Water, Water Everywhere

Now quit soaking us for it!

“Would you like still, sparkling or tap water?”

And so goes the refrain at nearly every restaurant in town I’ve been to lately, including two pizza joints I visited yesterday (gourmet pizza joints, but still). This is nothing new: servers at fine dining restaurants have been offering the three options in a “one of these things is not like the other” fashion since the dawn of time — or at least since the dawn of the Starr Restaurant Organization — but when you’re getting asked if you’d like bottled water at a pizza place, it’s a sign things have gotten out of hand. I have yet to meet one person, even people who actually do drink bottled water, who hasn’t found the water question to be obnoxious. So what gives?

“Points of service” are what gives. That’s the general outline or script that servers must follow, as dictated by the restaurant’s owners. Owners would very much like for you to order still or sparkling water, as it adds significant dollars to your check, so they require waiters to include it in their shpiels. It’s not just the owners though, servers also benefit from the upsell — a higher check also means a higher tip.

I’ve heard restaurateurs defend the water pitch as a courtesy to the guest; offering diners as many options as possible, and not forcing them to ask for something can be perceived as hospitable. I don’t buy it. True hospitality is making a guest feel comfortable and at ease and there’s nothing comforting about being asked to choose point-blank between something free and something that costs $4 or $5 a bottle. I’m perfectly capable of asking for bottled water if that’s what I’m in the mood to drink.

In other cities, restaurateurs like Mario Batali and Alice Waters are doing away with bottled water entirely, serving filtered tap water in reusable carafes and carbonating their own water. They’re doing it to green their operations, but it has the added bonus of not making guests squirm when they ask for tap.

What do you think of the water question? Do you think it’s a service courtesy or a way to pad the check? Does it drive you crazy when servers say “Schuylkill Punch?” Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.