Leading Article: Charges that leave a bad taste in the mouth

Click to follow
IN THE vexed matter of restaurant service charges, this country falls between the two stools of American and continental practice. The private member's bill introduced yesterday by Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP, was intended to clear up the resulting mess and confusion by prohibiting such charges.

In the United States no charge is usually levied for service, but customers are expected to leave a tip amounting to around 15 per cent. Considerable dudgeon is likely to be evinced if this is not forthcoming. On the Continent, by contrast, the service charge is usually subsumed into the price, with a note at the bottom of the bill stating that taxes and service are included.

In this country there are five main possibilities: an item labelled service, ranging from 10-15 per cent, appears at the foot of the bill; the same figure appears as an 'optional service charge', and can notionally be excluded; or the message is 'service charge not included, gratuities at the customers' discretion'. Sometimes there is no mention of any such charge, leaving the customer to inquire. Too rarely the message is 'service is included'.

No less ambiguous are the uses to which the service charge is put. In some restaurants it becomes part of general revenue. In others it is part of the wages of (too often underpaid) waiters and waitresses. The fairest practice is to divide it among all staff, since those in the kitchen have at least as much influence on the quality of a meal as those who bring it to the table.

Increasingly frequently, an inflated, if 'optional', service charge of 15 per cent is being used as part of a battery of additional charges to bump up restaurant bills. Other staple items are a cover charge of, say, pounds 1.50; pounds 2.99 for a bottle of mineral water; and an excessive charge per person for 'a selection of vegetables'.

No fair person would deny restaurateurs the right to make a profit. But they should do so openly, by charging for their dishes, not by seeming to offer reasonable prices and topping up the bill with a host of additional charges. The pity of it is that Mr Fabricant's Bill is, for procedural reasons, unlikely ever to become law; so customers will continue to meet unpleasant surprises (and frequently a test of their mental arithmetic) just when their resistance is lowest.