Caught Short When Your Dinner Tab Arrives ... Now What?

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We've all heard that if you don't have money to pay for your dinner they'll hand you an apron and put you to work washing dishes. This antiquated scenario is charming enough, but let's say you leave your wallet on the coffee table on your way out the door. After a full meal and a bottle of wine you reach for the cash and you've got nothing. Your guest also has nothing.

So what really happens if you don't have the money to pay your tab?

Executive chef Brian Luscher of Dallas favorite The Grape says there are a few options, and all of them end in you paying.

"The few times it's happened here people are so embarrassed they're offering us their child until they can come up with something," he says.

He says he's held driver's license or cell phones with promises of a return to pay the check. If a guest is being shady, he'll call the police and file a report. He's not above taking it to small claims court.

"Is it worth the $2,000 for the $70 tab?" he asks. "You bet. It becomes a matter of principle at that point."

He also cautions that if you're trying to pull a dine and dash on an upscale restaurant such as The Grape the ruse would have to be more sophisticated than planting a roach in your crème brulee.

"We can tell," he assures us. "Corporate places are quick to hand out freebies -- they've got walk-outs on their budget. People are more tuned in at fine dining restaurants."

But sometimes people do get away with walking out on a reputable place without payment, and it's not just the restaurant that suffers.

"I had a group of girls come in and order a bunch of stuff on separate checks," an anonymous waitress at an upscale sushi restaurant told us. "They all laid their cash on the table and walked out. When I counted everything up, one girl left without paying her tab,and I got stuck paying her $80 sushi bill."

According to attorney Michael Kelsheimer of Looper Reed & McGraw P. C., what our anonymous waitress was subjected to is illegal.

"You can't make a deduction from the employee without written consent or you'd be in violation of the Texas Payday Law," he says. Additionally, no one should work for less than the minimum wage. Most servers make a base pay of $2.13 an hour. The idea is that they make up the other $5.12 in tips.

"There's no room left to make deductions," Kelsheimer says. "It is not legal to deduct from an employee at minimum wage."

It could probably be argued that our sushi waitress just wasn't paying enough attention and should be asked to pay for the lost money, but is it fair to add policing to a minimum wage earner's responsibilities? Check out this Morning News story from 2003 about a young waitress killed while trying to stop a dine-and-ditch scam.

So, you won't be put to work at the dishwasher or immediately have the cops called on you if you find yourself in an embarrassing honest mistake. Just keep calm and find that wallet.

As for servers who get stuck with deadbeats' tabs, Kelsheimer says they should call their corporate office or file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission or Department of Labor. This is free and you can do it anonymously.

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