This week at SFoodie we were wondering whether restaurants are required, by law, to serve tap water for free. It's a simple enough question, but it took a surprising amount of digging to figure out the answer.
The Internet provided a few thousand people asking the same question all across the States, but no answers. So we called the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and the California Restaurant Association, who were friendly but equally clueless.
Next on our list was the California Department of Health Services, which directed us to its Division of Environmental Management and Drinking Water, which also didn't know. The Drinking Water Division told us to try the Division of Food, Drug, and Radiation Safety, which shrugged and pointed us to the Environmental Health Agency. No dice.
Having navigated countless telephone menus and left numerous voice messages, we turned back to the Internet.
An online database of S.F. municipal codes informed us, interestingly, that the Department of Public Health declared October as Restaurant Appreciation Month. But there was no mention of tap water.
We were close to giving up when we got a call back from Eileen Shields, public information officer at the S.F. Department of Public Health. Bingo.
She told us that there is, in fact, no law requiring restaurants to serve their customers tap water for free.
"It's a courtesy," she says, and added that during periods of drought it is sometimes even illegal for restaurants to serve tap water before customers specifically ask for it.
Does this mean that restaurants can legally charge you $1, $3, or even $5 for a glass of tap water? Absolutely. However, it probably wouldn't make much business sense, and that's what keeps them from doing it in the first place.
So don't worry: Your water will probably continue to be free at most restaurants. But if you do find yourself faced with a tap water charge, unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it.