Restaurant News

Restaurant Bill Padding: How Often Does It Happen?

I recently had an expensive dinner at an established, well-known French restaurant in Houston. There were just two of us, and we ordered sparingly: one glass of wine each, one appetizer, two entrees and one dessert. The food and service were worth it, so I didn't blink when the hefty bill came. I paid up and off we went.

Then when I got home I pulled the copy of the bill out of my pocket and glanced at it. I was surprised to see that I had been charged for two glasses of my red wine, for a total of three glasses of wine. This irritated me, not so much because I was overcharged by $10, but because I was cheated out of another glass of a nice Bordeaux. Anyway, I chalked it up to a mistake on the server's part and moved on.

Then a couple weeks later, I went on vacation in Italy. For anyone who's been to Italy, you probably know that it is a time-honored tradition for the Italians to extract as much money as possible from tourists (especially American tourists). Sometimes it is semi-ethical (the infamous "supplemento" you pay over and above a listed price), sometimes it's downright highway robbery.

As an example, a Japanese couple recently visited Italy and was charged 700 euros (about $1,000) for a modest meal at one of the country's oldest and best-known restaurants. They complained to the Italian tourism authority, which resulted in a minor diplomatic uproar (Italy depends greatly on the Japanese for tourism). The Italian authorities shut down the restaurant and the Italian Tourism Minister personally invited the couple back for a free vacation. They declined.

Wary, I kept a close eye on my bills in Italy. Only once did I find a blatant instance of bill padding, in this case an overcharge of a few euros. But the server had been tolerant of my pidgin Italian and patiently took pictures of our dinner party, so I let it pass.

Back in Houston, the French restaurant bill was still sitting on my desk. Based on my vacation experience, I started having second thoughts about whether this extra glass of wine really was an innocent mistake on the server's part. Many questions came to mind. How often does blatant restaurant bill padding happen in Houston? Surely with the tough economy, there is some incentive to do it.

Has there ever been a case of a Houston restaurant's management actively encouraging its servers to pad the bill? Or are there rogue servers, possibly tempted by sales incentives, who pad the bill on their own?

Of course the bottom line is that any overpayment of a restaurant bill is the responsibility of the diner. I know I'll be more vigilant in double-checking even the smallest restaurant bills in the future.

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J.C. Reid
Contact: J.C. Reid