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Jul 31, 2011 06:47 AM

A few questions on English restaurant practices

Just back from the UK and have a few questions to make sure my perceptions are accurate or if I'm overgeneralizing.

1.) How common is charging for bread and butter or olive oil? Saw it very frequently at mid- and upper-price restaurants.
2.) What's the story on cover carges? We found a 2 pound one at The Gilbert Scott and were surprised; we see it at clubs, sometimes called a "music charge", but I haven't seen at US restaurants in a generation or more.
3.) And why would a restaurant add an "optional service charge" to all checks? Are people tipping poorly in this economy? Does this go to servers or the management? We got both answers when we asked. I can see it on large groups where the check can reach enough to surprise folks who usually dine in 2s or 4s and they hesitate to really put down another (insert your appropriate tipping percentage here, depending on where you live and your personal habit) percent. But it's hard to imagine that people who go to restaurants where the main courses are around 20 pounds don't tip at a reasonable level.
4.) And finally, do servers there get the same minimum wage as the rest of the employed?

Ate well, didn't get to many of the places we'd hoped to because of logistics and an unexpected death of an old friend, but mostly good stuff.

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  1. 1) Not at all common

    2) Even rarer than charging for bread (commonplace in Spain, FWIW)

    3) It is what we do in place of having old-fashioned tipping. Nothing further is expected from the customer. And, of course, it's entirely discretionary as would be a tip in the declining number of places that still have it.

    4) Of course.

    You'll find identical practices throughout the country, not just in England. The service charge tends to be 12.5% in London and 10% everywhere

    13 Replies
    1. re: Harters

      Thanks, Harters, I had hoped I would hear from you. As to last item first; in the US servers do not get the same minimum wage, as they are presumed to get tips.

      Do you know if that service charge goes to the management or does it go to service staff?

      1. re: lemons

        It is expected that it goes to the staff although it is not a legal requirement and a number of places have abused the system, particularly when a customer pays by credit card. It's been an issue involving the trade union which represents restaurant workers.

        That said, the industry is quickly moving towards service charges and away from tipping. I think that's a very welcome move and hope it'll just be a first step towards the system in, say, France, where service is included in the menu price and nothing further is expected.

        In the UK (and I believe generally in European countries) minimum wage is minimum wage. A quick Google suggests that it is comparitively rare for restaurant servers to be on mimimum wage and, where they are, it tends to be for part -time jobs at the bottom end of the market - pubs, chain restaurants and the like. Above this, there is likely to be a fairly reasonable annual salary supplemented by a share of the service charge (bear in mind that all employees may get a share, not just the individual who waits on your table).

        Some more info on the situation here:

      2. re: Harters

        Hi folks! I've come across a couple of West End of London restaurants that have a 15% service charge, one optional, and one compulsory (which I refused to pay as the service was poor!).

        Bizarrely, my local Indian Takeaway, which gives 10% discount upon collection, has also added a 10% service charge!!

        1. re: Colin4May

          As far as I know, service charge can never be compulsory - they may add it on to the bill but you can ask to take it off, which you did (so is therefore not actually compulsory!)

          1. re: pj26

            Some places will add an "obligatory" service charge for parties of 6 or more. I had a horrendous experience at a restaurant with terrible service, red wine spilled over a friend's shirt, wrong orders etc. Given the amount of money we spent, a tip of 12.5% would have been well over £100. We didn't think the waitstaff had earned it but left a token £50 instead. The waitress chased us down the road and said that if we didn't pay it, management would take it from her wages. Needless to say, we never ate there again.

            1. re: Cokeylicious

              Jeeez! That's absolutely outrageous!!

              1. re: Cokeylicious

                I reckon losing fifty quid should have been the least of her worries. With service delivery as poor as you describe, a career change might well have been enforced on her.

                1. re: Harters

                  I couldn't help but feel sorry for her. I always leave the tip as cash in the hope that it goes direct to the person that earns it. After all, it's a reward for good service and is a great incentive if you know you get something out of it. It strikes me as unfair that tips get pooled by management so all wait staff, good or bad, get the same gratuity.

                  1. re: Cokeylicious

                    I prefer tips to be pooled, so that the people with the really rubbish jobs (washing up etc) get a share.

                    1. re: Theresa

                      No one that has ever waitressed thinks tips should be pooled. I tipped out our bus boys, but quit places if they tried to make us pool tips. I didn't need to be carrying someone else's tables or laziness.

                      1. re: Theresa

                        Me too, Theresa.

                        It's what most appeals about the service charge or, indeed, the practice in countries like France or Spain where really nothing extra to the menu price is expected. I'm convinced it leads to a higher level of service.

                        1. re: Harters

                          Yes - I reckon it encourages team work rather than service with a smile for financial reasons.

                          Service in Britain is a bit patchy to say the least, and while it is improving, there is still some way to go. But I don't like feeling "worked on" by someone serving - the over the top attention and "have a nice day" stuff . Waiting staff in France or Spain are not made to feel like they are carrying out a menial job, and they do not rely on tips, so the service is so much more professional and natural and not obsequious as some places can be.

                          1. re: Theresa

                            Exactly. Particularly about the team effort.