Five years ago, guests in upscale restaurants could predict with uncanny accuracy what their servers would ask them first. It made no difference whether the kitchen specialized in French seafood or Italian pasta; most every meal started with a choice between sparkling water and still water (a fancy way of referring to what flows freely through the tap.)
In many other cities, the practice of initially withholding water has faded. "Automatic water is making a comeback," The New York Times triumphantly reported this spring. Concerns about the environmental sustainability of single-use bottles caused the local food movement's patron saint, Alice Waters, to ban bottled water from her restaurant in 2006. Other restaurants on both coasts have slowly followed suit.
But the upselling technique is holding strong in Charleston. Although The Ocean Room at The Sanctuary in 2009 retired its bottled water menu after a two-year run, it remains one of the many area restaurants that reflexively presents its diners with water options. According to spokesperson Nicole Leaf, about 40 percent of diners request sparkling water. Interestingly, the percentage is slightly higher at the property's Lowcountry-themed restaurant: Half of Jasmine Porch's guests take the sparkling route.
Those numbers are in line with estimates from servers and other industry professionals. In 2007, Tom Colicchio told The New York Times that as many as 60 percent of his guests preferred sparkling water. "Why would you do that - not from a money standpoint, but from a service and hospitality standpoint?" he asked when told about the growing trend of pouring tap water without a preliminary interrogation.
As a city with a hospitable reputation, Charleston is likely to retain the "sparkling or still?" set-up as a hallowed dining custom. And for restaurant-goers who don't care for the routine, there's almost always respite at the bar: After ordering a cocktail - an explicit statement of spending intentions, which is partly what the query is designed to ferret out - drinkers are rarely subjected to water questioning.