Here is a good scam for you restaurant owners keen to bolster your profits.
Offer fresh mint tea and fresh ginger tea. Put a few leaves of the herb or a few slices of the root (don't bother peeling) into a teapot, add boiling water and charge £3.75 plus 12.5 per cent service per customer.
Three of us drinking these so-called tisanes at Brumus, the restaurant of the recently launched Haymarket Hotel in London, were charged £11.25 plus service for little more than hot water. Pick the cups up too quickly and you can find that your fingers have been burned.
Menus and drinks lists are rife with these little wheezes that surely charm no-one. Unless a restaurateur is totally uninterested in repeat business and can count on an unending supply of suckers – such businesses do exist – surely it is better to be straightforward and even err on the side of generosity.
Set-price menus ought to constitute a fairly accurate guide to the customer of what a meal is likely to cost, but so often they are mined with unexpected supplements or hedged around with excessive charges for items like water and coffee. At a recent dinner at Alastair Little in Soho where there is no à la carte, the set menu was £40 for three courses. No mention is made of what might happen if, like me, you only want two courses and no dessert, but I can tell you what does – £3 is deducted.
Even though I didn't want to leave with a sweet taste in my mouth, I also didn't want to go with a bad one, which is what happened.
Unless a particular ingredient included in a dish on a fixed-price menu is something like caviar or white truffles, there should be no need for supplements. Swings and roundabouts are part of the restaurant fairground and, after all, there might be halcyon days when all the customers deliberating over their main course decide to order the gnocchi.
Predating the bossy government guidelines recommending the – apparently entirely arbitrary – five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, there was a peculiarly British belief that a plate of meat should come with at least three vegetables. The recipients didn't necessarily eat the vegetables but they were keen to see evidence of them.
Italian restaurateurs were quick to cotton onto this cultural quirk and, although they might in their homeland have eaten a main ingredient pretty much unadorned, they learned to press an array of vegetables on their customers.
That these usually included sauté potatoes which had been deep-fried and that apology for a pea, the mange-tout, didn't deter either side and the bill was enlarged nicely when each person at the table could be charged for crescent-shaped dishes of greasy greens.
The side orders that most menus list are a legacy of this practise. The high price of a handful of beans, a mulch of spinach or a salad decanted from a bag of mixed leaves is usually just a blatant way of extracting more money by separating out the cost of something which should have been included – if it was desirable – in the main assembly.
While I understand that restaurateurs have a business to run, why do so many trade on deception? It can only put people off.
When at the start of a meal a sommelier pushes a chariot of Champagnes towards the table and asks the diners if they would like a glass, it would seem like a good idea to have a price card on the table. When the waiter recites the specials, it would be user-friendly to mention prices so that there is no shock-horror when the bill arrives. Cheese doesn't keep for long so why not price it in a way that persuades customers to enjoy it? You might as well ask, ‘Why don't restaurants come clean?' Some do, and they tend to have long, successful lives.