Uncle Albert, an old family friend, had a philosophical approach to life when times were hard. In business he would only buy penny stocks - the only ones guaranteed to increase in value, he would argue - whilst in restaurants, and he was a cosmopolitan Syrian who enjoyed eating out, he would turn to his wife and exclaim, 'Nous économisons'.
Ungrammatical as this phrase may be, it has stayed with me for the past 40 years. And as it is likely to be the leitmotif for many during 2003, I thought it would be a highly practical start to concentrate on the one aspect of eating out where common sense and thirty seconds' attention to detail will pay significant dividends: looking carefully at the bill or check.
Firstly, always take the time to look the bill over at least once. Most restaurants now use automated bill systems and whilst this approach makes them quicker to produce and far more legible they are not, principally because they fed by humans, error-free. Check the number of bottles of mineral water and wine which are not only expensive themselves but also increase the amount of the total service charge. So if you have been overcharged make sure the restaurant adjusts this figure, too.
And when it comes to actually handing over your credit card, the rather flamboyant act of inserting the plastic without even looking at the bill, let alone checking its arithmetic, no longer impresses either your guests or the staff.
Bills/checks, even if they contain the right elements, often appear higher than anticipated because they contain a cover charge. This rather old fashioned and anachronistic concept, justified by restaurateurs to cover linen, bread, butter, etc, was on its way out (although it has continued to be practised by such ultra-fashionable joints as The Ivy, Nicole's and Zilli Fish). Nowadays, however, it seems to be making a comeback as restaurateurs seek to maintain their margins without raising menu prices. If they are going to make a cover charge then it must be clearly stated on the menu.
What is never clearly stated and borders on the criminal in my opinion but is not outside the law because the Government cannot find the time to introduce the necessary legislation, is the singular British practice of attempting to induce the customer to pay twice for the service charge via your credit card.
It is a very simple ruse. The bill includes everything consumed plus a service charge but the credit card slip shows only one figure which incorporates the food, drink and service and invitingly leaves the service line blank encouraging the customer to pay 12.5 or 15 per cent twice. I also seemed to notice this on the increase in 2002 regrettably as it is an obvious and easy, but surely very shortsighted, boost to profitability. Vigilance is essential.
More personal perhaps is how you treat the copy of the credit card slip which is invariably left behind on the table and often contains the entire credit card number. Because various new systems - which only print out the first four digits, making a new card impossible to forge - are not yet ubiquitous and the long-overdue introduction by British banks of a system which allows the customer to simply key in a PIN number at the table has not yet materialised, so the current system is far from safe. If you leave this copy on the table its details can provide enough information for unscrupulous hands to create a new credit card using the old number. Don't give anyone the chance. Instead, take the copy and tear into illegible pieces - a brief exercise that could save a lot of money.
One of the most significant changes over the past decade has been the spread of the fixed-price menu at lunchtime which many restaurants now offer very sensibly alongside their more expensive à la carte menu. These are obviously the least expensive way of eating out at lunchtime, and often the most interesting, but there is usually a large gulf between the two sets of prices. It may be sensible for the host to stipulate this before the meal begins.
In turn, restaurateurs are begin to package their menu offers more cleverly and it is worth noting this too. One or two, to boost flagging wine sales at lunchtime, are including half a bottle a head in the price (and even more cleverly not mentioning this on the bill) whilst others, to boost flagging dessert sales, are only offering a three- rather than a two-course menu, a practice which certain restaurateurs are following on busier Friday and Saturday nights. It is good business practice, but one worth remembering when booking.
One of the advantages of the automated billing system is that it can quite easily split the bill if required. Restaurateurs are increasingly reporting that if customers order wine at lunchtime they are asking for two separate bills, one for the food that will be counted as a corporate expense, the other for the wine which they will settle personally. It is all possible but much easier if you request this at the beginning.
Because misunderstandings, often very expensive, can easily occur in the inevitably slightly strained atmosphere that can exist between the restaurant and its customers and in the hope that this very expensive mishap will not befall anyone else in 2003 I will end with this salutary tale from 2002.
An old friend, a senior property lawyer, was invited with his wife by a client and his wife to lunch in a top French restaurant after the big property conference in Cannes. The maître d' handed out the menus, but, as is prevalent in many top places particularly in France, only one was priced and this was mistakenly handed to my friend rather than the host.
He immediately spotted that the restaurant's special lobster dish was a cool 125 euros and therefore to be avoided. But when he found his host ordering it then the women, he thought it churlish not to - particularly as he assumed they too had seen the price.
The sommelier appeared but the host deferred to his guest's greater wine knowledge who in turn accepted the sommelier's offer to find something suitable. No prices were ever mentioned.
An excellent meal was followed by one of the largest bills my friend has ever seen and of course vast embarrassment. The bill was so big it could not even go through any set of expenses and has had to be put down to experience.
And whilst the practice of unpriced menus is another anachronism of the restaurant trade - as is the practice of not mentioning the prices of the specials of the day - the conclusion is in a way more obvious. Be aware, be clear and be careful and you can keep restaurant expenses to a minimum - and therefore eat out more often!