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Restaurant rights: the bill

The worst part of eating out is the fact that you usually have to pay for it, but it isn't as simple as just handing over the cash.

VAT & Service charges

VAT must be included in meal prices displayed outside, or in, a restaurant, but they don't have to be included on the menu. When you get your bill, it may show a breakdown of how much VAT you are being charged.

Service charges

If a percentage charge for service is said to be included in the meal price you are entitled to reduce the bill if the service has been poor. You are entitled to reduce it by the amount shown to be the service charge. If it is not specified, anything up to 15% would be acceptable.


Food needs to be of a good standard

Poor restaurant food quality

If the problem is the quality of the food rather than the service and it is so poor as to be a breach of contract, again you are entitled to reduce the bill or refuse to pay. However, if you are going to do this you need to tell the waiter at the time the food is served or if you first taste it. The restaurant is entitled to have the opportunity of putting good the problem.

Paying 'under protest'

If you do not like making a fuss or you are with a party and do not want to upset the atmosphere, you can always pay 'under protest' and write on the back of the bill that you are doing so. This gives you the chance of claiming against the restaurant at a later date. Usually only worth it if you are with a big party.

Free meals

It is a criminal offence on your part to go into a restaurant and order a meal with the intention of not paying for it. Restaurants often wrongly believe this means you have to pay for a meal whatever the circumstances. This is not the case. So long as you have a genuine reason for not paying and you leave your name and address, you have not acted in any way dishonestly.

Clear prices

The law provides that you should be given a chance to check the prices before you get to your table, as well as having a menu at the table. They must make clear, or show as prominently as the food prices, any minimum charge or service charge. If these charges aren't there and on your menu and you were not otherwise told, you can refuse to pay. They are not part of your contract. If they are displayed you must pay then unless they are unreasonable for the standard of the restaurant.

If the restaurant fails with any of these obligations if runs the risk of a prosecution by Trading Standards. You can threaten to report the restaurant if you are in an argument. Most restaurants will not wish to run this risk, but frankly there are few examples of prosecutions beings successfully taken. Trading Standards Officers claim they are too overworked with other problems to deal with this type of prosecution.

Credit card abuse

Some restaurants will automatically ask you to add a gratuity when you pay by credit card. Some continue to do this even though they have already charged a service charge within the bill. This may suggest that the service charge was not going to the waiting staff at all and you may want to ask the manager if this is the case.

If extra amounts are added afterwards this will be 'unauthorised debit' and you should refuse to pay. You should check your statements carefully and keep the copy of the signed slip at least until the amount appears on your statement. You can then have evidence to put to the credit card company if a dispute arises.

Updated: 13/10/2011

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