Join MoneyMagpie today!
Log in or Register.
Jul 08

Sneaky restaurant scams you need to know

Reading Time: 9 mins

Cheap restaurants are hard to find right now. Good value food is even rarer. Restaurants are working to entice customers through their doors with 2for1 offers and discounts, but there are also other ways in which they are willing to make a profit – by scamming you. Find out how to avoid sneaky restaurant scams.

Top Tip – Eat out and save money by booking half-price meals through OpenTable, 5pm and No point in paying full price!

Sign Up – Newsletter

Look out for sly restaurant tricks

In order to recognise the sneaky tricks that restaurants use, you usually have to be a regular customer or at least have been to the restaurant before. You’re not going to notice if a new restaurant you have visited has made its portions smaller, for instance.

But there are some tricks that you can avoid and some will help you save money on your bill.

Tapas and side orders

You may think you can tell from the price how big the portion will be, but don’t be fooled! Ordering tapas to share can often leave us with more than we can eat because we have over-ordered, or disappointed with the lack of food that doesn’t reflect the price on the bill.

One way to get around wasting money on un-eaten food is to start with just a few dishes – you can always add more. The same goes for side orders, which can usually be whipped up in the kitchen in a few minutes should you decide you want one with your main.

Are your eyes bigger than your stomach? Don’t be ashamed to ask for your left over meal to be put in a box for you to take away. You’re paying for it anyway so you might as well have it.

Order by the bottle

Sneaky restaurant tricks you need to knowIt’s no secret that restaurants charge up to triple the retail price of a bottle of wine and make serious profits on alcohol.
However, some of us don’t feel comfortable without a well deserved beverage with our meal so if you’re going to order wine, you’ll get more for your money by ordering a bottle rather than a glass.

Of course, this is only really going to work if you’re sharing it – we don’t recommend you drink a bottle to yourself just for the value!

Serving smaller portions

In order to cut back on costs but still make a profit, many restaurants are reducing the portion size of many of their dishes but still charging the same for them. It has been reported that some restaurants are even serving their food on smaller plates to make it seem as though the portion is the same size!

This is one of those tricks that you’re not going to notice if you haven’t been to the same restaurant before and ordered the same dish, so it can be hard to avoid. But if you do notice, make sure you say something. Restaurant staff are likely to be quite embarrassed that somebody has picked them up on their scheme and if you are a regular to a particular restaurant, there’s nothing to stop you refusing to pay the total amount for the diminished dish.

Clever menus

If you thought that menus are designed to flow nicely from one section to the next, displaying all of the restaurant’s creations for the customer to see, think again. Menus are specifically designed to draw attention to the restaurant’s most profitable dishes in order to make them money.

The ‘power position’ of a four page menu is on the right hand page just above the centre. This is where the most expensive dishes or the most profitable will feature. Menus with lots of sub-sections tend to sell more dishes from the top and bottom of these lists and so place their most profitable ones here. And those menus that simply feature one long list tend to sell more of the third item on the list – which again, will be the one that makes the most money.

Ever wondered why a particular item on the menu is decorated with a box and pattern? The menu might say that these are ‘signature dishes’ or ‘favourites’, but they are usually profitable too! The restaurant wants them to stand out so that they are ordered by you to make them money.


Don’t feel obliged to order recommendations made by waiting staff just because they say it’ll go better with what you have ordered, such as a different wine or side order. More often than not, they simply want to make more money out of you by upping your bill and therefore their profits.

Don’t take it for gospel that the bottle of wine you ordered isn’t in stock and consequently end up ordering the waiter’s recommendation. Make sure you check the wine list again and make another selection – which will probably be closer to your budget than the recommended one.

Paying for water

If when you ask for water the waiter asks ‘still or sparkling?’ don’t be ashamed to say ‘tap’. Waiting staff are probably hoping you’ll be too embarrassed to ask and can then charge extortionately for bottled mineral water.

One thing to note, however, is that some restaurants aren’t obliged to serve tap water free of charge. Premises that serve alcohol are now legally required to provide free tap water on request but don’t assume every restaurant will do this.Sneaky restaurant tricks you need to know

It has been known for restaurants to refuse to serve tap water because of health and safety issues. The Consumer Council for Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, however, dismiss this excuse, as British tap water is of the highest quality it has ever been. If the restaurant uses water from the public mains supply, there is no reason for it not to be drinkable.

If you find you are charged for tap water, take a stand and refuse to leave a tip or pay service charge. An adult would pay just £1 a year in domestic water charges to drink their recommended eight glasses of water a day, so one glass for a customer is going to cost the restaurant virtually nothing. If you get charged for tap water whilst out dining, feel free to name and shame the restaurant in the comments below.

Using cheaper ingredients

In order to cut down on the costs of dishes, some restaurants have started substituting more expensive ingredients for cheaper ones to make a bigger profit.

Again, this is one of those tricks that you can’t really avoid. But if your favourite spaghetti carbonara at your favourite Italian appears to contain your average cooked ham instead of pancetta bacon, ask the restaurant staff why. If your complaint gets shrugged off, tell them you won’t be coming back and again and refuse to leave a tip. The last thing restaurants want at this difficult time is to be losing valued regular customers.

Added items on the bill

Make sure you check your bill carefully! You’d be amazed at how easily an extra bottle of beer or order of cheesecake can find its way onto your bill, especially if there is a large group of you. If something you didn’t order (or receive) appears on the bill, make sure you query it and get it taken off.

Credit card surcharges

Luckily this is not common, but it has been known for restaurants to add a 5% surcharge if you’re paying by credit card. By law, this will have to be mentioned in the menu somewhere – if it’s not then you do not have to pay it. You can also refuse to pay this surcharge by telling the restaurant staff that you will pop out to a cash machine. They can’t really argue – it’s either that or they don’t get the bill paid!

Service charge

This is the amount (usually 12.5%) that is added to the bill before it is presented to you. In order for this charge to be mandatory, it must be stated as such in the menu or you must have been otherwise aware of it. If not, you can request for this amount to be taken off the bill.

What happens a lot of the time, is that customers do not realise they are paying a service charge or have not realised that this charge is usually discretionary and have ended up leaving a tip as well, which is normally around 10% of the bill. So the restaurant has managed to make an extra 22.5% from you.

Don’t forget that tipping is optional. If you receive bad service, don’t feel pressured into leaving a tip.

Cover charge

Another horrible trick restuarants try – offering bread and olives or something similar while you choose your main course. Of course you won’t get it for free, so check the menu – the restaurant will have to state what the ‘cover charge’ will be.

You can guarantee that if you just order olives for starter they’ll cost less, so make sure you refuse the offer at the beginning – don’t feel obliged to eat any food that they place on your table without you asking for it.

Badly drafted bills

It may sound really frugal, but it’s never a bad idea to keep a mental (or written) note of your total bill as you go along, especially in foreign restaurants. Too many bills include simply the total amount to pay and don’t give a breakdown of what you’ve actually ordered, so you’re not going to know if you’ve been over-charged.

Seating customers close together

Ever walked into a near empty restaurant only to be sat amongst the other customers already dining? Well, there are two reasons restaurant staff do this. The first is so they don’t have to walk around the entire restaurant waiting on tables.

The second is so that you’ll see the couple on the table next to you with those delicious looking desserts and hope that this will sway into staying for two courses if not three, if you hadn’t planned to already. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a table which is a bit more private.

Ignoring the fact you want the bill

All restaurants are guilty of this! When you’ve finished your meal and either had dessert or turned the menu down, waiting staff literally like to keep you waiting while your bill is brought to you, in the hope that you’ll order something else. Just one more glass of wine? Maybe a coffee before you leave? Don’t give in! Surely you can have your extra tipple at home?

Table turning

Expensive and exclusive restaurants often set time limits on your table in order to get fresh customers in and make more money. If you go to a restaurant that holds this policy but they don’t make you aware of it, they have no right to demand you leave. Make sure you stand up for yourself! It’s your dining experience – make sure you enjoy it.

Set menus – do they really save you money?

Loads of restaurants offer set menus for larger groups and parties,  but do they really save you money?Sneaky restaurant tricks you need to know

Generally speaking, if you were to order the cheapest items on the set menu, you will be charged more than if you were to order the items individually from the normal menu – typically around £1.50 more. But most of the dishes on the set menu will offer you good value for money – you just need to be sure that you pick them!

All you need to do is your research. Take a look at the restaurant’s menu online before you go to get an idea of how much they usually charge for the individual dishes.

Top Dining Tips

There are plenty of websites that can offer you offers and discounts on your dining experience –

  • Sign up to our newsletter which brings you the latest restaurant vouchers for free each week.
  • Sign up to OpenTable – not only does this website promote the latest dining deals for restaurants all over Britain, but when you become a member you can take advantage of their points system and get a meal for free! Every time you book a table through the website you’ll earn 200 points and once you’ve accumulated 1400 points you’ll be able to eat out for free from a selection of restaurants.
  • always offers fantastic savings on restaurants – like 50% off, dinner for £10 and restaurant and theatre deals at competitive prices. Check out there latest offers here.
  • The website 5pm works in a similar way to OpenTable, but they focus a lot more on restaurants outside of London. You earn 90 points for every person you book for and redeem your points for various vouchers, like restaurant vouchers and vouchers for health and fitness clubs.
  • Find out about the latest restaurant offers and discount deals in our article Latest cheap eats vouchers and 2for1 meal deals.

More ways to save

Apart from avoiding restaurants altogether, there are other ways that you can save on eating out. Instead of following the crowd and fighting to get a table on a Friday or Saturday night, why not eat out on a Monday or Tuesday instead? Early in the week is when restaurants most struggle with custom and will often run promotional offers that include discounts and drinks thrown in.

If you’re planning to eat out with a big group of people, ask if there is any sort of discount for large groups when booking your table. A lot of restaurants will be glad that they don’t have to fill up the tables with other diners and they won’t want your custom going elsewhere, so see what they’ll be willing to throw in – maybe a complimentary glass of wine?

If you don’t mind going out for a meal and not having a tipple to enjoy, ordering a soft drink – or even water – will save you loads on the bill. Restaurants earn a bundle on alcohol as they charge double or triple the retail price.

Another way to save on alcohol is to take your own. Premises and personal alcohol licenses can be really expensive for restaurant owners to obtain and so those without allow you to bring your own. They may charge a corking fee, although this is more common with diners who wish to take their own alcohol to licensed premises. The corkage fee is just a small tip as a sort of thank you for allowing you to bring your own drinks. It is usually minimal and is no comparison for what you will pay for a bottle of wine at a restaurant!


0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stewart B
Stewart B
7 years ago

I believe that the ‘Paying for water’ section is outdated; with new legislation which came into force from April 2010,a restaurant which serves alcohol must provide free tap water for customers

7 years ago
Reply to  Stewart B

Hi Stewart,

Many thanks for this information – we’ve updated the article.

John Doe
John Doe
8 years ago

I do not feel that a service charge should be added and we, as customers, should have to ask about it in any form. If I go to a restaurant and the food is good and the service is good, then I am likely to leave a tip. I do not accept being forced into making an extra payment because of the owners greed. Thats why I do not eat out that much any more. There is always someone ready to rip you off. Too many times lately,I have been to places where its obvious that they are just getting… Read more »

8 years ago

instead of sayng this about waiters, why you don’t say that they working under pression of the manager with a lot of rude costumers and the SERVICE CHARGE IS STOLEN BY THE COMPANY????? Do you think is an easy job to do running with the food and you just eat a staff food wich is disgustin even for my dog??? Please when you go to the restaurant be nice and you’ll get a good service for sure, the waiters are working so they must be respected….. and don’t pay the service charge and leave cash tips if you like to… Read more »

8 years ago

As a restaurant owner I am amazed at how people assume they should have free tap water. Fair enough if I got the water, glasses, staff, ice, electricity to wash the glasses for free I of course wouldnt have a problem. However for some reason this is not the case.

9 years ago

You should NEVER refuse to leave a tip! EVER! Servers do not have any control of what happens in an establishment and chances are if your not satisfied with the place, your server must HATE their job too!

As far as these money saving tricks…yeah you should not have any shame to save a couple bucks but, at the same time, if you don’t have a budget to eat out then… DON’T!

5 years ago
Reply to  Jrivera8488

Joe, you can’t tell people that they have to leave a tip. I ALWAYS ask for the service charge to be taken off the bill. If I am happy with the food, service and value for money, I will leave a tip to the waiter/waitress that served me. If I am not am happy then I won’t. Simple. Like your brain.

5 years ago
Reply to  Jrivera8488

Joe, you can’t tell people that they have to leave a tip. I ALWAYS ask for the service charge to be taken off the bill. If I am happy with the food, service and value for money, I will leave a tip to the waiter/waitress that served me. If I am not am happy then I won’t. Simple. Like your brain. you are obviously a restaurant owner or waiter.

9 years ago

Another problem that was very common before calculator-printed bills came into use was the incorrectly added bill. There were quite often errors, which somehow almost always increased the bill. The most noteworthy example I had (abroad) was a scrawled bill with one of the items so misaligned that it was shifted one column, so “123” was written in the position “1230” would have been. The bill was about twice what I expected; the waiter was at great pains to go through the detailed sums to prove that I was wrong (7 and 6 is 13, carry 1…). I always have… Read more »

9 years ago

Are you an idiot? you have no clue what youre talking about… i mean have you ever even been out to eat at a public place?

Greg Bolshaw
Greg Bolshaw
10 years ago

“So the restaurant has managed to make an extra 22.5% from you.”

A bill with a 12.5% service charge plus an additional 10% tip does not equate to 22.5%. It is 23.75% as the tip is 10% of the total bill inclusive of the service charge.

Come on Moneymagpie!

Related Articles


Make Money and Save Money

ideas for everyone
Send this to a friend