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Water, water everywhere but not a drop free

October 01, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

We're all familiar by now with the restaurant ritual that I've come to think of as water ballet.

It's not bad enough that in many of the better restaurants you have to page through a wine list the size of a phone book and navigate a menu that lists in excruciating detail the provenance of every animal, vegetable and mineral to be served, but even before that, the first decision thrust upon you is, "What kind of water would you like -- flat or sparkling?"

What your server means, of course is which kind of bottled water do you want -- and regardless of your response, a delicate pas de deux then ensues.

On occasion, a server may add an offer of "tap water" or "ice water" as an afterthought, in a voice that drops a notch in volume (apparently in hopes that you won't hear it) or in a tone that suggests only a cheapskate, an ignoramus or a barbarian would choose that option.

Most restaurants charge a huge markup on bottled water and thus make an enormous profit on what is clearly the most lucrative legal racket in the restaurant world today.

I still miss the days when a glass of tap water -- with ice but without charge -- was part of every place setting, and that's what I order even today, in the era of designer waters.

Sometimes I do want a glass of sparkling water at the beginning of dinner, to stimulate my appetite, but I generally find that several glasses of sparkling water are bloating. So when I order, I say, "We'll have one bottle of sparkling water, then we'll switch to tap."

Even so, I've found, you have to be careful. No matter what you've said you want, your server may "forget" and keep pouring that sparkling water until your bill is as bloated as your stomach.

You would think that chefs themselves might counsel their wait staffs not to push bubbly water for this very reason -- to avoid having guests fill up on water rather than food -- but I have yet to hear a chef take that position.

I do know one chef, though, who refuses to charge for bottled water -- sparkling or flat.

"I think bottled water tastes better than most tap water and it makes a better accompaniment to my food," says Ken Frank, chef of La Toque in the Napa Valley. "But I think it's cheesy to charge for it, and I don't want anyone to be embarrassed if they don't want to pay for it, so we pour it free."

I have had some foul-tasting tap water from time to time -- but not often and almost never in a good restaurant -- and somehow the idea that I not only have to be sure I'm getting free-range chicken, line-caught fish and low-yield wines but high-quality, cuisine-appropriate water is almost more than I can bear.

What really bothers me, though, is what happens after you order a bottle of water -- as I will sometimes do when everyone at my table wants it. The water keeps coming -- and coming. It's like the Johnstown flood, one liter at a time.

Order a bottle of water, and your waiter will refill your glasses so quickly and so frequently -- even when you've only had a few sips -- that you'll think he should have introduced himself by saying, "Hello. I'm Gunga Din. I'll be your server this evening."

With wine, when you finish one bottle, your server will ask if you'd like another. With water, they just keep opening and pouring, without asking. Even worse, most servers will open each bottle of water out of your line of sight, so you have no idea if he's pouring from the first bottle you ordered -- or from the second or third or fourth that you didn't order.

I've often stopped a waiter in mid-pour to say, "Whoa, we only wanted one bottle, remember?"

If you don't do that, when the bill comes you'll see the results of his "attentiveness" in numbers that will make you wonder if perhaps he's mistaken you for J. Paul Getty or Bill Gates.

It's one thing for a restaurant to make a big profit on dessert because the basic raw ingredients are so inexpensive. The artistry involved in making pastry warrants compensation. Water? Where's the artistry in opening and pouring a bottle of water?

A bottle of Perrier or San Pellegrino probably costs most restaurants about $1.25, give or take a quarter. I've routinely been billed anywhere from $5 to $8 a bottle -- a markup of 300% to 500% or more. On a few occasions, I've been charged as much as $12 a bottle -- a profit of more than 850%.

That makes wine markups look almost reasonable by comparison. Selling bottled water is a restaurant's equivalent of printing its own money -- of adding an automatic, albeit hidden, 10% to 20% or more to your bill.

Bottled water has long been standard in restaurants in Western Europe but, as near as I can tell, it first began to make inroads on this side of the Atlantic in the 1970s, when Perrier significantly increased its marketing campaign in the United States.

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