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Unrequested Bottled Water Refills?

We were at La Ciccia in SF last night and had a really delightful meal. However, about halfway through the meal, once we'd started in on wine, the busboy just showed up with a second bottle of S. Pellegrino and refilled our glasses. We didn't even realize it until he walked away. We were pretty much done with the water at that point, so it just proved to be an uncomfortable interruption. DH and I just sat and stared at it for the rest of the meal. When the bill came, there it was - an extra $6.00 charge that we didn't approve.
We decided not to order dessert at that point. My question is, is there anyone who thinks this is a good practice? Under what circumstances would this be OK?
We left the restaurant having a bad feeling about an otherwise fantastic meal.

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  1. Giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt, one might say they were just trying to keep your water glasses full, something which a lot of people on this board complain about restaurants not doing. However, I agree with you that they should not bring something to the table that they are going to charge you for unless you order it. It is uncomfortable when the old "second bottle of water" trick is pulled on you, and it does, as in your case, leave a bad taste in your mouth (pun totally intended). They should not have brought it without asking if you wanted it.

    1. It is not good practice. Why didn't you say something? It's like when the server keeps on pouring wine in your glass when it's not empty or when you don't want him to. I don't drink, but my SO has no problems putting his hand over his wineglass, and, with a smile and in a nice tone, say, "Thank you, but I'll take care of the pouring."

      1 Reply
      1. re: gloriousfood

        The rough part with that is management NEVER likes to see a guest pouring anything for themself. But in special cases...

      2. I agree with the posters upthread. Glasses should not have been refilled from a new bottle that you have not ordered. But I have to say, this has never happened to me in any restaurant I have eaten in here or abroad.

        13 Replies
        1. re: Gio

          Happens all the time in NY and is something that I keep an eye out for. On occasion, I've been at restaurants where one bottle of Pellegrino will fill four glasses. Even on an expense account dinner, I keep an eye out for unrequested refills. Much better to ask me if I want another bottle of water.

          1. re: MMRuth

            HMMMMM..... perhaps I wasn't paying attention. I'll keep an eye out from now on too.

            1. re: MMRuth

              That's the other thing - they were using 750 mil bottles and not 1 liter bottles, so the one bottle barely filled both of our quite large water glasses. We would have said something, but we didn't notice until the bus boy had walked away, and at that point, we just didn't want to make it any more uncomfortable by bringing it up with our (very busy) server. I know we should have said something, but my entire point is that we shouldn't have had an issue to begin with.

              1. re: foodiegrl

                Why would you be uncomfortable about bringing it up with your "(very busy) server"? You were their very paying customer. You were served something you did not order, not given the opportunity to correct the situation, and then charged for it.

                By preying on people's embarrassment at "making a scene", or "offending" someone, unscrupulous restaurants such as this one are able to steal from their customers.

                Indeed you shouldn't have had an issue to begin with. But they caused an issue and preyed on your likely reticence to make things right. You left with a bad feeling anyway. How would asking them to remove the offending item from your bill make it worse? They should have comped you desserts to make up for your catching them :-)

                1. re: embee

                  I have to pipe in here to say that I eat regularly at La Ciccia, and it is as far from unscrupulous as any restaurant I know. If the owners knew you left with a bad taste in your mouth, they'd be very upset! This sounds more like a poorly trained, thoughtless busboy, and you most definitely should have brought it to the attention of the manager/owners! Indeed, you should have said something to the busboy as soon as you realized what was happening. I am confident that they would have taken it off the bill immediately. Indeed, it wouldn't have surprised me if they would have brought you comp'd something or the other...

                  I never order bottled water there, btw, ALWAYS only tap (after all, in San Francisco the water is good, IMO, so really I rarely order bottled water anywhere) , and have never felt anything less than very welcomed with extremely gracious service.

                  For those who don't know the restaurant, FWIW, it is mid-range, perhaps even lower end of mid-range for San Francisco, not a high end place....and a very good value for the quality of the food.)

                  1. re: susancinsf

                    It certainly would have been appropriate for the OP to bring the gaff to the attention of the server or the manager, if she felt comfortable doing it, but IT WAS NOT HER DUTY TO DO SO. Some people feel uncomfortable calling a problem to the attention of a restaurant for many reasons, not the least of which is the sometimes negative response that is received. This thread would, in my opinion, be best spent on how to avoid such a situation (and some have offered some positive suggestions), and not on criticism of the wronged party.

                    1. re: ddavis

                      "How best to avoid such a situation": speak up! Not only are you helping yourself, but you just might make the restaurant think twice before it does this the next time to others. Janetofreno sums it up the best below.

                      1. re: ddavis

                        I didn't mean to imply that it was her duty to do so (and don't think I did, actually). However, I DO think it is a true shame that the OP would leave a restaurant as wonderful as La Ciccia (one of my very favorite places) with a bad taste in her mouth, when if she had said something, I am sure it would have been rectified.

                        As to how to avoid it in the first place: OP said herself she didn't notice till the water was poured. So how could she avoid it?. So, I guess under those circumstances, the only way to avoid it in the first place would be not to order bottled water. As I mentioned in my original post, that would certainly be a viable option at that particular restaurant.

                      2. re: susancinsf

                        I don't live in SF and do not know the restaurant at all. My comments were directed at restaurant customers in general and, on reflection, I probably should have omitted the phrase "such as this one".

                        That said, you do seem to agree with my point that the customer should have said something. MOST of the people I know will accept egregious actions and failures in restaurants rather than appearing "unseemly".

                        I have been victimized by bottled water scams, in many cities, far more frequently than can be attributed to server/busser error. It is not the norm, but it shouldn't ever happen. It's usually just one bottle, but it's pretty shocking to see a $24 charge for water (which has happened) on a tab when bottled water wasn't ever ordered.

                        1. re: embee

                          I am intrigued by the statement "MOST of the people I know will accept egregious actions and failures in restaurants rather than appearing 'unseemly'"

                          Even if it is not the nature of the restuarant to cheat customers (and that's what it is) by bringing unsolicited bottles, it is entirely possible that the busboy had previously worked in restaurants where that is the norm..and he thinks its expected of him by management......and the only way the owners/management will know about it is if the customer speaks up.

                          Why are people so afraid of "creating a scene"? Pointing out that you were billed for something you didn't order is perfectly acceptable and even proper behavior, IMO. If everyone just lets things slip "this one time" then there will be lots of slips.

                          1. re: janetofreno

                            Tis true. Most of the people I know will say everything is great even in a situation where (1) it isn't and (2) the restaurant is one that would sincerely want to know a problem existed and would happily fix it.

                            I don't understand this point of view. I don't know why people are afraid of "creating a scene". But many are embarrassed, or even afraid, to say anything. And I'm not just referring to possible scams. It's routine behaviour for many people and it perplexes me.

                            If I am in a cheap, informal place with no pretensions, I'm inclined to ignore small problems myself. But if a restaurant is pricey, or is pretentious at any price level, I will - respectfully - make my feelings known and expect a solution.

                            If a gaffe is really bad (steak requested rare served well done; items not ordered/received charged for), I expect it to be fixed - even in a diner.

                            Usually there are no issues at all. Items are replaced or removed from the bill; mixed-up orders are corrected. Occasionally a place will go well beyond my expectations to fix a problem.

                            Of course, sometimes staff doesn't care or even gets nasty. See the many postings about Edward Levesque in Toronto for a good example of such a restaurant.

                            I sympathize with staff when a complaining customer is obnoxious or obviously out of line. But I won't return voluntarily to a restaurant that can't solve problems gracefully.

                            1. re: janetofreno

                              This is what I completely don't get: why one must "cause a scene" to get something removed from one's bill? All you have to do is say, politely, "I see that we were charged for one bottle of water, and we only ordered one." No scene necessary. If the restaurant chooses to make a stink (and I really think most of them won't -- you certainly wouldn't pay J Crew for a shirt you didn't order that ended up in the box with the stuff you did -- or then again, it sounds like some of you would for fear of offending J Crew), then I wouldn't go back to that restaurant again. But people, you're paying customers! And you're adults! Learn to speak up for yourself and what you want (and what you're paying for) firmly and politely, and you won't have this problem! Why all the sturm and drang?

                            2. re: embee

                              For embee: I believe you that you have been victimized by bottled water 'scams'. So have I, the very few times I've ordered bottled water. However, in this case, if you ever do get to SF, try La Ciccia, and once you do I think you will understand why I am sure that that this was undoubtably an isolated incident, NOT a scam! (which is all the more reason to speak up, so yes, I agree that speaking up is a good way to address it. As is not ordering bottled water, particularly in SF, where the tap water is quite good. IMO, of course.)

                  2. We almost always request tap water, but when we order a bottled water I state plainly we are only ordering this one bottle all other refills will be tap. Never had a complaint.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Eric in NJ

                      No way I would ever pay for anything I didn't order. For me it's that simple. And if they had refused to take it off the bill, it would have come out of the tip.

                    2. I've had the unrequested bottled water refills happen, too. Just last weekend at Bar Americain in NYC, actually. I find it to be about the lowest thing a restaurant can do. They'd never just bring another bottle of wine, or bring a second helping of dessert or anything else they charge for without asking or without the customer ordering it. I have no issues saying "oh, no thank you, we didn't ask for another bottle" in that case and it certainly, in my mind, reflects poorly on the restaurant.

                      1. This is a pretty well known scam, and has been written about in several magazines and newspapers over the last few years. It is possible that is wasn't deliberate, but these articles even described how some servers are trained to open the second bottle with their back to you so that you don't necessarily notice that another bottle has been opened. Unfortunately, unless patrons start saying something about it when it happens, the practice will continue unchecked. I guess the restaurants are betting that patrons will rarely complain.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: RGC1982

                          I definetely disagree with the people turning this into your fault. It never should have happened and for some people having to argue over six bucks can make you more upset than the six bucks is worth.

                          That being said, that probably is what many of the restaurants are counting on, us not saying anything. I'm sure many will disagree with me, but I'd likely have taken it out of the tip. Sure it was the busboy that did it, but the busboy is basically helping out the server and I'm sure if he did it to your table, the server has seen him do the water trick to another table.

                          1. re: Rick

                            Not if either the busboy or server was new.

                            There isn't a need to argue to notify the management. The restaurant in question has a website. OP could send an email.

                          2. re: RGC1982

                            "servers are trained to open the second bottle with their back to you so that you don't necessarily notice that another bottle has been opened"

                            seriously? WOW. i honestly never have heard of this "scamming".

                          3. what i don't understand is why you were deciding whether to order dessert AFTER you received the bill. normally, waitstaff asks if you want dessert before the bill. i've never received two bills in one night. it just doesn't make sense that you would get a bill and then be asked if you want dessert.

                            as for the water - get a backbone and speak up.

                            1. Since this doesnt seem to be normal procedure for this restaurant according to Susan in SF, I think the busboy refilled the Pellegrino at the wrong table. Perhaps he was told table #15 and went to #16 instead.
                              And I am one of those those shy ppl that feel uncomfortable speaking out over a small overcharge, however, for $6 I would have quietly said something. It's theft to me.
                              Recently, my DC and I had to speak to the owner of a local eat-in deli to have $2 removed. We fought hard but I refuse to pay $2 for tap water.

                              1. jfood thinks we need to break it down on who might have been either at fault, undertrained, or at least a little agressive.

                                Custo - absolutely no fault, merely eating a meal at what looks like a nice well respected resto from many on this board
                                Manager - if they are pushing the hard sell upsell, shame on them
                                Server - same as with the manager, if a hard sell upsell or a no tell upsell, double shame on them.
                                Water person - as others have said probably taught to make sure water glasses are filled. hard to believe there were ulterior motives from someone who gets tipped out on a $6-10 bottle of water to want to "scam" the custo.

                                But in some way shape or form there was a lack of something on the restos' part, ranging from pure scam (manager/server) to trying to do the best job possible (water person).

                                From the custo's perspective, it IS everyone's responsibility as a custo to check the bill, not only in a resto, but before signing or paying for anything in life. Jfood would bet that everyone has experienced something incorrect on a bill in one way shape of form.

                                If there was a $40 steak on the bill, what would the custo do? Pay for it? jfood does not think so. Simply call the server over and say, "excuse me but we did not order the steak." What usually follows is "I'm sorry let me correct your bill." Should be the same if situation if you say "Excuse me, but i only ordered one bottle of water." If anything other than "I'm sorry" comes back from the waiter the antennae should go up on the scam meter.

                                ANY argument from the server definitely crosses the ding-the-tip meter for jfood. And jfood does not truly give any credence to the "our manager makes us do it". OK he might but you got caught and the ethical thing to do is off the extra bottles from the bill. Up to you and the manager to figure out the inside baseball politics.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: jfood

                                  The steak analogy is a good one. To take it a bit further: suppose the steak showed up on the table unrequested: would the OP have sat there and stared at it the rest of the meal, not eaten it, but paid for it if/when it showed up on the tab? Seems highly unlikely...so why not say something about the unbidden water?

                                  I think a part of the issue is that many folks expect scams when it comes to bottled water, and oddly enough, I suspect that some people are less likely to want to make a 'fuss' when they think something is a scam, than when they think it is a simple mistake (because they presume that if it is a scam they will get pushback rather than an apology and a quick fix, and they don't want the hassle)...In the steak example, if a steak showed up unbidden at a table, I think most would presume it is a mistake. In the case of the water, I think most are presuming it is indeed a scam. (except me, because I know and love the restaurant in question, and given my own very positive experiences there, presume the best, not the worst. sure hope I am right, but there is no way to know if one doesn't say anything. In that regard, I totally agree with you jfood that my 'scam meter' would go up if the server said anything other than, 'oh, I am sorry, let me fix that for you...')

                                2. Perhaps I'm a perpetual optimist, but I find it rather upsetting that so many people assume it's a scam when it could be an honest mistake. Just ask them to remove the charge. It doesn't have to be that big a deal.

                                  1. i'm glad this is being discussed- i hope more CHs respond.

                                    as a server, it's a tough call. i work in an upscale, pricy restaurant and most of our guests drink bottled sparkling/flat water. it is a point of service to keep filling up your glass. i try to "read the customer". if i am confident- say a table of 5 who are all drinking water fast and are just at the beginning of their meal- i will just bring more bottles out. if i get the idea they might be the type to really be bothered by an "un-approved" charge for more water i ask for approval on the second bottle and say something like "ok, i'll keep bringing you more untill you tell me to stop". sometimes i'll just bring bottles but not open them right away- just set them aside where the guest can see and let me know if they're "ok for water". sometimes i ask- sometimes i feel it would be tacky. or interruptive. many businessmen, for example- it's hard enough to get them to stop talking and pay attention to me just to take their order.

                                    13 Replies
                                    1. re: excuse me miss

                                      Would you do the same with wine? To me, if its going to result in a charge on the menu, you've got to ask. (I do believe that there are some times where there will be exceptions, but I think they're exceptions and should be rare.) I can't think of another instance where a restaurant would bring something to a table without being asked _and_ charge the diner for it. Just bringing out a dessert wouldn't be acceptable, nor would brining another bottle of wine.

                                      1. re: ccbweb

                                        of course not, but we're not talking about wine, we're talking about water.

                                        i do see your point- like i said- i have to read the table and judge every time. my initial delivery helps with that also. "do you have a preference for water for the evening?" different reactions tell me different things. keep in mind i have been serving a long time and i am a pretty good people reader. if i'm not sure, i will ask. i have never had anyone complain.

                                        of course, if i worked in a lower scale place i would assume customers are more concerned about price and always ask.

                                        trust me, at a certain level of dining it really is an effort to provide good service, not an attempt to increase your bill. what is $6 going to get me? another $1.20 on my tip? think about it- it is in my best interest to make you happy.

                                        if this does happen to you- and you really are upset about it you can always ask that the charge for the second bottle be taken off- just make sure you don't drink the second bottle. or if you don't want to cause a fuss you can just deduct $6 from the tip. would that be fair enough?

                                        actually- large parties are an example. we just keep opening and serving water AND wine throughout dinner. different thing though.

                                        FYI-i asked my boss at my current job and she said just bring more.

                                        1. re: excuse me miss

                                          I was thinking that the "its just water" thought must be running through all of this. To me, its just about being charged for something without being asked first. It doesn't matter what it is. And its not because I'm worried about the $5 or $8 or $12 for the additional bottle of water. How much I'm paying for the meal overall isn't relevant to being charged for something I didn't request regardless of how much that thing costs. I could deduct it from the tip...but I don't want to. I'm going to presume that its not a scam and that the server is, indeed, trying to provide excellent service...I have no desire to take something out of the tip as a way to make my mental math come out even at the end of the meal. I don't think the idea has anything to do with increasing tips; I think that because its "just water" its perceived completely differently than other items, but because the charge is levied just the same, it should be treated the same as other items.

                                          As for the idea of "don't drink the second bottle" it isn't usually a situation where they put the bottle on the table, they pour it into the glass, so you have to realize that a second bottle has been opened and poured and you have to say something right away if you'd like, say, tap water for the rest of the meal. I don't see a problem in the slightest with bringing a second bottle out, unopened and asking whoever ordered the first bottle if they'd like the second; indeed, in many cases I've had the server simply make eye contact and hold the bottle up...I nod or shake my head and everyone moves on. Just as with a second bottle of wine. I really feel pretty strongly that in any industry doing something that hasn't been requested while expecting to charge for it is unacceptable.

                                          Large parties are a different story entirely, I agree.

                                          1. re: ccbweb

                                            well, ccweb, you sound like a diner i would appreciate- if you notice when i'm trying to catch your eye about something. communication is so important.

                                            and hey- it's not "just water" when it's bottled and charged for. i didn't say that. i don't like the sound of that. i think i know what you mean though. that water is a staple item on the table and it is assumed if you drink your water you probably want more.

                                            what i mean about not drinking it- if they pour it and you don't drink it it's a simple "our waiter assumed we wanted more but we didn't so please remove it from our bill" . if you've consumed the whole second bottle what would you say? that gets trickier. DON'T WORRY about the cost to the restaurant if they "waste" a bottle. say something, be polite and forgiving, move on. no big deal.

                                            1. re: excuse me miss

                                              I didn't mean to assign the "its just water" concept to you. I took it a bit directly from the "we're not talking about wine, we're talking about water" idea. Because if we were talking about wine (except in the large party instance) everyone would seem to agree immediately that opening and pouring a second bottle without asking wouldn't be ok.

                                              As to your last paragraph...you're entirely correct about being polite and forgiving and moving on. As to not drinking the poured water...in a party of two, say, that is probably possible. If its a party of 4 or 5 or 6, it might not be or it might create an uncomfortale situation in which the host has to say "oh, don't drink that."

                                              As you note, its all about communication, it can be done subtly without disrupting anything.

                                              And you sound like a server I'd appreciate. Its really all about noticing things and being willing to remember the servers and customers are all people and we can communicate with them.

                                            2. re: ccbweb

                                              jfood agrees that it's not "just" water it's the feeling you get.

                                              let's carve out large parties in which a single bottle of water or wine is not capable of filling even one glass per person, but focus on the small party. If the resto wants to place something on the tab, they need to ask either at the beginning as in "would you like me to refill the glasses during the meal" or at the time the bottle is empty and another bottle is needed.

                                              Jfood has been asked both and just feels its a matter of courtesy.

                                              To the point of the steak showing up, it's a little different. everyone would know that it was a mistake if served. Jfood's example was that it steak appeared on the bill, not the table. Very rare does the water bottle stay at the table and you notice the amount temaining. it's usually in a wine cooler near the server station.

                                              To the point of removing it from the tip, sounds harsh unless the server was given the chance to remove from the bill. Even at that is a jusdgement call on whether the server was doing a "better" service and assumed you'd like it or was trying to slip one in. Gotta use your belly to decide that one.

                                              1. re: jfood

                                                OP here.
                                                Thanks for all the really interesting feedback. I do want to say a few things, though. I work in the industry and usually don't hesitate to give constructive direction to my server.

                                                - DH is uber-self conscious (and perhaps a little paranoid) about displeasing any service staff. I think he's afraid the next course may come with a side of phlegm.
                                                - This is a casual-nice neighborhood place - not the kind of place where this kind of refill behavior would ever be expected. It totally caught us off-guard.
                                                - DH saw the server add the price to our ticket (it's a tiny restaurant, so he was standing 3 feet away at the bar when he did it), so he put the kybosh on dessert before the bill ever showed up.

                                                I've had my bottled water replaced without a word at higher-end establishments like Delmonico's and The French Laundry. I'm both familiar with and OK with the practice in these types of environments. It seemed in that context what we were opting for was the experience of having continuous spring water throughout or meal. Besides, next to a $700 lunch tab, who cares about 3 bottles of Ty Nant?

                                                I really just wanted to see if our discomfort was justified in this kind of establishment. While that may still be up for debate, we'll be dining down the street at Incanto next time, where they pour FREE, bottomless sparkling water that's carbonated in-house.

                                                I'll definitely take susancinsf's advice about writing an email to the management. I'll post here if anything comes of it.

                                                1. re: foodiegrl

                                                  Is the drinking water that bad in SF that you have to buy a $6.00 bottle of water? One sure way to keep this from happening is to reject the bottled water out of hand at the beginning of the meal. I think this bottled water thing is one of the biggest cons in the USA these days.

                                                  1. re: sarge

                                                    I prefer sparkling water when I'm eating. At home, I filter the tap water and carbonate it myself. When I'm out, I request sparkling water. I'm perfectly happy to pay for it, I just always want to be asked before another is opened.

                                                    1. re: ccbweb

                                                      I often dine with a friend who likes sparkling water. I'm a tap kinda gal. When she finishes her bottle, the server has always asked "Would you like another bottle of Voss" casually. That's all it takes. It's never disrupted our meal and I think we'd be both be bothered (we split the bill) if it showed up unannounced on our table and/or bill.

                                                    2. re: sarge

                                                      No way! SF water is the BEST! I'm with you on the bottled water. My DH buys it because he says it makes him drink more, so that's fine. Whatever works. Ice makes me drink more, so I always have tons of ice in the fridge.

                                                      However, I know many other people seem to be able to distinguish the difference in water, even between the Costco brand and Arrowhead, for example. I can't tell the difference at all.

                                                      To the OP, I agree with ccbweb who said that if there's an extra charge, the server should mention it. In fact, even if the soda doesn't come with free refills, and I say, "can I get a refill of Coke?" I would want to know that I'll be charged $1.25 more. That would stop me from ordering three thinking that it's free! If I don't know, I try to either remember to ask or gauge it by the type of restaurant I'm in.

                                                    3. re: foodiegrl

                                                      not sure what to say to this other than that your DH must be a whole LOT younger than my DH (ie much better vision) if he could tell that it was the charge for water that was being added to a bill, even from the table closest to the bar.

                                                      I don't understand why the caliber of the restaurant should have anything to do with your comfort level. If it made you uncomfortable at La Ciccia, it should make you uncomfortable at the French Laundry, and vice versa on the reverse. It seems unfair to hold a small, family owned restaurant to a higher standard,a nd not give them the benefit of the doubt, about something that you would take for granted as being ok at the French Laundry, just because the FL costs more!

                                                      To answer Sarge's question: the drinking water in SF is very good (IMO).

                                            3. re: excuse me miss

                                              I totally get what you're saying about the business diners. Often there are clients and their service providers at those business tables. Having participated in many of such dinners, on both sides, there's usually a schmooze fest going on, so no one wants to stop to talk to the server. Sounds to me like you're great at what you do, and handling the water situation just right.