I’ll Have Water, Please

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from Ernie Smith, the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. In another life, he ran ShortFormBlog.

(Image credit: Flickr user Roman Boed)

Americans expect a glass of water by default with their sit-down restaurant meal. Why is it such a big deal, and how much water are we wasting, anyway?

Going to a restaurant is a game of expectations. We expect certain things out of the experience, based on the set parameters when we walk in the door. If we’re going to Mickey D’s, we expect our food pretty fast and fairly low-quality. If the restaurant doesn’t have a counter, we expect a menu at the table. And when we sit down at a restaurant—in the United States, at least—we expect a couple of glasses of water ready to go to help satiate our appetites. But why is that? And what are the ripple effects of having a glass of water sitting at our table before we’re ready to order? Let’s quench some knowledge.

Should water be served with a meal?

“Water always should be served, especially in this country. True, in France and in many parts of Italy, water is not drunk at all, because it is not fit to drink. But French etiquette demands that water be served at formal dinners. And American authorities on etiquette all include a glass of water in table settings.”

New York Times food writer June Owen, writing in a 1957 column about the necessity of serving water with food ahead of a dinner, going against trends in Italian and other kinds of food to serve wine in a similar role. Owen notes that doctors recommend that we should drink water between meals. “But a sip of water in the midst of dinner clears the palate and quenches the thirst, which wine does not do,” she adds.

Is water a palate-cleanser, an assault on good food, or something designed to piss off the server?

(Image credit: Flickr user Vivian Chen)

Water has freely flowed through many server tables and bars around the United States, and has become so essential to the dining experience that it’s considered a major faux-pas by the server to forget to bring you a glass of water before you begin eating.

Well, it’s at least that way in the U.S. If you go to a restaurant in Germany or another part of Europe and ask for a glass of water, it’s an immediate tell that you’re a tourist. The water isn’t free, and it’s generally served in a small glass bottle. And you’ll be asked whether you’d like it still or sparkling. And the waiter may in fact roll their eyes at you while you ask for something so basic.

“For some strange reason Americans expect a glass of water, suitably chilled, to automatically appear at their table in a restaurant,” writes The German Way’s Hyde Flyppo. “This no doubt stems from Prohibition. However, most Europeans avoid drinking tap water in general—not because it isn’t safe; they just don’t want to spoil a perfectly good meal with such a bland liquid! After all, there are so many better things to drink!”

And even in the U.S., the wait staff can’t stand your constant demands for refreshment. Your free water is preventing them from making extra money.

“The thing is though, a glass of tap water doesn’t add to our check average, which means it does not increase our tip, and the bottom line is that servers want to do things that are going to make them more money,” writes the pseudonymous “Bitchy Waiter” over at ShiftGig.

Bitter, party of two?

A Tourist Draw

Wall Drug, an iconic tourist trap in South Dakota, hands out 20,000 cups of water daily. The shopping area, located about 60 miles from Mount Rushmore started handing out free glasses of ice water as a way to attract people to the giant general store in the middle of nowhere. It worked.

Don Cheadle’s campaign to get restaurants to stop automatically serving water

(Image credit: Flickr user Bob Bekian)

In 2014, Golden Globe-winning actor Don Cheadle started a bit of a debate on Twitter about water at restaurants.

“Tweeps, next time you’re at a restaurant please inform your waiter that you will ASK for water and not to automatically pour,” he wrote.

From the surface look of things, it seemed like kind of a dumb request to some: Don’t automatically bring people water at a restaurant? It sounds symbolic at best. But, true story: the Hotel Rwanda actor actually knows what he’s talking about in this case. (He also knows how to turn a Kendrick Lamar video on its head.)

For one thing, Cheadle has ties to United Nations humanitarian and environmental campaigns, some of which include water waste concerns. So there’s a good chance he has some front-line knowledge that this actually works.

On top of that, however, if you actually do the math regarding his odd suggestion, you’ll realize that all that wasted tap water adds up, and then some. The National Restaurant Association, which once conducted a survey that found most restaurant-goers expect to have a glass of H2O sitting at their table as soon as they sit down, now recommends on its website that restaurants only serve water by request.

And when it comes down to it, the costs in sheer water usage add up. The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, which is campaigning for water savings in Texas, notes that for every glass of water put out, we’re wasting another gallon of water to clean that glass, creating a ripple effect of waste that’s worse than the initial waste created.

“What makes more economic sense? Removing an untouched glass of water that has dripped all over the table and takes at least a gallon of water to wash? Or ‘spending’ the wash water for a glass in which a purchased beverage was served?” ponders the group.

Don Cheadle isn’t just one of our greatest actors. He’s a genius who should never go thirsty.

Wastage

“People order water and say fill it up and only take two sips of it. So if you put that all together on a low scheme of it, we use 20, 30, 40 gallons of water every day.”

— Johannes Bacher, the proprietor of Johannes Restaurant in Palm Springs, California, discussing his reasoning for choosing no to no longer serve tap water in the wake of the state’s long-running drought. California has legally barred restaurants from automatically offering up water since 2015, but Bacher’s restaurant takes things a step further: You have to pay a buck for fancy bottled water that comes from New Zealand. The crazy part is, this isn’t a novel idea outside of the United States.

(Image credit: BrokenSphere)

California has been losing its water weight sweating over wasted hydration in the past couple of years due to a drought that fortunately is in the past, so it makes sense that conservation of water at restaurants is such a big deal.

But oddly enough, the country’s other major liberal bastion—New York City—has taken the exact opposite approach on this issue. Back in 2014, the city did away with an obscure measure that only allowed restaurants to give tap water to customers if they specifically ask for it. The measure had been on the books since 1991, but had rarely been enacted or enforced.

Most restaurants just handed out glasses all willy-nilly, blissfully unaware of the rule—something that’s fairly ironic considering the city’s recent push towards heavily regulating restaurants out of environmental and health concerns.

Of course, California shouldn't fall into the same trap here. Just because the rain's back and the water's flowing again, the state’s restaurants can't go back to their old wasteful ways.

Don Cheadle is watching. Don't disappoint him.


A version of this post by Ernie Smith originally appeared in the Tedium newsletter, which tries in vain to make dull topics slightly more interesting. You can follow along on Twitter or Facebook.


Many of these arguments seem petty. Yes, if the water isn't drunk then that it goes to waste, as does the water needed to wash it. That gallon of water costs less than a penny. But the spoon I don't use is also wasting water - why not make utensils available on request only?

To give an idea of how small 1 gallon is in regards to the meal, it takes over 100 gallons just to make the meat in a quarter pounder. I also can't help note that this is a conservation method which is based on guilting the customer, and costs the restaurant almost nothing. Is the restaurateur also switching to low-flow toilets, upgrading to more water efficient dish washer, and so on?

The "Bitchy Waiter" comment about not making tips for tap water sounds like another reason to get rid of tipping. The cost of water is part of the cost of doing business. The waiter also doesn't make extra tips for bringing an extra fork, should the one I use fall on the floor, nor bringing an extra napkin.

Nor is the glass of water at the table a result of Prohibition. https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2010/09/06/that-glass-of-water/ points out that it was common practice in the US well before Prohibition, though there is a connection to earlier temperance movements.

For what it's worth, here in Sweden, tap water is free at most restaurants, delicious, and used by the locals. At cafes and other places without wait staff, there's usually a stack of glasses and a pour spout or pitcher for you to pour (and top up) yourself. I think that's the practice across the Nordic countries.
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I remember a trend a few decades ago where some restaurants would not provide free water with a meal. The only way to get some was to pay as much for a bottle it as a glass of wine. The practice never lasted very long.
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I'll grant you that restaurants should only serve water on request. But I'm not going to be ashamed of drinking water. Restaurant foods are in general, not the healthiest meals possible, and I don't want to add needless calories to my meals with sugar-laden soda pop or lemonades and teas. Often, if I do decide to have a pop or lemonade, I'll ask for no refills and switch to water after one glass.
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