Ask the Editor: Why Is Ordering Water in a Restaurant So Confusing Now?

It used to just be "still, sparkling or tap." Now it isn't.

Waiter pouring ice water | Getty Images

I ordered a fancy bottle of water by accident because restaurant water terminology has gotten out of control. Help me decipher!

—Harry in Fishtown

It used to be “still, sparkling or tap.” Now, servers are using all kinds of words to describe water. I’ve heard “still” used in place of “tap,” muddling the meaning of “still” entirely. I’ve heard “filtered flat,” which makes the free one sound expensive. Restaurants have upped the options, and servers add modifiers to upsell you.

The good news, Harry, is that you should feel free to use your own damn words for water. “Ice water” is the quickest route to tap. Sparkling can be “bubbly” or “fizzy.” Hell, call it “spicy water,” the way the kid I babysat used to. Point is, you’re calling the shots; they’re not.

And while I’m here … a quick note to Philly servers: Assume tap unless you’re told otherwise. If we want bottled water, we’ll ask. If you’re offering free sparkling, tell us it’s complimentary up front. Making me ask if something’s free isn’t a great way to start a meal.