26 July 2010

“I'll Have the Château Menino, Please”: Tap Water vs. Bottled in Boston Restaurants

Photo courtesy of desktopwallpapers4.me
The first few moments of interaction with your server can set the tone for an entire restaurant meal. One of my longstanding annoyances at Boston restaurants, probably dating to the late 1990s, was when a server's first question to the table was, “For water, would you like still, sparkling, or...” Faint pause, “Tap?”, this last pronounced with a slight smirk or grimace as if to say, “The peasant option? Ugh. Really? Trying to shame me into buying bottled water? That's how you want to start this dance?

The reasons this is a terrible practice are obvious:
  • Bottled water is not green. Most bottled water has a huge carbon footprint: it has to be shipped from far away, and consumes a glass or plastic bottle that may not get recycled.
  • Bottled water does not necessarily taste better than tap, especially here. Tap water in most of Greater Boston comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, which many professional water tasters (yes, they exist) rank among the country's best-tasting, along with New York City and Salt Lake City. Certainly to my palate, our tap water tastes better than mass-market waters like Aquafina and Dasani, water from who-knows-where bottled by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, respectively. That junk tastes like the plastic bottle it comes in.
  • Times are tougher. Encouraging what once might have seemed like a harmless indulgence, a bit of living large, is more unseemly when diners are pinching their discretionary pennies.
  • Pushing bottled water feels like a clip-joint tactic. Starting off the meal with a crude attempt at bill padding is the restaurant equivalent of asking a first date, upon collecting them at their doorstep, “So, you gonna put out for me tonight, or what?
This last objection is especially obvious in the North End, a neighborhood already notorious for its raft of techniques to gouge unwary tourists and suburbanites. Strega Boston, for instance, is famous for simply serving bottled water without offering tap; many customers incorrectly assume that bottled is complimentary -- until the check arrives. That don' make me wanna say, a'salute!, Signore Varano.

Others, including Trattoria Il Panino and Cafe Pompeii, brazenly refuse to serve tap water, a practice which may be illegal here. I know that France and some US municipalities legally require restaurants to offer tap water on request. So far, I have been unable to verify whether Boston or Massachusetts statutes do the same.* But even if it's legal, refusing to serve tap water flouts local custom, and just plain feels sleazy. I don't buy the excuse that you don't have the space for glassware or enough dishwashing capacity: if the South End's teensy Delux Cafe can serve tap water, so can you. I wouldn't object to a small surcharge, say, a buck or two per table, to cover your costs. But forcing me buy bottled water is scummy. It makes me hate you and want to shun your business on principle.

Some restaurants recognize the offensiveness of pushing bottled water and have seized it as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to local products, sustainability, and general non-swindling hospitality. Rendezvous in Central Square, the wonderful, locavore-before-everyone-jumped-that-bandwagon New American restaurant in Cambridge, presciently got out in front of this issue, documenting its rationale for doing so in this excellent blog essay. Two newer restaurants, The Russell House Tavern, a fine gastropub in Harvard Square, and Post 390, a swank Back Bay "urban tavern", offer filtered tap water, with or without gas, for free or a nominal charge. Bravo!

As the Great Boston Water Panic of 2010 demonstrated, you don't always know what you've got until it's summarily interrupted by a giant blown water-main coupling. I think our four-day outage probably reinforced to many Bostonians just how wonderful it is to have abundant, low-cost, great-tasting tap water. I happily consume Quabbin tap water at home, and thanks to a recent investment in a SodaStream home carbonation system, no longer buy environmentally-hostile bottled seltzer, either. There remain few good reasons not to do the equivalent in restaurants.

Go ahead and drink bottled water if you actually prefer it: I have a few European ex-pat friends who still do so out of long habit. But the rest of us should lustily, proudly respond to the “Bottled or tap?”question with “Source Municipal” or “Château Menino [or whatever the local mayor's surname is]", two droll French expressions for tap water. Or do as a friend of mine does, and counterpunch any implied sneer with a sniffy “Local water, please.” If enough customers do this, perhaps more Boston restaurants will get the message: pushing bottled water is so very last century.

* If you have an expert opinion to offer on the legality of restaurants refusing to serve tap water in Boston or elsewhere, please drop me an email at mc dot slim dot jb at gmail dot com.