Food & Drink

Water Is Free at Restaurants — but It’s Not Easy


Water is the most common substance on our planet, covering approximately 70% of its surface, so why is water in a restaurant so complicated? There are always so many options when it comes to water, it’s like H2OMG. 

Should you expect free water at a restaurant?

The assumption in most restaurants is that when you sit down, someone will soon present you with a big glass of complimentary water. For some servers or bussers there’s an innate need to keep that glass of water full at all times. It’s like keeping the glass full is a reflection of their service and failing to do so might give the customer a reason to think the service was subpar and therefore less deserving of a good tip. Take a sip, fill it up, take a sip, fill it up. It’s an endless game until the customer either says they don’t need anymore or they place their palm over the glass when they see the server approaching them again, pitcher in hand. 

There’s also the issue of room temperature water versus ice water. Someone might have sensitive teeth or gums that makes cold water impossible for them to drink while someone else who gets room temperature water will look at their server like they forgot something. Water, water everywhere, but no one is in sync.

Why is ordering water for the table a bad move?

As a server, it never failed to annoy me when someone would order water for the entire table. Of course I would bring it for everyone, but I always wanted to know if everyone really wanted that water. There are those people who don’t drink it. One woman once refused water because “fish swim and poop in it,” like the water in my pitcher was from a 10-gallon aquarium filled with guppies and goldfish. 

When someone orders water for the entirety of the table they seem to think it makes them look like a big spender who makes even bigger decisions. “Just bring water for the whole table!” When half of the people don’t drink it, it’s a waste of time, resources, and water glasses that have to go back through the dishwasher. 

Does a restaurant have to serve you water automatically?

At one point in my serving career, there was a statewide drought so everyone was encouraged to conserve water. The city even enacted a temporary law that stated water in restaurants would only be served upon request. It was life changing for me during those three hot months of summer. Gone was the responsibility of pouring water as soon as a customer was seated. The amount of joy that filled me was off the charts every time someone asked where their water was and I got to explain the city ordinance that didn’t allow me to serve it to them. What they saw as poor service was actually mandated by the city. 

Is it OK if you keep asking for water — or a pitcher?

If you are someone who drinks a lot of water, don’t feel embarrassed about asking for a pitcher to be left at the table. The server will be grateful they don’t have to keep eyeing your glass and you won’t have to keep apologizing for drinking it like a camel. When servers ask if you prefer bottled water or tap, there’s nothing wrong with asking for the free stuff. It’s their job to sell things to you even if they make you feel like ordering tap water means you care so little about yourself that you’ll drink whatever comes out of a rusty pipe. It’s not like your drinking water straight from a hose. 

As a customer, I almost always ask for tap water even though when I’m at home I wouldn’t think of drinking water that hasn’t first gone through a Brita filter. Restaurant tap water is perfectly fine and it lets me spend my money on cocktails and desserts instead. Besides, if you’re drinking anything with ice in it, chances are that ice came from lowly tap water. 

Can you be picky about the water you drink?

Every restaurant is different when it comes to water service, but the bottom line is you should have your water the way you want it. As much as you want or as little, sparkling or flat, tap or filtered, cold, or otherwise. After all, we ourselves are 60% water and if you divide that number by three, you’ll know what percentage to tip your server when the water and service lived up to your expectations.


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