Dining out in an Italian restaurant in California, you can probably expect to have a basket of fresh bread brought to your table within 15 minutes of being seated, as in most of the United States. If you’re waiting for a glass of water, though, you’re out of luck. In light of the state’s ongoing water shortage, California has passed a new series of water conservation measures which include a rule that prohibits restaurants from automatically serving drinking water. Patrons must now order a glass of water just as they would any other beverage, although they still get to enjoy the fact that it is free of charge.
Frankly, I find this directive a lot more sensible than the custom of immediately bringing water to people who might not even want it. I’ve long been frustrated by the way water gets treated as dispensable in dining establishments (as much as anywhere else). Just in January, I was at brunch with a friend in a restaurant that leaves water pitchers on the table to allow diners to refill their glasses at their leisure. When the waiter came to take our check after our meal, however, he instinctively grabbed my glass and filled it to the brim! I was shocked by the absurdity of it. Did he think I wanted to gulp down another 8 ounces just as I was preparing to leave? I doubt so. Rather, he just wanted to do his job: providing me with food and drink.
Restaurants train waiters to constantly refill glasses that have barely been sipped so as to impress their customers. Providing patrons with something before they even ask for it is supposed to demonstrate that the staff care about their clientele, know what it wants, and have means to supply it. However, there are plenty of eateries that don’t instantly offer water, and that’s probably because most of the appreciation on the customer’s part is subconscious. No rational person would criticize a restaurant for not providing water upon arrival. In other words, the practice is wholly unwarranted. It is a prime example of instant gratification at the hand of abundance – well, perceived abundance, considering that less than 1% of the Earth’s freshwater is actually available.
While most Americans don’t pay much attention to their freshwater use, severe water shortages have forced states like California and Colorado to face the finiteness of their water supplies. California’s other water-conservation measures include limiting outdoor watering to twice a week and requiring hotel guests to ask to have their linens and towels washed, and farmers are even expecting to have to leave up to a million acres unplanted this year. My hope is that learning about these extremes will make Americans a little more mindful about their daily water use.
Next time a waiter tries to top off your glass, feel free to decline!