Nina Smith

How do you handle errors on the restaurant bill?

Filed By Nina Smith | September 07, 2008 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: ethics charges, overcharged, personal finances, restaurants

"When you make a mistake, admit it. If you don't, you only make matters worse." - Ward Cleaver

Recently, my partner (Jeanine) and I ran a quick errand at South Coast Plaza, our local mall and as we were leaving we stumbled upon the new Charlie Palmer restaurant. We sat at the bar and ordered two glasses of wine, the cheese plate and a salad. The couple on our left and the woman on our right even offered a taste off their dishes . . . how friendly is that for Southern California? It turned into a little food fest on a Tuesday night.

Eventually though, I had enough of the impromptu party and placed my credit card where the bartender would notice I was ready to cash out. He took the card and then returned for my signature. I was still talking to the woman who had shared her SHRIMP KABOBS A LA PLANCHA TAMARIND CHIVE GLAZE, CAPONATA SALAD (fantastic, by the way!), so Jeanine opened the bill presenter. After reviewing the line items she said in a soft voice, "He charged you for the $40 Cabernet... what do you want to do?"

"Umm... I'm going to tell him that I didn't order the $40 glass of Cabernet."

I'm sure Jeanine thought it would turn into an awkward scene, but there was no way I was going to pay forty bucks for a glass of wine. Earlier, I had even vacillated about the $15 option. Most of their reds were in the $12 range and typically, I'm hesitant to select from the higher priced tier . . . but it was a Tuesday night and I was only going to have one glass of wine so what's $3 in the big scheme of things?

I ordered it by name. It was something, something, Conn. I assume as in Conn Valley, but regardless I remember saying, "I want the Conn Cab." This was my way of making sure he knew I wasn't ordering the $40 option.

When I brought it to the bartender's attention, he seemed surprised and indicated it was his mistake. He immediately swapped it out for the $15 item and re-presented the bill. No scene. But I suspect there are some people that might feel timid about addressing an error on their dining bill.

Unlike other transactions, diners are in a unique social setting putting them at a disadvantage to examine the bill. Do you think this bartender knew this and took advantage of the situation? After all, I was busy talking and never even saw the bill before handing him my credit card. If Jeanine hadn't scrutinized the bill for me, I would have likely signed and walked away, saying that was a fun night, but kind of expensive. Hello? A forty dollar glass of wine . . . was he trying to pull a fast one on me or was it an honest mistake? I still tipped him just shy of 20 percent, but I wonder what the tipping guru would say about the etiquette in this situation.

Anyway, another writer at Queercents covered this "error on the restaurant bill" topic over a year ago, but in light of my recent experience, it seems worth repeating her questions here:

Do you review your dining check in detail?
Would you bring it to the server's attention if there were an error (especially if that error was in your favor)?
Would the type of dining establishment, amount of the error, or personality of the server influence your actions?
Would your actions change if the restaurant was gay owned and operated?

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts below.

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When Nina is not dining out, she can be found blogging about money over at Queercents.


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Hi Nina! I seem to have a problem lately remembering to take my change at the check out line. The first time it happened as at Kohl's a few weeks ago. I got a really great shirt on clearance and the cashier didn't give me $10 change. I didn't notice the error until I was already home, and I didn't feel that the $10 was worth the drive back to the other side of town. Sans change, I basically ended up negating the savings from getting the shirt on sale.

Earlier this week I forgot to get my change from the girl at the garden store because we were busy chatting about her earrings. Fortunately I noticed the mistake when I was in the coffeeshop down the street. I took my receipt back to the store to ask for my $13 change, and as soon as I walked in, the girl knew why I was there. We both shared a laugh about it, and it wasn't nearly as uncomfortable asking her to fix the error as I thought it was going to be in the Kohl's situation.

I share this because I still feel like I should have gone back for the $10 at Kohl's, but I was too embarrassed to do it. Since I've been writing for Queercents and reading the articles on a regular basis, I'm not as shy anymore about asking for someone to correct a billing error or for short changing me. So thanks for that!

Serena: I'm glad to hear that writing for Queercents is "paying" off! I'm not sure I would have made the trip back to Kohl's - because of the time and cost of gas... but I would have fumed over what had happened.

Your change story now makes me consider this topic in another way... if the mistake were in my favor, would I make the time and effort to go back to the store? Or even correct the mistake if it was noticed while there. This could be change or an item that the clerk inadvertently didn't ring up or charged the wrong price (something I refer to as a gift with purchase!). Something else to think about...

Wow, strangers sharing food. Kinda restores your faith in humanity doesn't it? I think the server made an honest mistake. Because anyone can make a mistake, I always review my bill. If it is wrong or contains something I didn't order a friendly word with the server usually clears things up with no fuss. Of course it helps if you treat the server like a valuable part of the dining experience. And it should go without saying that if the mistake is not in your favor the same response is in order. It often comes out of the server's pocket not the owner's.

What about if the food isn't right? Overdone/underdone steak? I hate "seasoned" fries and always ask for them "naked", and sometimes they come seasoned anyway... or worse greasy. Sometimes I say something and sometimes I don't. If I'm in a place where I go often and the staff knows my habits, they'll see that I'm not enjoying my meal and make the proper adjustments without me having to say anything.

People nagging servers makes me go all queasy. The food will get here when it gets here - I want to crawl under my seat. Hope I have not strayed too far from the topic...

I'm afraid I'm in no position as a professor on a professor's salary to be paying for expensive items I didn't order, so yes, I review my bill in detail, and I say something if there is a mistake. However, if the server corrects the mistake without a fuss, I will leave a larger than usual tip. I don't think it would matter whether it were a diner or a gourmet restaurant, nor whether it was gay owned or not. Interestingly, when I practiced law and had a salary more than twice as large, I rarely looked at the bill, and would only do that if the total seemed unusually large. It just didn't seem worth the effort back then.

yes - always
yes - if it's "in your favor" it's theft, so... always
no - I'm tight like that
no - not all; I could care less who they sleep with when they want my money

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 8, 2008 12:02 AM

What tees me off is when I am asked by the other half to see the bill I am paying. I always pay all bills and he wants to "review" the bill even if we have other guests at table.

(I can quickly add a column of figures having been raised pre pocket calculator and he knows that)

In your case Serena I am glad that your partner saved you. Mine has never saved me and with three decades of cross column weekly road expenses under my belt I can smell an error even in Thai Baht. :)

Otherwise, I agree with Bil. Honesty with others and yourself is everything.

Hi Robert, I'm not really sure what you're referring to when you say that my partner "saved me." Although we share expenses, I am a very financially independent person.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 9, 2008 11:58 PM

Your partner saved you...$25.00. No other implication was implied and thanks for the post.

GregC: Yes, strangers were sharing food. Restores faith in humanity? Well, they weren't offering up their kidney... but nice to know that people are still friendly in this world. Now the server on the other hand... in my gut, it just didn't feel like an oversight. It felt very intentional... but of course, I'll never know. And the part you brought up about the food needing to be prepared right. You betcha... I'd be sending the fries back too if I had ordered them "naked" and they came all dressed up in their Sunday best.

Jillian: Yes, I agree that the tip should remain the customary amount. I've never penalized a server this way... I spent too many years as a server myself. And the part about "worth the effort" back then... you have a point and in a way, it's a time is money thing. Was it worth your time to look at the bill and have the server take something off? I think a lot of people feel this way and servers (the dishonest ones!) bank on it.

Bil: I wish I could say I'm more like you when it's "in your favor," but I've been guilty of taking the freebie with a sticking it to the man mentality. It's not right, of course...

Robert: My partner and I split the dining bills - well, I'll pay one and she'll get the next - kind of thing. Either way, I was glad she did the scrutinizing that night. Saved me forty bucks!

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 8, 2008 9:37 AM

Nina, until his mind went, nah...actually for years before...I paid all the bills. He would forget them until a shutoff notice came, insurance...not have enough cash in his checking account...and he is 24 years older than I am...and he was a VP at a bank! It is like having a doctor for a patient.

Thank you for this precious moment of feeling sorry for myself and I am glad everything worked out for you. :)

There's no problem correcting a mistake. We can never get inside the mind of the person who made it, so it's safe to assume it's an error unless something proves otherwise. Money is main the language of acquisition in this country, so asking for your power to acquire other things that you really need overrides the need of seeming careless.

One's best indicator is in the response of the person making the error. Are they quick to fix it? Do they attempt to deny it or belittle you? While they may just have a hard time admitting they made a mistake (who hasn't), they may be pulling a fast one. You never know; however, as my old boss used to say, "Closed mouths don't get fed."