Let's be more generous on the water front

10 August 2006
Let's be more generous on the water front

Restaurants should offer customers free jugs of tap water… and diners shouldn't be made to feel mean or guilty about accepting it, says Bill Knott

The next time a waiter asks, "Would you like some water for the table, sir?" I shall probably throttle him. Partly because the question is so fatuously phrased, but mostly because what he really means is: "May I have the pleasure of relieving you of three quid plus service for a bottle of stuff that tastes just as good from the tap?"

Over the last decade or so, every stately home in Britain seems to have sprouted a spring in its back garden. Quite why water needs a title and a country estate to be palatable is beyond me, but it seems to be all the rage.

Our home-grown waters are not the worst offenders, however. We hear a lot about "food miles" these days: what about "water miles"? Does water really need to travel from Fiji or New Zealand and be "filtered lovingly through strata of igneous rock and virgin organic grassland"? What a load of guff.

New York is just as bad. The local tap water is some of the best in the world, but one restaurant even has a "water sommelier", hawking dozens of bottles of overpriced mineral water to a gullible public. You can imagine that tricky moment when you're having the scallops, and your companion has chosen the foie gras. Which water could possibly work with both dishes? Maybe a glass each, then.

Of course, the standard industry line is that they have to make their money somehow, and if they didn't rip people off for water then they would have to put up the price of the food. That's fine by me. Food should not be treated as a loss-leader for water, wine and coffee.

People who would quite happily drink tap water often feel, rightly or wrongly, that they will be labelled as mean by the staff and order a bottle of water simply to ensure decent service.

Sell bottles of mineral water by all means, but don't resent giving water away: make a point of offering a jug from the tap, and your customers will thank you for it. That is what the much-abused word "hospitality" means. They might even stay longer and spend a bit more on the wine.

Is bottled water oversold in restaurants?

Douglas Glen, hotel manager, Landmark hotel, London "No. There's a high demand from guests for it, and our Winter Garden water menu has about 14 varieties. There's a health aspect, and some people don't want to drink tap water when they're in certain areas. There's also the fashion side, where the packaging does help. We use a selection as a VIP offering and get very good feedback."

Tony Horton, managing director, Tricon Consultancy "In the States and France they put free water on the table. In Britain the quality of the water isn't worse - it's got more to do with good selling. They're simply responding to a demand from customers. I don't blame restaurateurs at all - bottled water just seems to be a fashion statement."

Charles Campion, food critic "I don't object to it in principle, but I do object to having my glass refilled every time I take a drink; it can get a bit out of hand. Also, it would be better if more restaurants offered the one-litre bottle rather than the 50cl ones, which are no good at all, or the 75cl, which are still too small. One-litre bottles would impinge on restaurant margins but would be better for customers."

Ronan Sayburn, group head sommelier, Gordon Ramsay Group "I don't believe it's oversold. Bottled water is just another luxury item which diners can choose to have with the meal. It's the same concept as wanting the best truffles or foie gras, it adds to the whole dining experience. Certain waters, such as Badoit, Perrier and Chateldon, have a very distinctive flavour which is not like tap water in the slightest."

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