of waiters pushing pre-dinner cocktails, which could be far pricier than you’d think.
The next stumbling block is the menu, which is designed to make you choose dishes with the highest profit margin for the restaurant. US menu designer William Doerfler says that, on a four-page menu, the “power position” is on the inside right, just above the centre.
Complex menus with lots of sub-sections will generally sell more of those items that come first or last in any section, so restaurants will place the highest margin items here. Simple menus with just one list of main courses tend to sell most of whatever is third on the list, so that will be the highest margin dish.
Restaurants also make it difficult to compare menu prices. Instead of lining all the prices up in a column on the right, they often put them at the end of each description, in the same size and type of font, and without a pound sign.
The wine list
The wine list is an even more dangerous place to visit. Shanahan says: “Restaurants make most of their profits on drinks. A sommelier once told me that the wine with the highest mark-up is usually the second cheapest on the list. This is because no one wants to order the cheapest wine, so customers usually go for the second-cheapest. It’s amazing how often that’s true.”
Even if you beat the menu, danger lurks when you order your meal, as many waiters use ‘up-selling’. They may, for example, recommend a more expensive bottle of wine by saying it goes better with the food you’ve chosen, or push side dishes by recommending you have a particular one with your order.
Many diners don’t check the price before deciding whether or not to take this advice and can be stunned when they find six broccoli florets have set them back £4.
Waiters will also quibble over water. If you order a glass of water many will ask whether you want still or sparkling, leaving you to correct them if you simply want tap water, and hoping you’ll be too embarrassed to do so. And even if you do ask for tap water, a number of restaurants actually charge for providing it.
Finally, many restaurants automatically add an ‘optional’ service charge to the bill. And, to add insult to injury, even after you’ve paid this, some then leave a space on the bill – or give you the option on the chip-and-pin machine – to add a service charge, hoping it will trick you into double-tipping.
In addition to all these nasties, restaurants have started cutting corners, so you end up paying the same for less. This means that although the meal doesn’t cost you any extra, it can still be a disappointing experience.
Sukhadwala says: “I feel that the quality of food in London restaurants has declined dramatically in the last eight months or so. I don’t know whether this is to do with the economic downturn and the higher cost of ingredients, but the food even in well-known restaurants is frequently disappointing - and many dishes are downright horrendous.”
So what can you do?
Your best defence is to know what to watch out for. For example, if you’re unsure whether main courses come with side dishes of vegetables or these have to be ordered separately, don’t be afraid to ask before you sit down - and if you don’t want to embarrass your guests, phone ahead.
Don’t be bullied or bamboozled by waiters, ask for tap water without shame, and if you’re not happy with any part of your meal, speak up and make sure you get what you pay for.