What extra charges do restaurants make?

Cake being served at a restaurant Image copyright Thinkstock

Restaurants have been criticised for making customers pay to bring in birthday cakes. What other unusual charges are diners faced with, asks Justin Parkinson.

The average price of a meal out for two in the UK is more than £50. For top restaurants that figure could be tripled. Bills include an array of extras, which can confuse customers.

The latest, nicknamed "cakeage", involves cafes and restaurants charging for serving a birthday cake brought in by customers. Peter Harden, co-founder of Harden's restaurant guides, says his wife was told by a London cafe owner to pay the full cost of a menu dessert for each slice served at a children's meal. "It looks bad and will deter repeat custom, which is worth much more than a single visit."

But restaurateurs who charge cakeage argue they're justified in doing so because they have to present the cake and do the clearing up and washing up afterwards.

A more established "bring-your-own" charge is corkage, levied per bottle of wine - as much as £30 for high-end restaurants. But Harden says that, rather than being a con, corkage can represent a bargain, as the total amount spent is still smaller than the cost of buying from the wine list.

An "optional" service charge of 10% or more commonly 12.5% has become typical in UK restaurants, as an alternative to the tipping system, where about 10% was traditionally expected for good service. Having been told of a service charge, customers can become annoyed at the idea of adding an optional "gratuity" for good service.

Set menus are a popular way to eat out, as the full price is laid out in advance. But restaurants can add supplement costs for the more expensive-to-produce components, such as red meat or truffles.

It is rarer these days for UK restaurants to levy a cover charge, paid by each customer in addition to the cost of food. This does not specify what the money goes towards but, in many cases, covers the cost of bread, olives and other accompaniments.

However, some restaurants charge for bread, as well as olives and other accompaniments once rolled into the overall bill. Licensed premises are legally obliged to provide tap water for free in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.

One "extra" charge comes in the way vegetables or chips/fries are often not included with meals. "The price of main courses hasn't gone up much," says Harden, "but having a satisfying meal, with vegetables, has. It does cause resentment charging £4 for a bowl of Brussels sprouts, even if it's got grated nutmeg on top."

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