/ Money

Should the ‘optional’ service charge be barred?

Wallet on bar with drinks

Restaurant service charges are a bone of contention for our community, but what about extra charges at the bar? Have you ever checked your bar receipt to see whether an ‘optional’ service charge has been added?

About a month ago I visited a London hotel with some friends and proceeded to order a couple of cocktails at the bar. The bartender diligently made the drinks and gave me my change along with a receipt that I tucked into my purse.

It wasn’t until a few days later when I was clearing out my purse that I noticed I’d been charged an ‘optional’ 12.5% service charge. Surprised at this, I phoned the bar and spoke to the manager. I told him that my receipt said the charge was ‘optional’, yet it had been taken without my permission. He told me it was customary to add a service charge to all drinks and food served and that it said so on the drinks menu.

I said we must be using a different dictionary definition of the word ‘optional’.

To make a long story short – he refunded me my £1.74. However, the entire experience left me wondering whether others have been caught out in the same way.

‘The barman opened the bottle and charged for service’

Most people will pop their drinks change straight into their pocket or purse without checking the receipt, yet some bars could be making a small fortune from ‘optional’ service charges.

We decided to take this question to Which? members. Although around a third told us that they always check bar receipts, three in 10 said they rarely or never do. Interestingly, women are significantly more likely to check their receipts than men, and the older you get, the more likely you are to do so. We heard some interesting stories as well, such as this one:

‘About seven years ago, I arrived before anyone else for a meal in Leeds, so ordered a drink. The barman opened the bottle, handed it across the bar, and gave me a bill including service charge. I refused to pay this, and gave him the money for the drink only.’

But not everyone is willing to complain:

‘A hotel in London a couple of years ago… we bought a small wine and a single spirit and mixer at the bar. The man serving us added service charge automatically and gave us change based on this being mandatory. We didn’t complain as it was the first time we’d experienced it and thought it was the norm in London.’

So, have you fallen victim to the ‘optional’ bar service charge? Did you complain, or were you happy to pay the added charge?

Louise says:
6 February 2016

At the end of a day out in London my friend and I ended up in the Grosvenor Hotel cocktail bar for a very quick cocktail before catching the train home.
Cocktails £12 each but bill was £27……
Just greed!!!

Ashish Gaba says:
19 October 2016

It’s my first time in bar in UK & I ordered glass of wine & they charged me £10 bar charges & i think it’s complimentary

Last Thursday I popped into Cerise bar (Forbury Hotel Reading) and ordered a small beer and a diet coke. Was charged £7.02 which I thought for Reading was quite expensive. It wasn’t until a couple of days later (today) I found my receipt. They had added a 12.5% service charge on sneakily. There was nothing optional mentioned about it on the receipt. I wonder how many others were being ripped off in the same way. I am also not sure if this was legal? There were no drinks lists out where it may even have been stated. Interested to know if this is an acceptable process now in the industry?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

One of the worst acts of the Coalition government was to scrap the law that made it compulsory for all licensed premises to show [usually in a list on the wall near the bar but also on the pumps and optics or on printed table cards] the prices for all drinks sold in the establishment. As soon as the requirement was revoked most pubs and bars removed their price lists. The staff don’t even know the prices nowadays because they just tap the item in the computer [which is often out sight] and request the total payment. Even pubs’ websites don’t show the prices. The Campaign for Real Ale – which had pioneered the original legislation – was furious but nothing changed.

I hope at least it was waiter service in the Cerise Bar at the Forbury Hotel, Valerie.

I had not realised that the Coalition government was responsible for the dropping of the requirement to display price lists until you mentioned this before, John. The requirement was only to display a representative selection of prices.

In the days when this Order came in, most pubs were owned and operated by breweries and only sold a selection of drinks – two or three beers, a lager and a limited selection of spirits and soft drinks. The breweries produced the price lists and they tended to show all their products. Now that pubs often sell a dazzling array of odd drinks and cocktails, the need for price information is even greater. Rather than scrap the legislation it would have served consumers better to update it and make it more useful.

In my local Wetherspoons pubs, the “wet menu” list the prices of their drinks. Food prices are covered by a separate menu. Other local real ale bars tend to use blackboards to list the available beers and their prices.

Our micropub in town has the prices on a blackboard and on a rolling screen that provides a short description of each beer and the location of the brewery.

Good pubs [like my local] do this and have attracted a good regular clientele. I have noticed that [apart from Wetherspoon’s] city centre pubs and those that have a more peripatetic [or cataleptic, even] following are less inclined to reveal their prices. Certainly where there is an unavoidable service charge [as in some hotel bars it seems] I feel this should be made clear to intending customers.

Hotel bars have usually had higher drinks prices than ordinary pubs but rarely added a service charge in my experience. Valerie’s round [half a pint of beer and a diet coke] cost £6.24 before the 12½% service charge, which I would say is a bit steep for Reading in the first place without adding insult to injury. Did they put some nuts or crisps on the table to make the occasion more palatable?

By way of comparison, my local charges £7 for a pint of premium bitter and a [generous] medium glass of Merlot.

Shelby says:
17 November 2019

Recently had the same experience at a London Hotel, purchased drinks at the bar and was charged extra, when questioned the staff member got the manager who refunded it but made me feel like a leper! The drinks were already expensive, but I struggle to understand what the additional cost is for? Surely bar staff are paid to provide a service? If someone goes above and beyond to provide a good service, then I would tip them. Another example of greediness I guess, and nothing we can do about it…

The simple solution is to leave the hotel and have a drink elsewhere, though you still have to pay London prices.

Simpler still is take your own drink with you.

…and, if you have any say in the matter, go somewhere less expensive than London…