Restaurant Rights

Bad service/food, what can you do?

Whether it's Claridges, Pizza Express or Burger King with a voucher, you've got rights when eating in a restaurant.

If you want to know whether you can get free tap water, if the service charge is a must, how to split the bill and what to do if the food ain't up to scratch, this quick Q&A should help.

Top tips including...

What rights do you have in restaurants?

A restaurant is a service-based industry and, just as 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 N Ireland (common law in Scotland has a 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 this - 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

  • 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 bear in mind that 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 would be very unlikely to happen in practice though.

  • 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 it was the meal that caused your illness.

    When food is poorly cooked, eg, if 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 website.

  • You could. Discretionary service charges are voluntary and you can deduct it from the bill if you're not happy. If the service charge is compulsory, then a restaurant has to display it clearly on any price list or menu, and even if it does it still doesn't mean you'll necessarily have to pay it. If the service was particularly poor, you could argue that it wasn't provided with "reasonable care and skill", and use this as a basis to refuse to pay the charge. 

    If the service charge is already absorbed within the food cost, you are even legally entitled to deduct a reasonable amount (eg, 10%) if the service was not as expected.

    If they cause a fuss and say you have to pay, leaving you feeling forced into it, then say you're paying "under protest" and dispute the cost later. This will protect against any defence that you agreed to the charge through paying for it if you decide to escalate things further (ie, ultimately to court).

  • 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 though - 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 in our Free Tap Water Q&A.

  • All restaurants should provide toilets for their staff, and wherever possible for customers as well, especially if they have more than 25 seats. Premises that are open after 11pm or have an alcohol licence must have toilets.

  • 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. The pragmatically named Tip Calculator % Free 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 - let's 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.

  • 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.

How to save money on meals out

There's a full list of vouchers on the Restaurant Vouchers page. 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.

The best places to book online

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, search for your date, time and city form the homepage, and then check the boxes under the the "offers" tab above the results. You can filter by a particular offer - eg, 50% off or Set menu £20 and under. It has free iOS and Android apps, for easier booking on mobile.

  • Lastminute.com* has offers throughout the UK and commonly offers 50% off food or set meals under £20. As with OpenTable, some offers are better than others.

  • The discounts are smaller, but 5pm.co.uk is also 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 Bella Italia vouchers.

Restaurants include Café Rouge, Bella Italia and Chimichanga; see a full list*. For more tricks to maximise Clubcard points, read the Tesco Vouchers guide.

...or a TasteCard

TasteCard entitles you to 50% off or 2for1 meals at over 7,000 restaurants around the UK, including Strada, La Tasca, Zizzi and many independent restaurants. 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 1-3mth trial cards; these are usually 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.

For example, a 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.

Some restaurants charge corkage of a few quid, 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 £60 at lunch – a massive £30 saving.

Check restaurants' own websites for offers.

Home-cooked fayre

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.

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