Legality of Walking Out of a Restaurant Without Paying

In this MPSIMS thread, there is a discussion going on about the act of walking out of a restaurant without paying the tab, due to poor service.

I’m wondering about the legalities. Anyone know the straight dope? What contract, if any, exists implicitly between the person who walks in and orders and the owner of the restaurant?

My WAG would be that the customer is legally bound to pay if he orders, and food is prepared and placed on his table which can reasonobly be construed as an honest attempt to fill that order. Quality of service, I further WAG, is legally irrelevant, under all circumstances.

But, I even further WAG, these legal considerations are often trumped by particular practical circumstances.

Anyway, I know YANAL, bu still, who’s got the straight dope, or a reasonable fascimile thereof?


Sorry, thread is here:


Not a Lawyer, but my understanding is that, in Queensland at least, skipping out on a restaurant without paying the bill is in the same category of driving off from a petrol station without paying for the fuel- it carries a $100 fine plus the cost of the goods/services not paid for, and is a summary offence (ie, heard in front of a magistrate and not a judge and jury).

It is illegal- it’s a form of theft, after all- but if someone could prove they’d made an honest and reasonable attempt to pay and been unable to do so because of a problem at the restaurant’s end (ie, no cashier-trained staff available, manager having vanished, and the patron’s been trying to find someone for the last 20 minutes so they can pay), I imagine they’d just make you pay the cost of the meal and leave it at that, if they even bothered to chase it up.

Again, I don’t have any of my law books handy and I’m not a lawyer, so don’t go getting any ideas…

Here’s another recent thread. Don’t try it in northern Virginia.

I don’t understand the question. If you order a hamburger, and a hamburger you get, then to leave would simply be stealing. If they bring you something edible that matches the menu description then that’s that.

It’s the same in NSW under the INNKEEPERS ACT 1968 - SECT 9 and for licenced places LIQUOR ACT 1982 - SECT 129.

Since you answered the question directly, looks like you understood it just fine. :slight_smile:


Right, but what if you can’t find anyone to take the money? That was the issue brought up in the earlier thread. Do you wait half an hour? An hour? Must you stick your head in the kitchen and holler? At some point, it seems like it MUST be ok to get up and walk out, but it’s not clear what that point is.

I’m thinking I would leave a note on the register: “I waited half an hour to pay this check and no one came. Please call this number to arrange payment” or something. At least then you could show you made an effort. But I have no idea if such a thing would make a legal difference.

If you leave without paying, you are guilty of theft. In my state, if the bill was over $100, you are guilty of a felony. If you can’t find anyone to take the money, leave it on the table.

It might be illegal but restaurants do not have any practical means of enforcement. A restaurant is a business that provides a service. And not just any service, hospitality.

Presumably, the patrons who leave without paying do not plan to return unless the restaurant is under new management. The current management could go after them, block the exit, uh, that’s unlikely. And even if they did, there would be such a public outcry that the restaurant would be out of business in no time.

Normally I’d say this is sound advice, but I believe one of the situations in the other thread involved the diner not having any cash- but having a perfectly valid and functioning credit or debit card with more than enough credit/balance to settle the bill.

For poor service- no, that’s theft. But for in-edible food, or similar, you’d have some sort of case, as long as you were up front about it.

I ate a Coffee-Shop chain. After finishing most of the dinner, the waitress brought out the dessert- and a cockroach ran off the plate as she was setting it down. We got up, went up to the cashier, and said- “of course, this means we won’t be paying, you understand, right?” and walked. This gave the night manager a chance to argue with us, but he just stood there, saying how sorry he was.

Thus, if you went up, had a reasonable complaint about the food, announced you were contesting the bill, and gave them a chance to dispute with you, you could be OK. At that point in time, most police officers (if called) would respond with “it’s a civil matter”. IANAL.

If the service was very poor, you complain to the manager- you *don’t *just walk or stiff.

Thus I agree with the OP “My WAG would be that the customer is legally bound to pay if he orders, and food is prepared and placed on his table which can reasonobly be construed as an honest attempt to fill that order. Quality of service, I further WAG, is legally irrelevant, under all circumstances.

However, food that was served so late or so slow to have reasonable doubts as to it’s value is a cause for complaint. Some dishes lose quite a bit of palatabilty if served wrong. IANAL.

If I really couldn’t find someone, I’d at least have the brains to leave something on the register before I skedaddled.

Wow! Then you really should have paid! :eek:

Sorry. Just had to.

Especially because in a lot of places if you walk on a tab, the waitress has to pay it. If you walked because of her lousy service, that’s one thing, but it usually isn’t her fault if the food is bad or takes forever. If you take it up with management, it clears the waitress of having to deal with it herself.

Surely that’s not a good plan?

You are then left with no proof that you have paid… nothing to stop the people on the next table swiping the cash, and you’ll have no way to show otherwise.

I can’t imagine that a court would consider it reasonable to require patrons to leave $100+ just lying on a table…

I say if you received food, regardless of the quality of service, you have to pay for whatever you received. A specific level of service above actually receiving what you bought is gravy. You have contracted to receive food. Period. No bells and whistles included. Anything else is gravy.

I do this all the time, and it’s expected at classier restaurants (assuming your paying cash): just leave the money on the table (including the tip) for the waitress to pick up.

It is a gray area if the food is inedible. However, your best plan would be to complain to the manager – they’ll either replace it, comp it, or both. Just walking away without paying not only causes problems for you, but doesn’t give the restaurant the chance to fix it.

The question raised in the previous thread isn’t about if the food isn’t good or the service sucks, it’s about having the means to pay (say, via credit card), waiting around for a long time and finding no one to take your payment, and having to decide if you’re going to camp overnight in the booth and grow old waiting. Or you go up to the cashier to pay, you wait and wait, someone tells you it’s not their job to take payment, and you still stand there waiting. At what point can you leave, having made a good faith effort to pay? At what point are you commiting a crime? After 5 minutes of honest trying? 1 hour? 3 days?

If you leave without paying, you’re committing the crime.

The fact that someone is not there to take your order doesn’t matter. If you can’t find a clerk in a store, does that mean any merchandise you were planning to pay for is now yours? Of course not.

You could always leave money at the register to cover your meal, along with the check.

It’s stealing. I’ve had to call the police on people who have attempted to walk out without paying. If I wanted to buy someone dinner, it’d be someone I know and care about.

As far as poor service, wasn’t this covered in the “Are you a Cheap Tipper” thread? If you get terrible service, don’t leave a tip, and/or speak to the manager. They will do what they can to make up for your unpleasant experience. If your food was awful AND the service was abysmal, again, speak to a manager. You shouldn’t have to pay for food that is inedible and service that is rude. Most restaurants understand that.


For the LOVE OF GOD. If there is something wrong with your food, LET THE SERVER KNOW RIGHT AWAY. They can help you, they can bring it back to the kitchen and get you new food. We don’t mind. We CAN NOT HELP YOU if you eat it all and THEN tell us.

One of my biggest pet peeves was when I would deliver food to a table, then go back a few minutes later and ask how things are, and get “fine, thank you”. Then, after the customer would eat everything, they would say, “My food was cold” or “That was burnt”. And then expect me to discount it or comp it.

Trust me, there’s nothing I can do for you AFTER YOU’VE EATEN EVERYTHING. Most servers have to answer to a manager or the chef before they can discount or comp something. If you’ve eaten everything but one bite, the server will have a hard time convincing anyone that your food was inedible.