Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Pubs and restaurants

Pubs and restaurants

When you order a meal in a restaurant you're agreeing to pay for food, drink and the service.


All pubs and restaurants should display their prices clearly to their customers. Restaurants must show prices with their menu at or near their entrance so people will know how much they'll be charged.

Bars should display prices for their whole range of drinks.

Restaurants, pubs and bars that don't do this may face a fine.

Asking for tap water

Most restaurants, pubs and bars don't have to provide free tap water to the public. If they do, they can charge for it since the provision of any water includes an element of service. However, if they are licensed to serve alcohol and operate in England, Wales or Scotland, then they must provide free drinking water under the terms of their licence.

It's illegal to pass tap water off as bottled water.

Problems with reservations

When you book with a restaurant, you're entering into a contract with it. If the booking is accepted, the restaurant will keep a table free for you at the time and for the number of people you've specified, with the expectation that you'll attend and eat a meal.

If you don't turn up, the restaurant has a right to be compensated for the profit it could have expected to make from you, less any amount it's able to recoup by letting someone else have the table. If you're taken to court, the restaurateur must prove their loss. In practice, many restaurants don't pursue this right.

If a restaurant accepts your booking, but when you arrive no table is available and you can't wait, you can claim damages for breach of contract from the restaurant. This can be for the inconvenience and disappointment of not being able to eat at the booked time. You can also claim any other directly associated incidental costs, like the cost of travelling to the restaurant and the cost of going on to another one.

Unsatisfactory quality of food

Food sold in a bar or restaurant must be of 'satisfactory quality' and served with reasonable care and skill. A customer ordering hot food can therefore expect it to be hot. If it's not, the customer is entitled to a full or partial refund. If food is served at the incorrect temperature or is improperly cooked then the restaurant should be reported to the Food Standards Agency as it may pose a serious health risk.

If the restaurant doesn't provide food of reasonable quality or hasn't taken the necessary care in preparing it, it's liable to pay compensation for breach of contract, but only for the offending dish, plus an element to cover the distress and disappointment felt by the customer. In some cases it could also be liable for any sickness caused.

What to do

If a meal is unsatisfactory, you should report this to the staff or manager immediately and ask an alternative meal in its place. If this is refused or if it isn't possible, for example because you're with someone else who would also have to wait if your meal was re-cooked, or because you simply don't have time, you're entitled to deduct a reasonable amount from your bill.

Alternatively, you could pay the bill in full if a resolution isn't reached with the restaurant, but state that you're doing so reluctantly and will consider taking action against the restaurant. You can then write a letter demanding a full or partial refund for an unsatisfactory meal if you wish.

Food description

The description of the food should match the food that arrives on your plate. For example, 'homemade' food should be homemade.

Selling food or drink that isn't as described in the menu is a criminal offence under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. You can report any instances of this to your local trading standards department.

It's also a breach of contract.

Problems with service charges

Usually, restaurants either leave the service charge entirely to the discretion of the customer or automatically add a charge to the bill.

According to UK law, service charges added by the restaurant are entirely optional.

If you aren't happy with the service or if you'd prefer to calculate your own tip, you can ask for it to be removed and for a new bill to be printed.

Standard of service

When you eat a meal in a restaurant, you're entering into a contract with the restaurant for the provision of a service.

It's an implied condition of any contract that the service will be carried out with reasonable care and skill, within a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. The 'care and skill' that you can expect are the same that a reasonable person can expect from a reasonably competent restaurateur of their particular quality or reputation.

If the service doesn't meet these standards

If the service doesn't meet these standards, you're entitled to deduct from any service charge an amount that reflects the extent to which the service was unsatisfactory.

You should report poor service to the staff or manager immediately. Tell them why you felt the service was unsatisfactory and why you're making the deduction. If they're not prepared to accept this deduction, you should pay the bill in full but state that you're doing so reluctantly and will consider taking action against the restaurant. You can then write a letter to the restaurant's manager complaining about the unsatisfactory service.

If you decide to make a claim against the restaurant, you're entitled to claim not only the service charge you've paid, but also any other losses that are a direct result of the poor service. This could include, for example, the cost of cleaning or replacing clothing damaged by a spillage.

If a restaurant doesn't include a service charge, it's up to you whether to pay it. If it's only the service that is unsatisfactory, you can't deduct money from the part of the bill that covers the cost of the meal.

You can, however, still claim the cost of replacing or cleaning damaged clothes.


All restaurants should have toilets for their staff and wherever possible for customers as well. Premises that are open after 11pm or have a licence to sell alcohol must have toilets.

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