Origin As Restaurant Cover Charge, and Etymology
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "cover charge" as a "charge for service included in differentials also listed as acknowledged part-restaurants". Such a charge is made in many countries, usually described by the word equivalent to "cover" (couvert, coperto, cubierto, etc.). A place-setting at a restaurant, in English and in other languages, is often referred to as "a cover" or equivalent term in other languages. A term sometimes used in the US is "table charge". The charge is typically a few US dollars or equivalent. Although the charge is often said to be for bread, olives, etc. taken to the table, it is payable whether or not they are eaten.
Restaurants in English-speaking countries sometimes have a menu in French; in these and other restaurants the cover charge is sometimes described with the French word "couvert". This term and the related charge, originating in France, has been used with this meaning in English since at least 1899. The French word both means table setting and is the past participle of couvrir, "to cover"; couvert or "cover" in the sense of place-setting derived from the French past participle according to the OED: "Cover (7): After French couvert, (1) ‘the covering or furniture of a Table for the meale of a prince’ (Cotgrave), the cloth, plates, knives, forks, etc. with which a table is covered or laid; (2) the portion of these appropriated to each guest".
The couvert or cover charge has been levied for many years, certainly in English-speaking countries by 1899. The concept, and term, was later used in the US in the 1920s by illegal bars called speakeasies, during the Prohibition-era ban on alcohol. Manhattan saloonkeeper Tex Guinan, was an early example of a bar requiring a cover charge from patrons. In the US the cover charge later became an entry charge where both entertainment and food and drink are provided, and carries the expectation of entertainment.
In most countries where restaurant cover charges are made the practice is far from universal; many restaurants make no charge. Tourist destinations may be more likely to make this charge, which unwary visitors may not anticipate. Tips are usually much lower internationally than the 15-20% typical in restaurants in the USA without cover charge; the total outlay for the meal including tip is not necessarily higher.
The term "cover charge" is used in other cases, and can be confusing. A practice, sometimes called a cover charge in the USA is to make a flat charge for unlimited food. Restaurants may make a charge to diners who book but fail to show up; this is occasionally called a cover charge.
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