Whether it's Claridges, Pizza Express or Burger King with a voucher, you've got rights when eating in a restaurant.
So if you want to know if can you get free tap water, if the service charge is a must, how to split the bill, or what to do if the food ain't up to scratch... this quick Q&A should help.
In this guide
A restaurant is a service-based industry and, just like with banks, mobile phone giants or airlines, there are laws that dictate the level of service you can expect. The prime protection comes from the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982. This demands that any service provided in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (common law in Scotland has similar effect), should be carried out with…
Reasonable care & skill, within a reasonable time & at a reasonable cost
You may think this sounds a bit woolly, and indeed it is.The key term is "reasonable" and this is open to definition. The easy way to think about it is 'if you asked a sensible, fair-minded friend, would they agree it wasn't reasonable?'. Ultimately, if you can't agree with the restaurant, the final arbiter is the court. Yet specific rules have grown up for various circumstances.
Restaurant Rights Q&A
- I got double-booked and it ruined my night. What can I do?
- I was ill after eating. Can I get my money back?
- Great meal, but rotten service. Could I have refused to tip?
- I'm sick of buying bottled water. Can I always get tap water for free?
- Should there always be a toilet in a restaurant?
- What's the fairest way to split the bill?
- Where can I find out more on my consumer shopping rights?
I made a booking but turned up to find I'd been double-booked. This ruined my night out, what can I do?
If you booked a table at a restaurant you created a binding contract. If the meal is cancelled by the restaurant you can claim a reasonable sum to cover the cost of travelling and possibly for any disappointment or inconvenience eg, if the meal was for a special occasion.
If you pre-paid for the food, you are entitled to this money back too.
To claim, you have to write to the restaurant and ask them to refund your travel cost and your loss of enjoyment (if you think this applies). You should explain you're willing to take the matter further and consider legal action. If you do not get the response you hoped for you should file a claim with the small claims court. Yet if you book a table and don't turn up or bother to let them know, you've made a contract so the restaurant could, in theory, sue you for compensation. This rarely happens in practice though.
The food wasn't hot enough or tasted off, and I was ill later that night. Can I get my money back?
All food should be of satisfactory quality, including being at the right temperature when it's served. If it isn't, you can claim a full or partial refund depending on the problem. Although it can be hard to prove the meal that's caused your illness.
When food is poorly cooked, eg you tuck into a chicken breast to find it pink and semi-frozen, then complain immediately. Food must also be prepared with reasonable care and skill. It's one thing to allow food to stand and go cold, but another not to cook it! You should always bring up the issue within the restaurant and ask it to replace the dish.
If you're struck down with a tummy bug after a meal and can prove it's the restaurant's fault (which can be difficult - get a note from the doctor as evidence to help your case), you can ask for compensation. You're entitled to claim for the cost of the dish, any pain or suffering, loss of earnings if you were off work and any other expenses incurred as a direct result of the food poisoning.
If this approach doesn't work you can file a personal injury claim of up to £1,000 with the small claims court. Be aware that the restaurant is only liable to pay individual dishes that were unsatisfactory.
Q. What if I didn't get ill, but the food simply wasn't up to scratch?
It's totally legal to refuse to pay because you believe the food was not of satisfactory quality. You should explain the reasons to the restaurant and leave your name and address. However, many restaurants can become angry at this and may pressure you into paying. If this is the case you should write on the back of the bill that you are "paying under protest".
You should also report the establishment and incident to your local environmental health service, as this may pose a health risk and be a criminal offence under the Food Safety Act if the food is unfit for human consumption. Find the relevant local authority to complain to via the Food Standards Agency's website.
Great meal, but rotten service. I hated paying an extra 10 per cent but felt that it wasn't fair not to. Could I have refused to?
You could. The quicker restaurants stop being rewarded for poor service, the better. Even if the restaurant includes the service charge on the bill, you do NOT have to pay it – it is purely voluntary. So if you've had shocking poor service, or don't believe the amount set is appropriate you can reduce it or not pay it at all. If the service charge's already absorbed within the food cost, you are still legally entitled to deduct a reasonable amount (eg, 10%) if the service was not as expected
I'm sick of paying for expensive bottled water. Can I always get a glass of tap water for free?
Surprisingly the answer is no, not in all restaurants. Licensing conditions that came into effect in April 2010 mean licensed establishments (those that serve alcohol) in England, Wales and Scotland must provide free drinking water. Restaurants that don't serve alcohol are not obliged to give tap water - and if they do they can charge for it. However it is illegal for them to pretend it's bottled water.
Luckily most restaurants don't have a problem giving tap water nowadays and the Consumer Council of Water is trying to promote this everywhere, so the problem should be rare.
Find out your full rights with our Free Tap Water Q&A.
Should there always be a toilet in a restaurant?
All restaurants should provide toilets for their staff, and wherever possible for customers as well, especially if they have more than 15 seats. Premises that are open after 11pm or have a drinks licence must have toilets though.
What's the fairest way to split the bill?
If you're out with friends, this is a perennial argument, and there is no specific law to cover it. The two most common methods are either splitting it equally- which can result in unfairness especially to those who order less – or everyone going through the bill for their items, which can take an age and lead to arguments about who had what.
There are a number of smartphone apps out there to make divvying up the bill a little less painful. Bill Splitter Calculator for iOS and Advanced Bill Splitter for Android have good reviews and are both free.
One other option is Martin's 'easy honour' system, here's an extract of the explanation from his Money Diet book.
"At the end of the meal, everyone should contribute what they think they owe, including the tip. Most people get it roughly right, but of course when you total up you'll almost always be short; it's human nature.
"So divide the shortfall by the number of people - lets say there's £50 difference and 10 friends, everybody then puts in an extra £5. It may not be completely accurate, but it's a quick and easy way for people to pay near enough what they should. It helps you budget, without losing friends or looking too mean."
Where can I find out more on my consumer shopping rights?
For more info on your statutory shopping rights and how to protect yourself in advance, see the main Consumer Rights guide. To know what to do when things go wrong and become more aware of criminal actions by companies, see the How To Complain guide.
Saving money on meals out
There's a full list of vouchers in the Restaurant Vouchers and London Eating Out pages. Importantly, if you've used an offer you're entitled to the same service as if you'd paid full price. As well as food vouchers, there's a raft of permanent ways to save money on meals out.
These methods are especially handy if you wine and dine on Friday or Saturday nights, which some vouchers exclude:
Dedicated dining websites allow you to browse restaurant offers and book online. Here you simply search for a table, book and print out the email or voucher. These are our top picks:
Online restaurant booking service OpenTable (formerly Top Table) features everything from local pizza joints to Michelin Star restaurants. For the best deals, select your city from the homepage, and then check the "special offers only" box below the search bar. You can then specify further by filtering for a particular offer - eg, 50% off - on the the left-hand side next to the results.
Lastminute.com* has offers throughout the UK and commonly offers 50% off food or 2for1 main courses. As with OpenTable, some offers are better than others.
The discounts are smaller, but 5pm.co.uk is worth a look. Deals are mostly set menus and 20% off.
Get bargain meals with Tesco Clubcard...
Use your Tesco Clubcard points on meals out at restaurants, and you effectively get them for a quarter of the normal price. This is because 100 Clubcard points are only worth £1 if you use them in-store. Yet spend the points on goodies from its Deals Brochure* and you can get up to four times the vouchers' face value, eg, £2.50 worth of Clubcard vouchers are worth £10 in Strada vouchers.
...or a TasteCard
A TasteCard entitles you to 50% off or 2for1 meals at over 3,500 restaurants around the UK, including GBK, La Tasca, Prezzo and Zizzi. At £80, 12 months membership ain't cheap, but it can be worth it over the year, especially if you often take out large groups.
Restaurants can get mardy if you suddenly produce the card at the end of the meal, so always book ahead, mentioning the offer, then show the card before ordering. TasteCard often offers free one to three-month trial cards; these are always included in the free weekly email.
Bring your own booze
If you like a bottle of plonk with your dinner, BYOB (bring your own bottle) places are a great way to save. Restaurants rake in profits by charging inflated prices for booze, eg, bottle of Louis Jadot Bourgogne Chardonnay is typically £20 on a wine list. Yet pick up the same bottle at Tesco before you hit the restaurant and it costs just £12.
For a list of BYOB restaurants across the UK, see Wine-pages.com. Some charge corkage of a couple of pounds, though many don't.
Michelin starred food on the cheap
If there's a fancy Michelin joint you've always wanted to try, your foie gras and lobster ravioli will be vastly cheaper at lunch than at dinner. As an example, a three-course set dinner at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester costs £90, but the same thing costs £55 at lunch – a massive £35 saving.
Check restaurants' own websites for offers.
Eating out can munch away at your money, so do it yourself at home with recipes from the forum's Old Style (thrift) board. There are hundreds of lip-smackingly gorgeous ideas; check out a full index of moneysaving menu plans. If you're a curry fan, here's how to make a three-course Indian Takeaway for £5. Many Old Stylers report they now find restaurant grub disappointing.
Don't feel embarrassed about tap water.
There's absolutely no shame in asking for tap water. It's 1,000s of times cheaper than bottled and better for the environment too.