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Not a drop to drink

By Ann | February 17, 2011

c'est pas possible

Yesterday I went out for lunch with a friend I’ll call Elizabeth. We were the first customers at a neighborhood restaurant and we ordered an entrée + plat for Elizabeth, a plat + dessert for me. And then the server paused with a flourish. “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez boire?” he asked.

I rarely drink wine at lunch — it ruins the rest of my work afternoon and I’m already far too prone to naps or internet distraction without any chemically induced aid. I also rarely order bottled water because I think it takes a toll on the environment, and, let’s be honest, I don’t mind saving a few pennies by drinking tap.

One of us ordered  une carafe d’eau — a pitcher of tap water.”Non, ça marche pas ici,” said the waiter. He proposed a half-bottle of flat or sparkling. I must have been weak from hunger because I didn’t question him. We ordered a large bottle of fizzy.

But later that afternoon, I started thinking. Is it legal for a restaurant to deny a customer tap water?

I asked my friend, Alain, who owns a café, Le Mistral, in the 20e. “C’est pas gentil,” he said. But he didn’t know if there was any law preventing it.

And then I posted on Twitter. Thanks to my friend Katia’s crack research team, I discovered a helpful website, which details this 1967 decree: A restaurant is obligated to provide bread, regular water, spices or condiments, dishes, glassware, napkins, etc. As a result, a restaurant cannot charge for a carafe of water when it accompanies a meal.

I phoned the restaurant, to ask if they had a comment. “If customers don’t drink wine, I can’t earn a living if they don’t even order a small bottle of water,” the owner told me. “If you don’t take any wine, at least have the kindness to order a bottle of water.” He added: “I am someone who is known to be very reasonable with the prices.

“What about the decree of 1967? I read it aloud. “We didn’t charge for tap water,” said monsieur. Ah, semantics.

Our lunch was 58€. I don’t remember the breakdown, but that included one entrée, two plats, one dessert, and the aforementioned large bottle of water.

“I have the best rapport qualité prix in the whole quartier,” said Monsieur. “I offer lunch for 24 euros, pour faire plaisir. Did you enjoy your lunch?”

I hadn’t, particularly. I told him the bread had been stale, and my risotto raw. He promptly invited me and Elizabeth to lunch there — tomorrow — to “recapture our interest,” an invitation that I had to decline.

Besides, what would we drink to wash it all down?

UPDATE: Read the restaurateur’s final response here.

Topics: Dining Out and About, Uncategorized | 32 Comments »

32 Responses to “Not a drop to drink”

  1. Lindsey Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    Unbelievable, both his cavalier attitude when confronted and the fact that he thinks 24€ for a quality lunch menu is doing anyone a favor, especially when it’s not even good!

    You did your investigative research, now it’s up to him to do something about unsatisfied customers!

  2. Katia Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Hats off to you for giving him a chance to explain himself, but that’s just culotté. A price like that is totally unreasonable for mediocre service and food.

    And honestly, thank YOU for giving us a highly entertaining morning discussing the price of tap water in Paris ;)

  3. Heather Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Too much, Ann! TOO MUCH! That is a crazy story. Ca marche pas ici. As if you’ve been pulling a fast one in a bunch of other restos drinking up all that tap water. I am proud of you for having the nerve to call and “investigate” — Bravissima!

  4. Daniel Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Wow, your courage to confront the guy is impressive!

  5. Winnie Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    I am always surprised when I travel abroad and get offered a glass of water immediately when going to a restaurant. In Belgium you always pay for water, it’s just one of the options for drinks.

  6. Filipa Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Well done for calling them and thank you for writing this and also for clarifying the law around this!

  7. Jen Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Good for you to stand your ground! I have never understood what the big deal was. Why shouldn’t carafe d’eau be given to customers as soon as they are seated or at least, given to customers upon requests – ungrudgingly??

  8. magillicuddy Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Unreal… I don’t want to say it but… his wife is earning more than enough probably on Top Chef to cover water…

  9. Virtual GDBK Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    What I find interesting about this is that everyone has their own point of view. You call the restaurant owner and he feels totally justified in refusing tap water (which I personally agree is crazy…)!

  10. Randy de Paris Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I heard this happens in the 5eme (Latin
    Quarter) alot. Sadly, his attitude by no means is uncommon, I think it’s more the norm!

  11. Fred Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    You should have said Cambronne’s famous word and leave the place, à la française. Unpleasant waiters are a plague… I remember one saying “c’est pas une boulangerie ici” after we asked for some more bread.

  12. Yolanda Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    The owner is what we call in Romania “a smecher”, a cowboy whose only aim is to hang in there and make money in the short term. His philosophy is “I don’t care about customers, this is Paris and I’ll never see these people again”… Many people in touristic cities exploit the transient tourist market. I found great little restaurants in Paris, and France in general, but there were many rip-off places as well. Still, I keep coming back to the magnificent lunch I had with my husband in Saintes Maries de la Mer…moules marinieres on the sea shore …

  13. paris (im)perfect Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    Crazy! I so admire that you called him out on it. Everyone’s pretty much said it, but it’s ridiculous that he would begrudge the water when he’s charging 24 euros for a mediocre lunch (qualite/prix my a**!) Go you and your awesome follow-up!

  14. Deborah Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I am not surprised that the owner would defend his practices.
    I applaud you for pointing out that the public he wishes to
    Feed, at so high a price, are not morons; and, require more to drink
    With their meals than just fizzy water or wine.

  15. Tammy Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    What a story! And he had the gall to add insult to injury by inviting you back!! Good job calling him out.

  16. Shannon Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    You are a far braver consumer than I–bravo! I’ve also enjoyed reading the comments. It’s funny to me that some places, like restaurants, where customer service is critical are often the worst violators. So strange.

  17. Voie de Vie Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    Bravo for standing your ground, and for telling him exactly what you thought of his lunch.

    Also love that crack research assignment! He might let them eat cake, sans l’eau, but you are on the side of the doves, as well as the law. :)

  18. Je ne regrette rien Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Yelp is now in Paris. At minimum this deserves a review, with restaurant name.

  19. Amanda Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I have had similar experiences here in Australia, although not often, thankfully. I recall one restaurant who refused to supply a carafe of water and only offered glasses of the same in an effort to force us to buy bottles. Our table of 8 drank a lot of water that night to make a point and I know that they have since reviewed that short-sighted policy! I suspect their waiting staff is pleased about it, too. We have similar regulations about the supply of tap water here, too.

  20. Jackson Walker III Says:
    February 17th, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    Condiments, spices, and water yes, bread no. At least in the US. Restaurants are not obligated to serve any food for no charge and often restaurants consider bread food. I do,; it is one of my main food groups :).

  21. CK Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 7:25 am

    There was only one appropriate response from the restaurant owner: Sorry, I’ll talk to my staff, it won’t happen again. Also, this sadly contributes to the “bad service” stereotype from which Paris suffers — and which I generally dismiss. If it weren’t for friendly café owners, I probably wouldn’t even speak French now.

  22. Eleanor Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 9:43 am

    Was just having this very same discussion with my friend Jen who lives in Brussels! Winnie already pointed this out above, but apparently it is unheard of in Belgium to get tap water. I, too, wondered if it was legal to deny a customer tap water. Thanks for doing the research! Also, FYI, ate at Le Mistral last Friday for my team dinner and loved it!

  23. Janice from Fresno Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I’m like you and generally boycott bottled water for environmental and cost reasons. The tap is perfectly acceptable in Paris, and unfortunately how typical the attitude of the French owner. Bravo to you for standing ground, and giving it right back!

  24. David Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I recently had dinner at a restaurant in Paris that had (free) filtered water in carafes, still and sparkling. The waitress explained to us the machine they installed to produce it. Since it’s an added cost to the restaurant, I wouldn’t even mind paying a bit for it since it’s such a great idea.

    Have to agree with Yolanda that this guy obviously doesn’t care much about repeat business. I also wonder if he refuses to give French customers carafes of tap water as well, and how they react…

  25. Julie McCoy Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Well, I’m not a big fan of bottled water either (or having to pay for it) but I would definitely take him up for a repeat and hopefully free lunch. I would also order a bottle of wine to drink with it. After all, everyone knows restaurants make most of their income from the liquor not the food given the prices these days.

  26. Florian Bellanger Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Not only your waiter was not polite at all by refusing to serve you tap water , but as described in your article , it was totally against the LAW !
    effectively by law , restaurant cannot refuse to serve tap water and ARE NOT allowed to charge for this.
    I will even go further than this , old Laws (created by Napoleon at that time) and still in place.
    in France , if someone ring your home bell (perfect stranger that you never seem before) and tell U he/she is thristy and in need of a glass of water …refusing is illegal !

  27. Florian Bellanger Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    (suite) it can considered (in court) as “non assistance de personne en Danger” …even more interesting Napoleon Law again (not sure if this one still in place but it was 30 years ago) a Bakery cannot refuse a piece of bread to someone showing up starving with no money to pay for it ! that is the law !

  28. alp Says:
    February 19th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    restaurant owner has shown a typican parisian attitude. actually he has been very honest.(apparently an armenian name)

    this is a “restaurant”, so dont expect the american rest. customs from the 50’s and 60’s and be prepared to pay for some table drink. you’d better change your mind, and stop begging for free tap water.

    there is no such thing as free tap water anymore..

  29. Sweet Freak Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Ohhh, this is the stuff that really burns me! How outrageous. Suffice it to say, Le Caméléon will never be patronized by moi!

  30. Michel Says:
    February 20th, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    I have never heard of such a thing. But having said that, I can sort of sympathize with the patron. We own a small restaurant in Northern CA and we allow patrons like most restaurants do in the area to bring in wines and we charge a “corkage” fee. There are some generally pretty well understood rules about corkage like bring in special bottles, don’t bring in wines that are on the wine list, don’t bring in more than two bottles, but these rules are broken all the time and it would be easy to do something rude. I have resisted so far.

  31. TheCélinette Says:
    February 21st, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    I found the solution here :

    This law’ article is repealed (since 1987).

    So the french administration said that the water and the bread are free (when you order a meal) except if the owner of the restaurant wrote on the menu that you have to pay for it.

    Whatever it’s not the use in France !
    And it’s the best way to give a bad image of his place.

    Céline :)

  32. Bob Says:
    February 22nd, 2011 at 8:21 am

    Good on you, Ann, for standing up against that restaurant bully. The nerve of him even to attempt to defend his position especially while serving food which isn’t even properly cooked. Why would he think you would want to return for another meal of badly cooked food … with or without tap water? As for Alp and his comment … is it possible to “beg” for tap water in a restaurant when it is free on request everywhere else?

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