AA Legal Documents
Law guide

Pubs and restaurants

Related services

Contents

When ordering a meal in a restaurant, the customer is agreeing to pay for food, drink and service. This creates a contract to which the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 applies.

This act does not apply in Scotland. However, the parts of the 1982 Act giving rights to consumers for goods supplied alongside services (as opposed to the services themselves) DO apply in Scotland. Additionally, Scottish common law offers protection which is similar to the rights under the Act.

Pricing

All pubs and restaurants should clearly display their prices to their customers. Restaurants must show prices with their menu at or near their entrance so people will know what their bill will look like before they go inside. All outlets that accept payment in foreign currencies have to display any extra costs, like commission and handling charges. Bars should display prices for their whole range of drinks and not, as has been common practice in the past, sting customers with over-inflated hidden prices for soft drinks. Restaurants and bars that don't comply with these will face a fine.

Reservations

Although most people do not realise it, when they make a booking with a restaurant they are entering into a contract with the restaurant. That contract says that in consideration of the restaurant keeping a table free for you at the time you have specified and for the number of people you have indicated, you will attend at that time and eat a meal.

Should you fail to turn up, then the restaurant would have a right to be compensated for such profit as it could have expected to have made from a meal sold to you at the time, less any amount it is able to recoup by letting someone else have the table. If you're taken to court, the restaurateur must prove his or her loss of taking. Fortunately for those who fail to show, restaurants rarely pursue this right.

Similarly, if you arrive at a restaurant after having booked a table and there is no table available, if you are not willing or not able to wait, then you can claim from the restaurant for breach of contract. This claim can be for the inconvenience and disappointment of not being able to eat the meal at the time booked, and any other incidental costs which arise as a result, for example, the costs of travelling to the restaurant or the costs of going on to another restaurant.

Food quality

Food sold in a bar or restaurant must be of 'satisfactory quality' (Section 4 Supply of Goods & Services Act 1982), and served with reasonable care and skill (Section 13 SGSA). A customer ordering hot food should therefore expect it to be hot. If it is not, then the customer is entitled to a full or partial refund. If food is served at the incorrect temperature or improperly cooked then the restaurant could be reported to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) if it may pose a serious health risk. There is additional legislation covering the commercial provision of food which may be relevant, depending on the nature of the complaint.

For more information see the FSA page on 'food law'.

For example, if chicken is served raw, the restaurant would be in clear breach of SGSA section 13 because it had not provided food of reasonable quality or taken the necessary care in preparing it. The restaurant would be 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.

If a meal that you are served is unsatisfactory, you should always report this to the staff when it is served or after you've tasted it for the first time. You can ask for another meal to be prepared or seek an alternative meal in its place. If this is refused or if it is not possible, for example, because you are with someone else who would also have to wait if your meal was to be re-cooked, or because you simply do not have time, then you are entitled to deduct a reasonable amount from your bill.

Many people, however, do not want this kind of confrontation in a restaurant, especially if the meal is for a specific occasion. In these circumstances you should pay the bill in full, but indicate that you are doing so under protest and will consider taking steps against the restaurant. If after you leave the restaurant, you decide that you wish to complain about the quality of the meal and demand a refund, you can write a letter demanding a refund for an unsatisfactory meal.

Food description

Under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, the description of the food should match the food that arrives on your plate. For example, food described as homemade should indeed be homemade. If it is not then it constitutes a breach of the Trade Descriptions Act in criminal law and should be reported to the local trading standards department. It also constitutes a breach of contract, so you could fairly deduct the value of the difference between homemade and manufactured cost.

Standard of service and service charges

It is an implied condition of any contract (by reason of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982) that services or goods delivered will be of a reasonable quality and fit for the purpose for which they were provided, delivered or sold. This applies as much to the service for a restaurant meal as it does to the meal itself, especially in those restaurants where service is expressed to be included. If you order the meal where the service charge is indicated on the menu, you agree as part of the contract to pay the service charge. However, in making the charge, the restaurant must ensure that the service with which you are provided is acceptable and if it does not meet the standards which a reasonable person could expect in a restaurant of that particular quality or reputation, then you are entitled either to deduct the amount from the bill, or to deduct such amount as reflects the extent to which it was unsatisfactory.

You should make it known to the staff or manager at the restaurant at the time, why you felt the service to be unsatisfactory and why you are making the deduction. If, however, they are not prepared to accept this, then you should pay the bill in full, but do so under protest, and make it clear that you may seek recourse against them in the future. After leaving the restaurant, you can write a letter to the restaurant complaining about unsatisfactory service as a first step in the process.

If you do decide to make a claim against the restaurant you are entitled to claim not only the service charge you have had to pay, but also any other loss that the poor service may have cost you, for example the cost of cleaning or replacing clothing damaged as the result of spillage.

If a restaurant does not include service charge, then it is up to you whether you pay it at the end of the meal. You cannot deduct from the cost of the meal an element for service if it is discretionary. You can, however, still claim the cost of replacing or cleaning clothes damaged as a result.

Toilet facilities

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

Tap water

Any restaurant that is licensed to serve alcohol must provide tap water free of charge, if requested.

Restaurants that are not licensed to serve alcohol do not have to provide tap water to the public. If they do, they may charge for it, since the provision of any water includes an element of service, such as pouring the water into a jug and/or glass and cleaning the jug and/or glass.

It is illegal for a restaurant to pass tap water off as bottled water under the Trade Descriptions Act.