Getting fleeced by restaurants

I rarely eat out at restaurants and never at the expensive higher-end ones unless I am the guest of someone else. But on the rare occasions that I do go to such places, I am always amused by the wait staff who recite from memory the ‘specials’. It usually goes by so fast and has so many esoteric details about what the dishes contain and how they are prepared that I almost immediately succumb to information overload and cannot keep track. So I usually just listen politely and then order from the menu. I always thought it would be a lot easier to simply print a single sheet with the day’s specials and hand it out along with the menu than have the wait staff memorize and then repeat the same thing hundreds of times a day. It seems such an obvious thing to do that not doing so must be some kind of affectation, part of the ambiance of expensive restaurants that their customers expect.

One thing I do notice is that the price of the specials is never volunteered and one has to ask for it. I think that the restaurant correctly assumes that the clientele who frequent their places would not like to give the impression to the other members of their party of being so gauche that the price affects their choice of what to eat, though to my mind that is a perfectly reasonable consideration. Diners probably assume that the cost of the specials is in the same range as similar items that are on the menu.

But I was shocked at this report of an upscale restaurant in New York that fleeces unwary customers by charging exorbitant prices for their unpriced specials. Apparently even some of the menu items are unpriced, allowing for overcharging there too.

I was wondering what the options are if an unwary patron is placed in the situation of being charged hundreds of dollars for an entree. Can one challenge the bill? Or once one has ordered and eaten, is one legally liable for whatever price the restaurant charges for an item that was not priced?

I don’t think this kind of business practice is common (or I’d have heard of it before) but it reinforces my decision to always order only from the menu and make sure the price is listed.


  1. Peter Cranny says

    Here in the UK restaurants are obliged by law to display a menu including prices where it can be seen from outside the restaurant.

  2. Sunny says

    I suppose Nello offers a price just for you: a very special price. $275 for pasta! This can only work in New York.

  3. jamessweet says

    So I’m quite a foodie, and also a quick thinker, so I can actually hear a waiter recite the specials and pretty quickly retain a lot of information about the ones I am interested in. It doesn’t go by in a blur for everyone — but I know it does for most 🙂

    And I do have the temerity to ask for the price if I’m really interested in a special. Screw ’em. I wanna know.

    There are a few places around here that do in fact print the daily specials, even some semi-upscale ones… but it does seem to be the case that if you go upscale enough, they don’t do that. Weird.

    As far as legal recourse if you got fleeced on a meal, you could probably take them to small claims court but then there is no guarantee you would win. But yeah, you can’t e.g. charge someone ten thousand dollars for an unpriced special when the other menu items are in the $20-40 range. You would definitely lose in small claims court there. $100 though? Probably if you didn’t ask the price, I think the restaurant has the upper hand there…

  4. Cswella says

    If a business wants to overcharge for their food, that’s their business.

    But if i was stuck in that situation? I would have to pay the money and take all the leftovers i can get. And if i go back (good food is good food) i would only order off the menu, or split a meal with someone else.

  5. Matt Penfold says

    All to often “specials” are what the restaurant wants to get rid of before it goes off.

    An excellent book on what happens behind the scenes in restaurants is Anthony Bordain’s “Kitchen Confidential”.

  6. Mike Cameron says

    Most decent restaurants want return business and want good “word of mouth” advertising. If someone genuinely feels they have been unfairly overcharged it pays to speak the manager or write an email or letter detailing the problem. You would be surprised at how often they respond positively in some way – not just a blow off. Frequently the response is offering a “comped” meal or drinks. It is worth a try at least. The restaurant wants to know if people are satisfied. If you aren’t and you don’t let them know they will assume you’ve walked out happy, or at least, not angry and unlikely to return or recommend.

  7. John Horstman says

    Hmm, if there’s no price listed, there’s no implicit contract because there’s no statement that the meal actually costs anything at all. I’d say just walk and force the restaurant to sue you if they want to get their cash. I’d draw an analogy to someone walking up to you on the street, offering a stick of gum, and then demanding $100 after you chew it. The very idea is absurd. Caveat venditor – it’s not the buyer’s responsibility to look out for the seller’s interests, and if the seller fails to negotiate an equitable contract before the exchange of goods and services, they have very little legal standing, as they’d effectively be trying to enforce a unilateral ex post facto contract. So dine away, and simply don’t pay.

  8. naturalcynic says

    Get loud.
    Haggle with the maitre d’. And make sure that those around you can hear.
    Make yourself a persona non grata. There must be other restaurants nearby.

  9. Alverant says

    I have a simple policy wherever I go shopping.

    No price. No buy.

    I don’t lay claim to any merchandice, service, or menu item unless it’s clear how much it is. All too often I see some items with a missing price only to be surprised that it’s more than what I thought the item is worth. Drinks are a prime example. A soda at a restaurant can cost more than a 2-liter bottle most of the time. WTF man!

  10. Brownian says

    All to often “specials” are what the restaurant wants to get rid of before it goes off.

    Indeed, though it’s not always a bad thing. Besides creating tasty dishes, a good chef/kitchen manager keeps costs down by reducing wastage and spoilage. Ideally, this would mean buying only as many ingredients as are needed to produce the number of dishes ordered. But because it’s impossible to perfectly predict how many customers one is going to have (as well as predict just how many dishes are going to burnt/dropped on the floor/sent back, etc.) there has to be a certain amount of overage, and it’s this overage that gets recycled into daily specials.

    With meat, the overage is fed to people who order their cuts medium to well done. If you’re the type who won’t eat a steak unless it’s cooked to the consistency of a Dr. Martens upper, you’re getting the cut that fell down behind the jar of olives in the back of the cooler sometime before MLK day and was just discovered yesterday.

  11. Rabidtreeweasel says

    To save anyone embarrassment I say, “I’m interested in ; is that market price?” If it is, they’ll say yes and tell you the cost. If it is, they’ll say no, and still provide the information. It’s worked for me each time.

  12. says

    There are a few places around here that do in fact print the daily specials, even some semi-upscale ones… but it does seem to be the case that if you go upscale enough, they don’t do that. Weird.

    I think that’s done to give the diner a feeling that he/she is ordering something “off the books” that the less savvy travellers don’t see. It adds a contrived feeling of “specialness” that a lot of people seem prone to fall for.

    What makes me laugh is when a menu says “Market Price” for a special. Like the price is based on information I can get from up-to-the-minute market reports? Or am I expected to help them determine the “market price” by haggling? What if I show up with information on what other “markets” charge for the same meal?

  13. Kevin says

    Legally, you are required to pay for part of the bill. If it went to court, I think you would be able to point to similar entrees at similar restaurants and say that is what the “fair” market price for the meal is. After all, you did take away from their inventory, time of the chef/staff, etc. so you are required to compensate them. However, that doesn’t mean that you are required to pay whatever price they quote you. The person above who mentioned that you didn’t have a contract because no price was mentioned is incorrect. You have still formed an implied contract with the establishment.

    From wiki: “An implied contract is one in which some of the terms are not expressed in words. This can take two forms. A contract which is implied in fact is one in which the circumstances imply that parties have reached an agreement even though they have not done so expressly. For example, by going to a doctor for a checkup, a patient agrees that he will pay a fair price for the service. If one refuses to pay after being examined, the patient has breached a contract implied in fact.”

    Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, I just find law interesting.

  14. Doug Little says

    I think it would depend on the ingredients in said special as to whether the price was justified or not. $275 pasta could be justified if it contained a substantial amount of white truffle. So yeah, I guess you should
    a) make sure you understand what you are ordering and
    b) always ask for a price.

  15. Doug Little says

    Not to mention that it gives the chef a creative outlet to come up with something spontaneous based on what ingredients he has on hand or what he managed to get a hold of that day from one of his suppliers.

  16. Mano Singham says

    I agree with Doug Little that there is nothing necessarily nefarious about the idea of offering daily specials. It is just that I cannot absorb that rapid fire information though I am sure that foodies like jamessweet can.

    I would just like to think about it more before ordering. And know the price.

  17. Mano Singham says

    That sounds like an excellent policy. Some restaurants here voluntarily do that but not enough.

  18. mnb0 says

    Same in The Netherlands. Many restaurants use the special menu (specialty of the day) as an advertisement, written on a small chalkboard or something.
    Including the prices.

  19. smrnda says

    No matter what the occasion I never go to any restaurant that doesn’t advertise based on price. Sometimes you get what you pay for, but beyond a certain point you get diminishing returns. I have had a good meal for $30 that was better than most meals for $10, but I cannot imagine that a $300 dollar meal would really be that much better than the $30 dollar one. If anything, I’ve sometimes found ‘fine dining’ and ‘delicacies’ to be a sort of conspiracy of food that doesn’t really taste so good but costs a lot.

    When menus or signs have no prices I always think it’s the ‘if you have to ask, you can’t afford it’ type message which works if you want to piss off everybody but wealthy snobs but not for the rest of the world.

    There was a hilarious bit in William S Burroughs Naked Lunch about a posh restaurant that had a great reputation but which gradually degraded the quality of food until people were eating literal garbage, but that the customers kept coming and paying the outrageous price for the image.

    As for following, I tend to be able to follow what the person is saying but a written piece of paper would be a lot better. The only deal is that printing up enough copies everyday might be a cost that would be inordinately high as special would change all the time.

  20. Mano Singham says

    As to the last point, I assume that someone writes up the specials for the wait staff to memorize. All it would take would be to print paper copies and stick them in plastic sleeves each day. It would be quite cheap and a lot less time consuming.

  21. Art says

    Some restaurants can operate on a near one-time-only basis for a time.

    Nightclubs are notorious for this sort of thing where there is a concerted effort to raise ‘buzz’, including paying for celebrities to show up, and collecting exorbitant prices for every item and service. Once the edge disappears, and the bloom is off the rose, the nightclub quietly folds and gets renovated into its next incarnation. In stocks the same basic mechanism is called pump-and-dump.

    Then there are the for-profit, or not, vanity operations. In reward for ‘services rendered’ the wife or daughter of a well placed legislator or board member will get their very own restaurant, in a tony part of NYC no less. Thrilling. For a time everyone in the select social circle will be obliged to visit, and sometimes pay, the exorbitant prices for the meals. This can be a simple vanity restaurant ride for a few months, or a concerted effort to provide a substantial source of wealth. Depends on how long people coerced into visiting.

    The same thing happens when one of the vanity presses comes out with a book from a well placed functionary, or a member of their family. Members in the social, or business clique, and their underlings, are expected to make a bulk purchase of this book. Actual costs are perhaps five to seven dollars each so every copy purchased nets a smooth $20 to the author. It is a legal fiction designed to allow the money and favors to flow.

    It is also why so many offices have boxes of books laying around, why so many restaurants associated with the wives and children of well placed people come and go, and why so many businesses have ridiculous business models if you assume people aren’t being tricked of coerced into participating.

    Wealth and power allows an entire amusement park of dreams to exist for the lucky few. The fortunate can play at being a chef, running a restaurant, owning a winery, writing a book, sailing the Caribbean, run other people’s lives, even make money. And do it under carefully controlled conditions where they can’t fail or get into trouble. Money and power allows the illusion of talent and skill.

  22. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Tell the staff that you prefer to have a paper copy of the specials so you can read about them instead of trying to remember what the waiter said while reading the menu.

  23. Sophia Dodds says

    I’ve never even heard of a restaurant that has unpriced menu items! How utterly rude. I went to culinary school and fairly pricing menu items was an integral part of the curriculum. You can add whatever profit margin you think is fair of course, but the biggest margins are always on desserts. You make bugger-all on main courses and entrees usually, dessert ingredients just cost less.

    Tips from (my understanding of) the industry:
    – Price disparity is good.
    – If all items on a menu are priced within a few dollars of each other, it’s likely some of them have been marked up to fit the spread. If you want a good deal, go for dishes with more expensive ingredients such as prime cuts of meat or fish.
    – Vegetarian or vegan dishes are often marked up because the ingredients are, for the most part, inexpensive. Check for price disparity.
    – If you want to support a restaurant, buy dessert.
    – I’m convinced panna cotta was only invented to make profit. Gelatinous milk is not my idea of a tasty treat. If it’s yours though and you love the restaurant, buy it. They’ll love you 😛

    Oh, and the no-brainer: If any items are unpriced, don’t order them. They’re obviously priceless(tm).

  24. Leni says

    As someone who had to memorize and recite somewhere around several bazillion specials over the 10 years or so I worked in restaurants, I would have liked a paper printout as well 😉

    If there’s only one, fine. But standing there describing 3 Thai specials to people who don’t understand Thai food probably wasted several years of my life. I eventually wised up and just started asking if people were interested in hearing them before starting the spiel.

    But yeah, If it’s not marked you probably don’t want to pay how much it costs.

  25. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for the tips! I am learning quite a lot about how restaurants operate from these comments. Too bad I don’t eat out that often.

  26. Sophia Dodds says

    I learned a heck of a lot myself from the course 🙂
    Now all I need is for my newborn son to be less… newborn… and to get a job in a kitchen!
    I’d love to eat at restaurants as much as I used to with my parents, my city has a really lovely rangs of fantastic places. I’d definitely change my ordering habits after finding out how restaurant kitchens operate though.

  27. left0ver1under says

    At McDonald’s, they ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

    I don’t see any difference in the intent. These sorts of practices are designed to lighten your wallet and increase their bottom line, not make eating out any more enjoyable.

    “Upscale” only refers to the pricing.


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