On Free Water (A Quick Essay)

Growing up in America’s restaurants, drinking water for free always seemed like a given. I was raised with the attitude that it is my right as a customer to have water, and as much water as I want at that. Everytime I go out to eat, I fully expect a glass of water to be waiting for me at the table or that a busboy will soon be on his way with a cold glass of good old tap water. And never, I mean not once, did it ever occur to me that I was spoiled in this regard. I mean, how could someone deny me water? Right?

Well…I recently came across this post on Chowhound (a food forum) that begs a similar question and really put my skewed American attitude into perspective. A very agitated original poster wrote: “Is it legal for an eating establishment to decline free tap water to its customers?” Knowing what I know now, I would answer this question differently than I would have, say, a year ago.

So what has changed?

Water Outside of America

Well for one thing, I’ve done some traveling. Yes, my unworldly self has gotten a little worldlier this past year in visiting places like Amsterdam and Argentina, both of whose restaurants do not serve water for free. On both of these trips abroad, I found myself shelling out euro after euro (or peso after peso) for some mineral water with dinner. This was, at first, a huge turnoff, but being so used to drinking water here in the States, I begrudgingly had to order it anyway. This past year was my first exposure to the kind of world where the phrase “I’ll just have water” means you’re paying the same amount (if not more) than the person who ordered soda (you may recall me complaining about it here) – so coming back to America actually felt like a luxury.

Now that I’ve told you about this experience, let’s go back to the forum post for a second. The original poster also complained: “I can see if I didn’t order any food, then maybe they would shut me out, but this just felt wrong in so many ways.” I’m sure every non-American is laughing right now. (And no, I’m not trying to embarrass the original poster, as you know, I used to completely agree!) But I mean, look at us, we’re actually complaining about the few restaurants in our country who aren’t giving us water for free!

So why do we think we deserve free water? Well aside from just being used to it, there are plenty of reasons on which I’ve always based my rationale. 1. People need water in some form or another (don’t you remember that water makes up 75% of our body?) – whether they’re dehydrated, simply need to digest their food, or need to alleviate something spicy. Water is an essential element to human survival. So, actually making a consumer pay for something that is a basic need seems almost inhumane, especially (like the poster said) when the consumer is paying for other menu items. 2. Tap water costs little to nothing for a restaurant, it seems.

Conservation of Water

Let me just clarify that the reasons above used to be my rationale for free water, but aside from traveling, something else has come to my attention more so in the past year to make me think differently: conservation. Unfortunately, our basic need for water does not come without its challenges. Water is not exactly an unlimited resource. Have you ever heard of the half flush? Many toilets in Europe, Asia and South America all offer the choice of a half or full flush to be used depending on um…er…the output. They’re conserving water in their toilets for goodness sake, it’s no wonder they don’t just hand out water for free! This leads me to have more respect for those who don’t just pour water without asking if it’s wanted because what if the water goes to waste? With countless restaurants and customers, how many glasses of water go to waste?

The Future of Free Water in America

Aside from wasting water, there is another angle to the issue of free water in restaurants and that’s the present state of the American economy. As mentioned above, the original poster was agitated he had to pay for water when he was clearly giving the establishment money for the food he ordered. Some restaurants charge for the cup, others try and make up for the cost of rising food, but either way: restaurants, just like the rest of us, are in need of more ways to make money.

Water is usually free in America but if you look at the rest of the world, it doesn’t have to be. It’s no wonder that water is the first thing to start costing something in these trying times. So, seeing as how this restaurant is now charging for water – is this a trend for the rest of American restaurants? Is this luxury something we’re going to have to give up? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, you may feel a little confused about the points I have made in this essay. First I tell you that Americans should appreciate free water because not everyone has this luxury. Then, I complain that our free water is actually hurting the environment due to lack of conservation. And finally, I explain that Americans may be smartening up and charging for water to not only be conservative but also try to pull in revenue like the rest of the world already does. So what does all this mean?

I want you to tell me. Do our American freedoms and rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (maybe I’m going a little overboard here) tell us that water should be free? Or are we actually hurting the rest of the world and therefore ourselves by distributing free water regularly and not conserving? It’s not an easy question to answer. Post in the comments below! :)

Sidenote: I’ve taken a brief hiatus from writing about my trip to Argentina but I’m not quite done! You can read the posts I’ve written so far here:

From Empanadas to Crustless Bread Sandwiches
The Hidden Gem of Buenos Aires

Sweet Sweet Argentina
Honing Our Beef Eating Skills

P.S. I just noticed that David Lebovitz also wrote about this subject a year ago, great minds think alike? :)

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  • Kim

    You raise some really good points, and I was actually thinking about this after my recent trip to Nevada, where water is never just ready and waiting (it IS the desert, I suppose).

    I think the happy medium would be to allow customers free water, but let them ask for it, not automatically assume they will need it. I find that in most restaurants/diners, people let their water glasses go untouched and that is highly wasteful. As long as a customer is paying for food and respectfully requests a glass of water, I think it would be a courtesy for the restaurant to supply a glass for free. Or, at least free refills :)

  • http://kwanzoo.com/social-trivia LIz

    I came here to say what Kim said, basically. I don’t expect a restaurant to bring me water automatically, but if I ask for it, then I expect it to be free. However, I wouldn’t expect this rule to apply in other countries – especially not ones where I’d rather not drink the tapwater anyway.

  • http://recipespicbypic.blogspot.com Núria

    Hola Hillary! My point of view is completely different here since I’ve never had water for free anywhere in Spain or other European countries! But I’m used to it… so for me, it’s normal!

    However, if you enter into a bar and go to the bartender and ask for some tap water, you will have it for free, no problem! But if you seat on a table and order some food and water, then you’ll get mineral water and you’ll have to pay for it.

    I consume mineral water in my house. I cook with tap water, but we drink mineral water. Our tap water has a taste that I dislike.

    Just a small point here… in Spain you can have tapas for free!!!! In some bars, you pay for the wine (chato de vino) and the tapa comes along with it for free!!!! But I still haven’t found any of these bars here in Barcelona… wink, wink.

  • http://www.teczcape.blogspot.com tigerfish

    I’ve heard in cities like Singapore, restaurants have long started to charge customer for water. Yucks! I think there were complaints but sometimes, people just get used to it!

  • http://noblepig.com/ noble pig

    I think we should have to ask for it or eally it should be offered so it could be declined. I mean sometimes they bring these giant glasses of water to my kids and it just gets wasted.

    Good post.

  • http://bethanyjg.blogspot.com bethany

    I really enjoyed reading this!

    I understand all of your points. I suppose I’m somewhat indifferent to the subject. Kim had a good suggestion, though. Very interesting discussion!

  • http://www.TrueDietReviews.com True Diet Reviews

    I always get water at a restaurant. It is one way I keep our bill down.

    $2 per pop X 52 restaurant trips = $100 savings a year.

  • http://www.getheirloomtomatoes.com Anna

    Hi everone, I think we here in America are a very priviledged people. God has bless us all well.I never thought very much about people serving free water when we go out to eat. I just took it for granted that water would be served.I agree though, I think that water should be served when you ask for it. Makes a lot of sence in todays “trying to save the planet world” we live in. Good read!
    Thanks Anna

  • Jacky Castro

    This was a very intresting point of view. I will agree it is a somewhat difficult question to answer, I mean for free or not for free? Conserving water has always been such a concern, however, has been disregarded for decades. Maybe taxing restaurant water wouldnt be bad, it would force us to put a value to an essential of life, while slowly contributing to economic growth and revenue for businesses. Free is great, but we can all do our part to make a difference!!!

  • Maria

    Although I may agree with many points made regarding the issue, and I may be reaching here, most restaurants in America I presume are on city water systems which are paid for collectively by taxpayers. Before people jump all over my case, if the higher taxes a restaurant paid were too much or not worth it, they would close down and get into some other venue. I know of no other country who values water treatment as well as America and yes, even our income taxes as well may serve in part to fund the research in state universities for potable water treatments for all states. As some have noted here tap water isn’t always the best tasting, but no one forces you to drink it. Many bottled water sources are someone’s tap next door anyways. I’m not certain if it works this way for all Americans, but where there are water use restrictions in effect, the restrictions do not apply to businesses because that would conflict with their livelihood, …something about ‘pursuit of happiness’ and ‘free enterprise’. For example, in my town I’m not allowed to pressure wash my car in my driveway, but if I obtain license to pressure wash cars, homes, …etc. for a fee then I can pressure wash anywhere and anytime. If we don’t like this rule, only in America do we have the actual power to change it!!! To sum up, we already paid for the research for water treatment and conservation. We already paid to have the water treated and delivered to the restaurant. We also each try to abide by any conservation measures our cities and towns impose for the benefit of the greater good. As a consumer, I would hope that most folks in this business are more concerned with return business and that their staff is well appreciated with proper customer etiquette and tipping than about one getting away with “free” water. Before it hits the restaurant pipes we’ve paid for the water many times over. Why not get “free” water upon request when you sit for a meal?

  • Maurine Gutowski

    I carry filtered water from home with me in case the water at the restaurant tastes bad (chlorine, etc.) My unfiltered tap water at home usually tastes lousy, especially after a heavy rainfall when drainage overflows into the Grand River flowing into Lake Michigan where my water comes from. I don’t mind if I have to ask for water and have never had to pay for it in the US. On trips I carry a little Travel Brita with me because motel tap water is often bad tasting. Overseas I usually see everybody with purchased bottles of water. I see some airlines are now charging for it, double the cost of coffee or juice. I’m not a coffee or pop drinker so really value good-tasting water.

  • http://blog.theurbanrebellion.com Sarah

    Funny you should bring this up! My husband and I just went on a trip where we tried to not waste water. It’s hard to catch the waitress before they bring you water, and once you ask for no water, or only one glass for two people, the rural folk often look at you funny.

    But i do not see the point, especially when i’m out with my 3 kids, of having several mostly-full glasses of water standing around the table, only to be dumped out, washed with more fresh water, and refilled for the next person not to drink! This will run out eventually, people!

    So now, if we are ordering other drinks, we say ‘no water’. If we are drinking the restaurant water, we try to drink it all. And we’re implementing this in our home, except of course we pour far less than they do in restaurants.

    I would not mind paying for water if and when it becomes an issue, I have been charged before for the lemon that goes into my water. Restaurants have to make a profit somewhere…

  • JT

    Wow! Interesting discussion. Looking through the comments I found one part of this conversation missing.

    It costs restaurants money to serve water. They, just like everyone else, have to pay city/water district fees, they do not get water for free. It costs money to buy the glasses water is served in; it costs to replace them; it costs to wash them; and it costs to make ice to chill the water; many restaurants have water filters installed on their tap systems to help improve the quality of the water they serve as well as improve taste…that also bears a cost.

    I am not sure about other states, but in California, it is my understanding that no one at all can refuse another person water, but the purveyor can charge for it. In dryer states, conservation of water is really important and just putting a glass of water on the table, besides costing the restaurant, is wasteful.

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