Ask The Salty Waitress: My Server Didn't Say I'd Be Charged For A Menu Substitution

Dear Salty: At dinner recently at a nice restaurant in my town, I asked the waiter if it would be possible to substitute certain seafood in the bouillabaisse. I saw that the restaurant had a scallop dish on the menu, so I asked whether I could get scallops in the stew instead of shrimp. He said sure, and I got my three scallops in the stew. Then, when the check came, there was a $5 surcharge for the scallops. I paid it because I didn't want to be "that woman" in front of my friends, but it doesn't seem right. I understand the concept of more expensive ingredients; my issue was that the waiter assumed the up-charge was implied. Was it wrong that he didn't give me a heads up?

Thanks,Should Have Just Ordered Scallops

Dear Scallops,

Scallops are more expensive than shrimp, which I know you know. (You don't see Popeye's doing popcorn scallops, right?) And yes, scallops are delicious, so I see why you were trying to sneak a few into your bouillabaisse all special-like. Salty's on to your little seafood switcheroo.

If you make a substitution at a restaurant, especially if it's for an item you know to be pricier, then it's fair to expect there could be a surcharge. Otherwise, what's to stop me from ordering the burger, except sub the commodity ground beef for Wagyu beef? Or the lobster mac-n-cheese, hold the mac-n-cheese? Even a hamburger place will probably charge you a couple bucks to upgrade to sweet potato fries.

Some might not, especially if you're a regular or if your table dropped $500 on wine, but margins on food are razor-thin as it is, so we can't go dishing out scallops all willy-nilly. It's fair for restaurants to tack on an extra charge for ingredients like that.

But in this case, you're not in the wrong. What's not fair was the server didn't tell you. This is pretty much Server 101: When you're going to charge a customer more for something, let them know to avoid an awkward moment later. If he went back to check with the kitchen—which is usually what happens when it comes to menu substitutions—then he should have come back to say two things: "Yes, the kitchen can do that. It will just be a $5 surcharge, if that's okay."

Maybe he was trying to spare you from talking about money in front of your friends, but I'm of the mind that customers should always know what they're being charged. That's why I'm pro telling-tables-the-price-of-specials. Transparency, people! He might have been pushing one of the illusions of restaurants—that everyone can afford everything and that money is no object. $5 scallops? Sure! $30 up-charge for the Kobe beef? No problem! Tack on a lobster tail? Why not!

But that's unrealistic, and yes, he should have told you the price. You probably could have argued it with a manager when a bill came—if I was that manager, I'd remove the $5 just to avoid a scene. In the future, if a server doesn't mention the cost of what should be a pricier menu substitution, ask. And remember: in life, there's no such thing as free scallops.

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