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Free Tap Water in Restaurants [moved from California board]

Had an interesting experience at Pelly's Fish Restaurant in Carlsbad yesterday. I asked for a glass of tap water and was told by the cashier that they didn't offer water from the tap, but that I could buy it. I thought there was a law that required restaurants to offer tap water. I mean, they clean their dishes with it. I'm not a cheapy, I just don't mind drinking filtered water sometimes and that's what I wanted with my lunch.
Does anyone know if reestaurants are obligated to offer water? When I looked around I saw lots of bottled water at tables.

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  1. I'm pretty sure they have to furnish water if you ask. Even Micky D's and Colonel Sanders will provide a free cup, and you know they wouldn't if they didn't have to. If you had asked for the manager, I'm sure he or she would've set the cashier straight.
    . . . jim strain

    1. That you could pay for a glass of tap water?

      1. They are, I would think, free to do this. I thought this was sometimes the practice in drought-stricken areas under water restrictions (washing water can be recycled, IIRC). That said, it is not the practice even in my area with the most expensive water in the country - Boston (the water is abundant and clean - thanks to the lovely Quabbin Reservoir - but very expensive because we are paying for the cleanup of Boston harbor).

        More to the point, however, you are free to get up and leave. I certainly would, without hesitation.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Karl S

          I had a similar experience when asking for tap water at Il Panino in the North End. No tap water, but they were more than happy to tack on $5 for the bottle of water. At least I was told up front. On the other hand the last time I was at Strega they just poured the bottled water without asking and tacked on the $5. I've known other people to complain about the water trick at Strega's but it had never happened to me there. Funny thing is at the end of the meal they give you a complimentary glass of Strega. Go Figure?!

          1. re: Pegmeister

            I've found the North End in Boston (like some other touristy areas worldwide) is a place where you have to watch your proverbial P's and Q's very closely to avoid having tricks pulled on you. This kind of thing regarding water is only one such scam I've had North End restaurants try to pull on me. Another common one is plopping a dinner menu in front of you at lunch time and not telling you that's what it is -- when I've confronted such places about it, they'll say they only have one menu all day or that they don't provide lunch menus on whatever day you've come by (especially happens on Saturdays). Besides the places you mentioned, Pegmeister, I've run into such shenanigans at Massimino's, L'Osteria, Dolce Vita, and (worst of all) Joe Tecce's -- which not only pulled the no-lunch menu thing on a weekday noontime but tried to charge me the dinner price after I caught them on it when the bill came.

          2. re: Karl S

            When we are under water restrictions due to drought, places won't just place a glass of water in front of you without asking. However, if you do ask for a glass of tap water, they'll bring it to you.

            I've honestly never heard of a place not offering tap water. I must lead a sheltered life.

          3. Restaurants are not obligated to provide you anything ... for free.

            I've known restaurants to charge for utensils. Yes, those things that are, many times, required to actually eat the food that the restaurant serves and that you have paid for.

            2 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              Charging for utensils? They do that, I'm keeping 'em!

              1. re: JK Grence the Cosmic Jester

                You mean you don't already keep'em? How else am I going to build up my silverware collection? ; )

            2. If you otherwise like the restaurant you might try dropping a line to the managers letting them know that, not only is their policy a deterrent to you personally enjoying a meal there, it is also not earth friendly...see discussion in the thread below:


              1. Maybe their water isn't filtered and tastes so bad they don't want customers drinking it. It's possible. The fact that it can clean dishes when heated up doesn't mean anything about the taste.

                Next time, ask for soda water. At most they'll charge you for a soda, which is cheaper than bottled water.

                1. Never heard of a place not offering tap water.
                  Although I noticed more places charging for hot water.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: tom porc

                    There is an outdoor restaurant that WILL NOT serve tap water. It was driving me crazy so I finally broke down and asked the server- she said it was because they didn't have a tap....of course my next question was- Where do you wash your hands??? Ick!

                    1. re: chowesq

                      I wouldn't want to drink water from their hand sink, either. If they don't have a tap in the wait station and have to run to the dishwasher or restroom for tap water, I don't want it.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          A sink that is intended for washing hands often has remnants in it, whereas a sink in the wait station is kept cleaner and the water is more often filtered. And as far as restrooms are concerned, have you ever heard of fecal fume? It is very real and quite foul. After working in medical publishing for a couple years, I no longer allow any toothbrushes, glasses, or even books in my bathroom.

                          1. re: mojoeater

                            Amazing how the human race has managed to survive, isn't it?

                            I don't know why it would matter what's in the sink if the water doesn't come in contact with it.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              The glass will come in contact with it and my hand will be on the glass. Plus, the health department would never OK serving tap water from a restroom or any other sink that is not sanitary. If a restaurant says they do not serve tap water or don't have a tap, they probably mean they do not have a health department approved faucet/sink.

                      1. re: chowesq

                        It is interesting that the restaurant would not have a "tap" for water. How do they fill their pots for making stock, or boiling water for pasta, etc? I would play their game and suggest that perhaps the health department would be interested the status of their water resources. And where do they get the water for hot tea? Of course there are the "taps" on the side of the espresso/coffee machines that dispense steaming hot water. All restaurants are plumbed for potable water. A pitcher and ice enables any establishment to provide water.

                        On the green side of the business, I ask for tap water because it is the environmentally prudent thing to do. Chez Panisse, Incanto and other notable restaurants in the Bay Area (California) have opted for this and gladly serve municipal water. Why do I want to pay more for water than I do for petrol when our water is quite suitable?

                        1. re: SanseiDesigns

                          Ah, but you Bay Area folk are lucky that your tap water is quite drinkable. I love the suggestion of playing their own game. If anything, I'd enjoy making them squirm if they're going to make me pay $5 for water.

                          Some parts of So Cal have pretty gross tap water. San Diego's water is so hard (imagine crusty dishes if the water pools anywhere) that I am totally leery of drinking it. Even the pooch refuses it after it's been sitting out for a while. We started pouring him water out of the Brita and he's a lot happier with it. No, I don't have a gourmet lap dog... he's a 60lb. lunatic who likes to eat his own... excretions. So, that tells you something about the tap water around here. :)

                          As for the restaurants... I haven't heard of any restaurant making people pay for bottled water or refusing to offer tap. Like Quine, I'm also interested to know why.

                    2. I can't imagine that restaurants are required to offer free water by law. By convention, most do obviously, but I don't know that I've ever heard of any requirement for it.

                      1. To be fair, I would wanna hear the restaurant's reason...but just now, smacks of "charging for everything we can".

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Quine

                          Also to be fair, especially depending on the locale, the price of water, electricity and labor has all gone up quite a lot, so it might not be reasonable to expect it to continue to be free. I'm not entirely sure what I think about all of it; but just because its water doesn't mean its cheap to provide and, as with many other things, I think its reasonable for a restaurant owner to want to specify what particular charges are for rather than, for example, just raising prices on food to cover the cost of providing tap water.

                          1. re: ccbweb

                            This whole conversations has me thinking...
                            I drink a lot of water and I get headaches if I start to dehydrate, so I Always carry a water bottle with me. Always. Now, when I go to a restaurant I leave it out of sight, in my purse, and drink water from a glass like everyone else. But if a restaurant insists on charging for water, how uncouth would it be for a person to simply bring their own?

                            1. re: rds246

                              I'd think about the same as bringing your own bottle of soda would be now.

                        2. I'm in the San Francisco area, so we have great water (to me anyway), so when I ask for water, I mean water from a faucet (I don't have high expectations - I never thought of it having to be filtered water), but there are some places around the country where you don't want to drink their water, and I guess that would mean an added expense of adding a filtration system (how much are those?).

                          I just can't imagine sitting down with a business partner saying, "Hmm, what should we do about the water? Those filters are really expensive, and we want to encourage customers to pay for drinks." Replies the other, "How about we tell them we don't have water?!"

                          Interesting... Since we don't want to be in shock again, I asked DH what we should do if this happened, and he said that we'll just leave. :-)

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: boltnut55

                            Its a very interesting condundrum you describe. I suppose "we don't have water" might be considered better than "oh, you don't want to drink the tap water here." :)

                            1. re: ccbweb

                              As far as the restaurants wanting to 'sell' something and not give away water- I waited tables for years and I can't tell you how many times someone would order "water with lots of extra lemon" and then I would see them squeeze the lemons into the water and add sugar....I always wanted to yell at them!!! I guess they took that old saying about making lemonade too seriously!

                          2. I guess this starts making Walldrug's advertising campaign of free water less of a joke. (Though I might add that is is mighty tasty water.)

                            1. I've been in more than one fast food restaurant where they'll charge you $0.10 or $0.25 for a plastic cup of tap water and ice. Since we're talking something they can't reuse, I can go for that.

                              But for a place with glass glasses, I expect free tap water on request.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: beachmouse

                                The place in question does have a soda machine, and these come equipped with a tab for filtered water only. I seriously suspect that they're padding their bills by only offering to give the customer bottled water. It's a popular place and prices are not inexpensive for the portions of food they sell.
                                I thinks it's miserly of the owner(s) to have this policy. Just my opinion.

                                1. re: snort

                                  if there wasnt some pretty compelling story to go with the "no, i cant
                                  bring you a glass of water for free", that would trigger my "do i look like a bitch"
                                  reflex and i'd ask for the check and leave immediately and i'd try to cancel
                                  my order if it wasnt already in the pipeline.

                                  and frankly, i cant come up with an example of a "compelling story" for a real
                                  restaurant ... a bar, or taco truck or sandwich shop only selling bottles of
                                  sodas that doesnt have cups/glasses ... ok maybe. and of course there are
                                  captive markets [club bar, stadium, movie theater] where you probably know
                                  they are going to do something like that to you.

                                2. re: beachmouse

                                  I worked at a theatre when I was a teenager and we had to charge for water because of the disposable cup. There was no cash register so we counted cups at the end of the night to determine how much we sold so we had to account for every cup.

                                  If this is a take out place, they are charging you for the cup not the water.

                                3. I normally drink tap water (and lots of it) with a meal. When the server asks me what I want to drink, I always say "tap water" to avoid having them open a bottle and sticking it on my bill covertly. If they refuse to offer it (which is in my experience extremely rare), I tell them I'll have nothing to drink -- and afterwards I'll complain to the manager, telling them that I refuse to patronize them in future because of it.

                                  I see no reason why a restaurant should refuse tap water when a customer asks for it.

                                  1. After our other experience and then reading subsequent posts here about charging for this and that, it's getting a little stressful eating out! OK, maybe I'm just much more aware and over sensitive. Last evening we were at a restaurant WITH a coupon and decided to go all out. :-) We ordered two regular entrees and a kids meal, plus three drink (none of us got refills; in fact DH and my daughter finished about 1/2 their soda - I think we were just humoring the industry tonight and decided to pay as much as we could).

                                    When we got the bill, we told the server that we were charged an adult price drink for my daughter. He apologized and said he had brought her a large drink. After clarification, it turns out that we have to "kid's drink" when we order to get the kid's drink price. Umm, your restaurant gives free refills, so the cup size doesn't matter; she is clearly a kid, ordered a kid's meal, was looking at the kid's menu when she ordered the drink. <sigh> DH deducted it from his tips... I think we're just worn out for now. I've been cooking most nights now to avoid eating out (saved the family about $150 already), but my dad passed away yesterday afternoon, so I wasn't in the mood (he was 93 - a long life); hence I can't sleep and I'm here. Sorry to hijack the thread.

                                    1. Interesting... I'm tempted to perform a little CH investigation, and stop by myself. I'll try to swing by this weekend, and ask for tap water too!

                                      I'm assuming that you were ordering food or other items in addition to the water?

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: lilinjun

                                        Certainly did order a lot of food, if you're asking me.

                                      2. I was at a pizza joint in Central Joisey this fall and asked for a glass of water with my cheesesteak. The kid behind the counter asked me if I was sure I wanted tap water, because it's an "aquired taste" in those parts. Thinking he was being sarcastic I said, tap water's fine. He was nice about giving me a glass. Once I tasted it I ended up buying a bottle of water after all. It truly was awful.