Five things that should always be free at a restaurant

I'm not looking for handouts, and I don't think any restaurant is obligated to give things away for free. Upcharges for higher quality substitutions, a bill for chips and salsa and even an auto-gratuity is all well within a restaurant's prerogative.

But there are a few things that enrage me when I see them appear on the check, especially if a server didn't warn me first. Here are five things that I've been recently charged for in Denver restaurants or venues that should have been free.

5. Mistakes This is a slippery slope, and I'm willing to concede that a kitchen has every right to charge a guest for everything ordered, especially if mistakes are rectified (side note: though not expected, a free round or dessert often helps turn such a disaster into a positive experience for a guest without breaking the bank for a restaurant). But I recently had dinner at a restaurant that made a lot of mistakes -- foreign objects in the appetizer, wrong entrees delivered to the table, and a glass of wine that had to be sent back twice: once because the glass was filthy and once because it was the wrong wine. Still, my party was charged for everything. I suppose that's fair, but it didn't leave the best taste in my mouth -- and it made me wary of returning. 4. Substitutions, if you're subbing down price-wise I get the logic here, I really do. Me asking for French fries instead of Brussels sprouts throws off your food cost calculations if you're keeping detailed enough books. But since the base cost for fries is less than the base cost for sprouts, I'm still going to be irritated when my check shows up with an a la carte fry charge. I may as well have kept the sprouts and asked for an additional side. Besides, you don't give me a price break if I ask you to hold something -- so don't charge me more money when I save you a few cents. 3. Split plates I have never understood the logic of the extra split plate charge. I've manned a pass before. The extra work to split a plate is minimal, adding maybe three extra seconds total to the time it takes to complete an order. You're not preparing more food, and you're just dirtying one more dish. Yet, I continue to see split plate charges on menus. That just ain't right. 2. Tastes When I was waiting tables, I used to get irritated with guests who'd taste through every by-the-glass selection on the list and then opt for the house red -- or worse yet, just water. So yes, I get that the tasting system can be abused. But post-GABF session, I was at a prominent beer place in this city that had kicked nearly half of its kegs. After trying to order about five different things and being refused, I asked for a taste of a beer on tap before committing. My server brought me the taste, and I then ordered the beer. And without a word of warning, he charged me fifty cents for the sample. I know it's only fifty cents, but come on. One taste is within a diner's bill of rights, especially when you don't have any of the beers listed on your menu. 1. Water To be fair, I've never been charged for water in a restaurant. In fact, I'd never been charged for water at all until I went to a concert at one of Denver's most popular venues and, after ordering a round of beers, I asked for a glass of water to go with it. The response? The place only sells bottled water for $2. No free water. No exceptions. Even if I'm spending my hard-earned cash on beer and drinks all night long. You've got to be kidding me.

Tell us if we're wrong, or point out other things that should be free in the comments.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk