78

Some waiters offer something (e.g. distilled water; more amuse-bouches, hors d'œuvre or bread) without disclosing if it's free. How can I clarify tactfully?

I always decline, as I don't know how to ask without being judged. But this flopped yesterday. When I arrived first at a restaurant, I declined the waiter's offer of house-made garlic bread and taro chips. Only when my colleagues arrived later, did they tell me that they were free. We then notified the waiter of our changed answer, but there were no more.

Some tablemates said nothing, but I could feel their disapproval of me and disappointment.

  • 5
    Is discussing the validity of the colleagues' disappointment within the scope of this question? (Honest question - I'm new to this stack) – M C Apr 27 '18 at 14:36
  • There is something I do not understand about your question. Are they offering you something or are they suggesting you order something? – Andrea Lazzarotto Apr 28 '18 at 14:36
  • Please explain how the restaurant managed to run out of their standard pre-meal snack chips! That's a startling thing to happen. – Carl Witthoft May 1 '18 at 13:24

12 Answers 12

85

Is that extra, or included?

It's a way to inquire about pricing while not actually saying any specific word that is heavily financial in nature.

Or, simply, "How much is that?" By inquiring about the cost, you can be delighted if you find out its free.

If it's more than what you want, just note, "No thanks, I'll pass."

148

A waiter's job is to inform you of the menu and serve you while you're in their restaurant. Their time is precious so you always want to be careful when causing them more work than they would normally have to do.

When asked if you'd like an extra dish however, there's no shame if you respond with:

That sounds interesting, but what's the price for that? I can't seem to find it on the menu.

You are inquiring about the menu--something that is within their job description to regularly help customers with, and you are taking a very small portion of their time to do it.

  • 72
    Moreover I think that existence of an open question should be emphasized here, that simply does not imply anything. Sort of 'What is the price of it?' instead of 'Is it free of charge i guess?' The waiter/waitress has an opportunity to make us a nice surprise instead of disappointment. – mpasko256 Apr 26 '18 at 8:06
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    "Hm, that sounds nice, what's the charge on that?" will do even better. Say that normally as if you were saying "check please". How you say things makes the world of difference. Things become embarrassing only when you think they are! You start behaving differently, this makes others focus on what is the source of your embarrassment. If you do possibly embarrassing things and do not show any signs of this feeling, then even if you make a fool of yourself the effect will be greatly diminished. "Yeah, I sucked at it. How do I do it better?" - shorter laugh, helpful continuation. – Ctrl-C Apr 27 '18 at 23:18
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    This answer certainly explains that price inquiries are a normal part of their job; but I'm not sure it addresses how to ask 'without looking stingy'? – Rob P. Apr 28 '18 at 12:03
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    That's a brilliant solution. I feel you could almost just treat that as a canned phrase, and find it works every time, out of the box. And to @RobP.'s question, I'd argue there's a difference between someone who likes to be aware of costs and someone who is being stingy. If you used this multiple times during a meal, it might start feeling a bit stingy, but I'll point out that I've seen more than one cocktail menu elect not to print prices and there's nothing stingy about asking the waiter/waitress the price on those. – Cort Ammon Apr 28 '18 at 17:12
  • I would just add that if it did end up costing money, and you declined politely, it would not be offensive in any way. The whole idea of a restaurant is predicated on people paying for food, and included in that is the idea that there are foods they don't want to pay for (or pay a given price for). If the waiter is put off by you asking about the price of an item, they're in the wrong business. – yshavit Apr 28 '18 at 23:43
21

Unless you're afraid of looking cheap - something I really don't care in a situation like this, where politeness and straightforwardness are always more important - what's wrong with:

"How much does it cost?" or "Is it free?"

Don't over complicate something simple, just ask or check the menu, if the product isn't listed, it's normally free.


"Some table-mates said nothing, but I could feel their disapproval of me and disappointment."

What you "could feel" was probably your "guilty feeling" for not asking the food. Don't try to guess feelings or thoughts of others, it's a dangerous game and most of the time you're wrong.


Update:

In my mother country (Portugal), body language, body contact (arms/hands), eye expression, among other specific cultural codes, talk louder than words, based on this, I'd look the waiter with a cute interrogation expression and ask:
"Is it free?!", i.e.:

Man making a facial expression

The pic is only a mean to get your attention to the fact that genuine empathy, politeness and straightforwardness are powerful arguments everywhere and acknowledged very fast by the other side, arguments against which there are normally not many counter-measures, besides replying with a smile to a smile, with courtesy to courtesy and so on. If this doesn't happen, something is sure, you've done everything right and your interlocutor is definitively on the wrong side of the game.

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    I'd generally be more inclined toward "Is it included" rather than "Is it free". Asking for something that's free might be considered selfish, but asking for something one is paying for anyway would be expected. – supercat Apr 27 '18 at 17:01
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    That's interesting. I'm pretty sure most cultures don't rely heavily on body language at all. :p – Anthony Apr 27 '18 at 17:50
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    @user76284: Asking for a specific price would suggest a that one is expecting the restaurant to charge extra. Asking if it is "free" might suggest that the restaurant is trying to give it away. Asking if it's "included" conveys the notion that the one expects that the server is merely offering to help the customer take best advantage of what he's already paying for. – supercat Apr 27 '18 at 18:40
12

How can I clarify tactfully?

I‘d suggest TOOGAM‘s first suggestion and still simplify it:

Is this extra?

or, for that matter...

Is this included?

I live in Central Europe and realized that for some years, an increasing number of restaurants started using sales tactics with offering small foods etc. without specifying if they would be billed.

These tactics play exactly on customer’s shame of looking stingy to increase sales. I think this is unethical, and I don‘t like that.

Therefore, I strongly recommend taking that small risk and ask:

  1. If it turns out to be part of a sales tactic (=not for free but offered as if), asking is never stinginess but countering manipulation.

  2. taking a small risk every day on purpose will reduce feelings of social awkwardness by habituation.

10

"Is it free?" => I don't want to spend money => I might be light on tip

"How much?" => I want to pay if it's reasonable => I'm willing to tip

The second question comes across better.

If they're suggesting it, they should know the price, as that would be a common question. So it should be no work for them.

Some restaurants have ridiculous up-charges, so it's reasonable to ask questions if you've never been there before.

7

My preferred tactic in these situations is to ask, "Where is that on the menu?". This works in situations where there is a question about price, or dietary restrictions. You don't need to indicate for which reason you are asking. Personally sometimes I ask this question because I want to know price, sometimes because I want to read the description of an item.

Another question that will serve could be, "What's the additional cost?"

My experience with using these questions is limited to the United States.

5

In my experience, waiters will offer complimentary things differently than non-complimentary things. For example:

Can I get you started with something to drink?

This requires further feedback from you, which will usually involve reviewing the drink menu or knowing what you want (and thus understanding it costs something).

Would you like some chips and salsa to start off?

This is a yes or no question, which suggests it's being offered to you rather than suggested.

This isn't to say that a waiter couldn't say :

How about we get you started with some of our world famous jalapeno cheddar poppers?

Which aren't free, but in such cases, there is an implicit understanding that the customer will know it's not complimentary. Not because the customer is expected to know, but because if it was too ambiguous, enough people would say yes and upon discovering at the end of the meal that the item wasn't free would be some level of angry or upset, which would translate into complaints or bad reviews or lower tips, which would translate to that waiter not suggesting menu appetizers as though they might be complimentary.

In the US, it's generally safe to assume that water is free, and some item that is cuisine appropriate for the restaurant (chips at a Mexican restaurant, bread at an Italian restaurant, etc). So much so that they often don't ask. So some amount of experience can lead your understanding of whether an item is likely complimentary. If you're in a steakhouse and they ask if you'd like to start with some fried cheese sticks, and you've never had that offered to you at any other steakhouse, odds are good it isn't complimentary.

In any culture, I would assume that something is either usually complimentary or it usually isn't. Based on those cultural norms, you shouldn't be afraid to assume something is complimentary if it usually is. On the other hand, if you live in a culture where it is completely arbitrary whether one restaurant offers something as complimentary and other one doesn't, so that it is never safe to assume (which would be a bit ridiculous, but hey, I don't want to judge anyone's culture), then there is almost certainly a culturally-acceptable way of asking whether the offered item is complimentary or not. If the custom in that culture is to say "will that be free?" then you shouldn't worry about seeming stingy, since it is the agreed-upon way of asking. If the custom is to say "how much will that be?" then that's the best way to go. Point being, anyone's first line of defense in such a situation is to rely on previous experience, rather than panic about coming across as stingy or greedy or inconsiderate. Rather than asking "how to ask without looking stingy", perhaps the question should be: "how do most people in xyz culture handle this situation?" Try to learn the customs, rather than imagining a perceived slight.

Per your "house-made garlic bread and taro chips" situation, that sounds like weird customer service. I wouldn't expect it to be free either, and wouldn't hesitate to ask "oh is that free?" since bread is often free but fancy bread might not be. He should have said "would you like some of our complimentary fancy ass garlic bread" so as to avoid that ambiguity.

Furthermore, the fact that they ran out 20 minutes later makes it sound nonstandard. Who offers free things but doesn't make enough for all the customers? If it is some special perk they offer to customers lucky enough to come in when it is on hand, it should definitely be emphasized that it's complimentary.

And as for your colleagues being disappointed, that sucks. But people get disappointed all the time, so it's almost unavoidable that you will eventually disappoint someone for silly reasons, even if you try to do everything just right. Also, they might have just been disappointed that they didn't get bread, not that you didn't ask for it.

Asking if it's on the menu is clever, but if your default is to say no because you're worried it might not be complimentary, I suggest relaxing that instinct a bit and assume 90% of the time a waiter offers something specific at the start of the service, it's complimentary. Asking "I don't see water on the menu" every time is going to get exhausting and will seem a bit strange to many waiters.

3

How much is it?

Short and sweet, implies that you're willing to pay if the cost is reasonable. As opposed to "Is it free?" which carries an expectation that it is.

It's $5.

Thanks, but I'll pass.

or

It's free/complimentary.

Great, by all means! / Awesome, yes please!

  • 1
    Excellent, simple answer. When in doubt, that why do - just ask casually - 'thanks... how much will that be'? – Vector Apr 29 '18 at 20:55
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I'm going to disagree with the basis of the question. That is, I do not believe one looks stingy by asking more information before making a decision on whether or not you'd like to be provided something that is offered.

Here's how I would handle the interaction in a culture where food is offered upon seating, but not always complimentary:

Premise:

Waiter: Would you like some bread to start?

You: Is the bread complimentary, or will there be a charge?

Result 1:

Waiter: The bread is complimentary.

You: Sure, I'll have some bread.

Result 2:

Waiter: The bread is a dollar for a serving.

You: I think I'll pass.

There is nothing stingy about not wanting to spend money on something that you do not believe is worth the cost. An example of what I would consider stingy is below:

Result 2 alternative:

Waiter: The bread is a dollar for a serving.

You: Hmm, I would like some bread, but perhaps not a whole serving. Is it possible to get half of a serving for half the price?

  • 2
    I don't think the person asking the question thinks any question would result in looking stingy, but instead that this specific question, "is it free" might have that result. In fact, this question is based on the premise that there is a way to find the extra information tactfully. – M C Apr 27 '18 at 14:37
2

I personally feel it's the waiter's job to mention if something is complementary.

There is a nice restaurant close to my work and they have complementary starters with two choices. Everyone who visits it for the first time finds it very confusing when they are asked to choose between them.

I've also noticed two responses from new customers.

A) Is it complementary?

You can just say you want to pass if it's not complementary at this point

B) No, thanks.

At this point the waiter explains it's complementary and they usually pick a starter then.

Drinks are a bit more complicated though. My golden rule that seems to work in most of the cases is that if you are asked e.g. Do you want something to drink?, it's not free. But if you are offered a single item or choice between 2-3 items (not like a long menu), it's complementary.

One more thing. I personally feel it's bit impolite to ask for something complementary later after you pass it earlier (as was your case). You can accept it the next time you visit the venue, but once you passed it, you shouldn't ask for it again.

Important Note: I currently live in Germany. While I expect it to be similar, but I cannot say anything for sure for other countries.

2

Well similar thing happened to me during my stay in the UK. I had ordered for a Fish & Chips, the waiter asked if I would want some peas to go with it. Well I am aware of the up-selling they have to do to boost sales, so I passed. Later on I realized it was included in the meal. So, if you had already ordered and they offer you something on top of it you can politely ask,

You - Does it comes with the meal?

Waiter - Yes

You - Sure, I'll have some.

Or

Waiter - No

You - Thanks, but I think I'll pass.

-1

You can always ask if this appetizer is on the menu as well. If it is something that comes standard and free it would normally not be on the menu. Or you could say it sounds nice where is this appetizer on the menu? This would prompt as server to talk about it in greater length or to declare that it is not on the menu and it will possibly be free.

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