Right from the start, Vanessa McEntee wants everybody, especially the people at Franco's Trattoria in Dormont, to know that she really does love the restaurant. Great food. Great vibe. Great owners.
But there comes a time in a woman's life when she has to stand up for what she believes is right. She ordered a $6 Manhattan a few weeks ago, but when the server brought out the drink, the receipt included a "miscellaneous charge" for $1 -- because she'd ordered the drink without ice.
That is what's known, among the growing circle of people who have had the misfortune to encounter it, as a "neat fee" -- and it could happen to you.
Some fancier restaurants are, in fact, charging as much as $1.50 extra for a drink without ice. That's because the bartender has to pour more booze in the glass to make it look full, an extra half-ounce or so. (By the way, this is one reason why high-end drink menus don't give prices, just a list of drinks and spirits available -- then they can charge different prices, based on how the drink is ordered, neat or over ice.)
Often that charge is just wrapped into the total price, an up-charge, and the consumer is none the wiser. But when the fee is broken out on the receipt, "some people go ballistic," said Joe D'Amico, owner of Franco's.
"It's a solid half-ounce to an ounce more booze," he said. For just an extra dollar, "it's actually a bargain." The up-charge listed on Ms. McEntee's receipt was apparently a cash register programming issue, something Mr. D'Amico has been trying to fix.
Next time, it will be folded into the total drink charge.
Not every fancy restaurant does it. Jared Hall, a bartender at LeMont in Mount Washington for six years and other bars before that, was puzzled by the neat fee concept. "I've never heard of that," he said. (Some restaurants, by the way, do the opposite -- charging more for a drink on the rocks, suggesting that the pour is actually longer when there's ice in the glass.)
What to do when confronted with such an outrage? Take it straight to the top. A friend of Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl, former food critic at The New York Times, had ordered two glasses of $18 single-malt Scotch at Wolfgang Puck's 20.21, a bar and restaurant in Minneapolis. He was charged $1.50 each time for the lack of ice, which he considered insulting in a number of ways. Ms. Reichl wrote of it:
"Seems like a stupid move to me, a perfect way to annoy your customers."
No kidding. "I really flipped," said Ms. McEntee. Internally, anyway. She's not the type to go crazy on some poor server.
A Google search found similar complaints about the Matchbox in Washington, D.C., the Thirsty Mallard in New Jersey, and Bistro 829 and the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in Texas, among others. Most of the problems come when the drinks menu lists a glass of whiskey (or some other spirit or mixed drink) at one price, but the customer is charged another.
It's a particular insult to whiskey, Scotch and cognac drinkers, many of whom think that "neat" is the only way to go, since ice dilutes the beverage. The thinking goes that if you're willing to shell out $20 for a fine spirit, you shouldn't be penalized for preferring it neat.
Restaurant owners contend they need to dispense more whiskey to fill the glass, since customers complain about a glass that looks empty; they also say that many bars have been doing it for years without anyone noticing or raising a fuss.
But some industry observers say it's a shakedown, and that bar managers should control the size of their barware. A standard pour is a standard pour, ice or no ice.
"They have a whole lot of ways to justify it. 'We have different glasses for it.' 'We're serving a larger pour.' They just don't wash with me," said Patricia Dailey, editorial director of Restaurants & Institutions, a food service trade magazine. "I remember the first time that I saw it on my check, and I was kind of shocked.
"I've never gone back to that restaurant," she said.
The flap has led to a spirited discussion at Zagat.com, the online home of the survey group that rates restaurants, nightspots and hotels. The conclusion: The whole issue is pretty ticky-tack, and bars ought to work the price of ice, or lack of it, into the price listed on the drinks menu, especially on higher end, non-mixed drinks.
On the topic of mixed drinks, there was this defender: The restaurant I work at serves mojitos, and often we will get a guest who comes in and orders one 'light ice.' Obviously, a blatant attempt to circumvent paying for more liquor. We simply serve the drink in a collins glass that is 4/5 full. And nine times out of 10, they complain about us short-pouring and want either a refund or more liquor.
Zagat isn't impressed.
It's not a major trend within the industry just yet, and "we're all relatively thankful for that," said Michael Mahle of Zagat. "The mark-ups on alcohol are bad to begin with. It's a little ridiculous." Neat fees won't be kindly received, and customers might take it out of the bartender's hide in the form of a reduced tip -- or a promise to never return to the restaurant.
Two possible solutions: One is the automated dispenser, which slugs out the same amount of booze every time, whether it's on ice or not. Two: A note on the drinks menu warning customers of the neat fee.
That's because the problem is not just the fee itself, but also that "I've never seen it posted on a cocktail menu," said Ms. Dailey.
Bill Toland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.