Restaurant Etiquette: Can I politely bring my own tea?
September 6, 2019 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Is it rude to bring my own cup of tea - probably a cardboard cup with some coffee shop branding on it - to a sit-down restaurant?

I drink tea. I travel. I go out to breakfast. The servers come around with coffee refills about every 4 minutes, but never offer refills of tea. If I ask, I get one cup of not-very-hot water. In higher-end places I'll sometimes get a pot of tea, but even those aren't usually very big.

On a recent trip, I saw a woman using a Starbucks cup in the diner where I was having breakfast. So I tried that the next few days: got a large takeout tea from a coffee shop, and just brought it to the restaurant. It was great - I got the amount of tea I wanted, and it was much better (and hotter) than they were serving.

No one said anything, or made me feel at all like I was doing anything wrong. But this was in little diners in midtown Manhattan; I'm not sure the attitudes would be the same in other cities (in the U.S.; I don't think I'd try it elsewhere) or in other kinds of restaurants.

Is this acceptable? Rude, but not rude enough for the staff to say anything? Fine, as long as I tip well? It seems discourteous to me, but so does not offering me drink refills when everyone else gets them.
posted by still_wears_a_hat to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Rude, but not rude enough for the staff to say anything? Fine, as long as I tip well?

Yep, around there. I figure it’s less rude than getting snippy with a server about tea refills, but I’ve also known people who manage to get said tea refills by being rather forward and demanding up front.

Definitely more offensive the classier the joint.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:22 PM on September 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

My wife cannot have caffeine and few places have decaf iced tea options, so she brings her own drink all the time. Never had a problem. Order and tip well and you're fine.
posted by cross_impact at 2:32 PM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've done this with coffee, usually because I'm not done with my daily Contiga, and I'm pretty much one with it until it's empty most days and only realize I have it with me when I've already sat down. So when this happens, I put my Contiga cup somewhere unobtrusive, order coffee, quickly drink their terrible stuff, and then when the server's not looking, surreptitiously refill the restaurant cup with my stronger, more palatable stuff. Then politely decline any offers of refills. I don't see why this wouldn't work with tea, too.
posted by Don Pepino at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Technically they're not supposed to let you -- it has to do with health code enforcement. It's probably best to be discreet if you can, and not argue if they ask you not to do it. If they don't care, though, then go for it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:34 PM on September 6, 2019 [25 favorites]

I sympathize that road tea is not very good. I would not bring my own, though. I bring a tiny maple syrup container to restaurants but I'm actually saving them money since they would otherwise provide the sryup for free, and no one has ever said anything negative. But tea is something restaurants sell.
posted by wnissen at 2:53 PM on September 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

As others have mentioned I think a key here is in tipping well. If you're not buying a beverage in that restaurant, then the server looses out on money because your bill will be lower making their tip smaller. Tip well and you should be fine.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:53 PM on September 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine brings a large travel mug semi-full of iced tea when we go to lunch. He orders an iced tea at the restaurant, dumps it into the mug and then gets a a free refill (or two). It's definitely a bit odd, but no one has ever said anything, and if he's familiar with the server, sometimes they've offered to fill it for him.

I know this is a slightly different scenario than yours, but he's bringing in outside beverage and no one has cared.
posted by jonathanhughes at 2:54 PM on September 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Almost every place has a no outside food/beverage rule. Do they enforce it? Probably not. one reason why they do? They don't know what's in your 'tea' cup, could be straight liquor, you get in an accident and they get sued for overserving you. I've had sealed bottles of water I carry on hot days taken away from me at certain bars in the city. Sometimes they'll hold it for me and give it back when leaving.

You'll probably be fine, but some places may ask you to dump it, particularly a nice it's a profitable beverage they serve.
posted by TheAdamist at 2:59 PM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

then the server looses out on money because your bill will be lower making their tip smaller.

On the whole, servers I've known and worked with regarded tea as too much of a pain in the ass to be worth the 40-50 cents they might get in tip for bringing it to you.

I think bringing your own anything to a restaurant is iffy, but if you've clearly got it somewhere more expensive than the restaurant you're in, at least it doesn't look like you're just trying to save money. I often see people bring Starbucks or whatever into restaurants and no one particularly cares, though I think it would probably get even less comment if you had it in a refillable travel mug or insulated bottle, rather than a paper to-go cup. That makes it look more like a thing you are generally carrying around with you, not something you bought to bring to that restaurant.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:21 PM on September 6, 2019 [8 favorites]

If someone does hassle you you could see if ordering a tea from them will make them happy, you don't have to actually drink it.
posted by bleep at 3:23 PM on September 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think it's slightly rude, but I do it sometimes too, for the exact same reason. North American restaurants just don't usually Do Tea Well.

My rule would be to tip well AND also not leave the cup behind for the server to deal with- it seems unfair to have them throw out trash they didn't serve.

I also think it would seem even less rude if you use a (nice) reuseable bottle or mug- implying that maybe you need to drink some kind of potion they don't serve, for Health Reasons.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:24 PM on September 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I agree with your original instinct which is that this is discourteous. If they sell it, then my take is that you should either buy it from them or abstain. (I am definitely pretty far on the rule following spectrum, but I find it a bit frustrating when I see people privilege their preferences over a place’s policy because they are wagering that they won’t be called out for it.)
posted by pie_seven at 3:25 PM on September 6, 2019 [13 favorites]

I've worked in places where no one would bat an eye if you brought this in, and I've worked in places where they would tell you that they were going to charge you for an equivalent beverage, and I've worked in places where they would tell you to either throw it away or leave. It really depends on the place, so it's hard to make a general call.

Personally, I would never bring in an outside beverage to a place that also sold that beverage, but maybe that sentiment is borne from 15 years in restaurant kitchens.

but so does not offering me drink refills when everyone else gets them
I would sort of agree if hot tea was just something that the server got from a tap and required no real effort on their part. But it's not - hot tea takes time and requires extra steps and attention, and because hot tea isn't that common in the US more than likely the server is going to have to hunt around for the stuff to serve it with. This takes time away from their other tables and in their minds is costing them money.

I like tea. I have several hundred dollars worth of loose leaf tea on the shelf behind me, along with an entire infrastructure at my house for making tea: scale, variable temperature kettle, tea infusers and steepers and even books on tea. When I go out I either get juice for breakfast or club soda with lime for lunch or dinner. I leave my hot tea at home.
posted by ralan at 3:59 PM on September 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

Could you bring it in a thermos rather than another coffee shop’s cup? Think that would help a little though I agree that it’s a bit rude (though I have done it myself to be sure).
posted by ferret branca at 4:41 PM on September 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also I am of the opinion that this isn't rude. Rude is something that imposes on someone else like making a big fuss or a big stink or a big mess, or depriving someone of something, which you are depriving the restaurant of the profit of a 50 cent teabag and hot water (if at all!). If this became a trend and everyone started doing it then restaurants could start selling good tea and then you'd buy it from them. But it's not like restaurants are a sacred space that deserve more respect than any other place.
posted by bleep at 6:40 PM on September 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I’ve done this but only felt okay if I also ordered a drink from the restaurant. Like I had a latte with me when we got seated for brunch but I don’t mind double fisting so I also ordered a mimosa. I wouldn’t regularly do it, I think it’s slightly presumptuous because you know it’s against policy but they probably won’t enforce it out of politeness. Just drink your tea before or after maybe.
posted by JenMarie at 7:10 PM on September 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

oh this is not a good idea, it will violate health code for one.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:45 PM on September 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Regardless of whether they say it the servers and staff will likely think you're an asshole. I wouldn't repeatedly do it at any place you want to go to often. Maybe tipping will offset it but you'll still be "that tea customer" to the staff and that can affect how your service is treated.
posted by Ferreous at 9:08 PM on September 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

I would not bring another company's logo-ed cup, just nope. I have brought an unfinished coffee in a travel mug, and asked the server if it's ok.
posted by theora55 at 9:11 PM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’d say this is a no. I love tea and really am annoyed at the options offered generally (lukewarm Lipton, ugh) but as others have mentioned this is a health code violation. At least in LA food obtained not from an “approved source,” like food from another retail location is a major code violation. The restaurant may not have served you that outside food but they can still get dinged for it.
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 11:47 PM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

As long as you are not an a**hole about it and are discreet (thermos and maybe buy one cup of Lipton's, gulp it down and proceed to refill) and tip properly, and desist if they ask you too, I think you are okay.
posted by Crystal Fox at 2:48 AM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don’t think this is a cardinal sin, but I think if you substituted any other part of the meal (I don’t like the toast/salad/dessert) the answer would be pretty straightforward. Personally I’d have my tea after the meal...or accept that life is actually a series of suboptimal experiences.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:18 AM on September 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

At least in LA food obtained not from an “approved source,” like food from another retail location is a major code violation. The restaurant may not have served you that outside food but they can still get dinged for it.

Reading the detailed description for approved source suggests that your second sentence may be incorrect because those rules apply to the food the restaurant is preparing/serving/selling. Looking at the California Retail Food code, "Food" itself is partially designed as "items for use or sale" and section 3 on Food from Approved Sources refers to food that is "obtained". It would be hard to argue that a business was using or selling or had obtained a tea that someone else brought onto the premises.

If simply carrying tea into a restaurant was a health code violation because the tea was from an outside source, stopping at McDonalds after you bought groceries would also be a health code violation. "Cakeage" -- charging a cutting and serving fee to serve a birthday cake in a restaurant -- is also a fairly common restaurant phenomenon, and if outside food was such a major health code violation, that would not exist. There's some argument to be made on whether the restaurant "obtains" a cake that they take into the kitchen to cut and serve, even if they only serve it to the people who brought it, but a tea that never goes into the kitchen much less so.

That's a cursory reading from someone who is not a California lawyer or an expert in health codes, so it might not be correct, but there's a general free-flowing belief that outside food consumed on a premises is a health code violation, and I'm not actually sure that it's correct. It reminds me a bit of counting cards in a casino -- people believe it's illegal, and it's in the best interests of the casino to have everyone believe it's illegal, but counting cards (without outside help) is not actually illegal.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:55 AM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would bring it in a reusable mug and when your server first comes over say “I brought this tea from home, is that ok?” Of course they will say it is. Trust me, they will be happy to not have to deal with tea. It’s kind of a pain in the butt.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:55 AM on September 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've always understood this to be frowned upon. Many restaurants even have signs that say "No Outside Food or Drink".

I avoid doing it. If I already have a beverage, then I'll either finish it or throw it away before I go into a restaurant.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:36 AM on September 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

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