Diners should check their bills carefully to make sure they understand all the charges.
Diners should check their bills carefully to make sure they understand all the charges.
Leah Fasten

Fee Circus

We're all used to finding superfluous charges at car dealerships. We even pay ridiculous hotel room-service fees without blinking -- "Operator charge of $2 per person," reads the in-room menu of Las Vegas' Bellagio. Plus mandatory gratuity, plus an additional tip to our room attendant.

But we don't expect to find hidden charges on our meal check at a restaurant. The surprise can be a rude one to diners not paying close attention. While Valley restaurants haven't resorted yet to the hostage-taking found in other large cities (just try to get free tap water in a European eatery), diners still need to stay on their toes.

I'm completely aware of the increasingly popular "Would you care for water?" query at high-end restaurants -- too often these days it means your server is pimping the high-priced bottled stuff. I've even been suckered this way with iced tea at The Bamboo Club in Phoenix -- I thought I was getting the standard, $1.95-or-so glass. The $8 bottle delivered to me was quite pretty, and cost almost as much as my entire lunch.

But I really hate it when a restaurant sneaks in petty charges that any normal diner wouldn't think to look for. If you read the fine print, you'll find, for example, that Duck & Decanter charges 25 cents each for such sandwich basics as butter, onion, seasoned rice vinegar or horseradish. If the butter's that good, I want the whole stick.

Chompie's brings pettiness to a new level, though. The Valleywide deli serves some pretty tasty sandwiches, but a to-go order can get pretty insulting when the bill comes. "Overstuffed, mile-high" choices range from $5.50 to $8.25 -- fair enough for the jumbo treats. I'm even okay paying 50 cents more for cheese.

But 50 cents extra for a tomato slice? Another 50 cents for a sprinkle of sprouts, 75 cents for lean meat (What's the regular meat, then?), 50 cents for grilling and yet another 50 cents for to-go packaging? Chompie's has $10.75 of my turkey sandwich money to prove it. For this price, they should at least throw in the floor mats.

The award for takeout tariffs, though, goes to Jason's Deli, the latest in national chains to set up shop in north Scottsdale. Its ads promote the deli's multitude of kids' meals -- "Nutritional and only 99 cents!" What the ads don't tell you is that the junior meals are bargain-priced only if you eat in the restaurant. Take them to go, and they'll set you back as much as $3.75.

Wow. That makes Tee Pee Tap Room's charge of 35 cents for to-go orders requiring aluminum plates seem like a steal.

Tips of the Trade: Unexpected charges can't always be blamed on a restaurant. A recent incident at Scottsdale's Piñon Grill serves as an excellent reminder for diners to carefully study all details of a discount program before tallying their check total.

I received a call from a frequent diner last week, concerned that Piñon Grill had duped her into a double tip. Sure enough, there was a 19 percent tip included on the bill for their party of four. She also had filled in the tip line - thanking the server with a hefty $63 tip on a $140 dinner ($33 as the included gratuity, and $30 she added at the tip line).

Here's what happened: The diner had used her Preferred Restaurants of Scottsdale & Phoenix membership that evening, entitling her to receive a second dinner entree free. Program literature and the membership card itself clearly state participating restaurants include a 19 percent gratuity (this is to cover the efforts of the server, since many diners mistakenly tip on the discounted total). And since most checks are preprinted forms, it's not uncommon to see the customary tip line still included at the bottom. Diners don't need to fill it in, unless they feel the staff deserves a little something extra.

Is it a server's job to explain promotional programs to its own members? Absolutely not. But is it the right thing to do when they notice a double tip (and you know they notice)? It would sure be nice.

After Dinner Mint: The tiny town of Cave Creek has another Mexican restaurant, just down the road from the long-standing favorite, El Encanto. Fandango opened a few weeks ago, serving such specialties as carne milaneza (lightly breaded top sirloin topped with green chile sauce and mushrooms) and cactus shrimp barbecue in a prickly pear sauce.


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