Photo: Wavebreakmedia (iStock)

This week, an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal raised a question: If you’re at a restaurant, do you deserve a free dessert on your birthday? It was prompted by a discussion on chef Dallas McGarity’s Facebook page, which apparently got some very spirited responses. As McGarity put it to the Courier-Journal:

I think it’s antiquated and there are tons of people that don’t even eat dessert. Also, does it really bring someone back in if they get a dessert on the house, or is there a better way to get return guests?... I got a ton of feedback ... and most of the people don’t expect it but think it’s nice. I feel there are other ways to make the experience special and that would certainly be more memorable. A free dessert is kind of old-school and chain restaurant.

I am one of the people who does not expect it. I, in fact, do not even like it. Dessert is great. Free food is great. If I’m being honest, I prefer free food to dessert, so free dessert is even better. But I hate free birthday desserts in restaurants, because they aren’t really free.

There’s a cost, and the cost is that you have to sit there and endure the ridiculous spectacle that ensues when the wait staff has to stop what they’re doing and march around clapping and singing and asking other diners to clap and sing because it’s your goddamn birthday.

And here is my theory: Restaurants know we hate it. That’s why it’s done—to discourage us from getting free desserts. [Note: this doesn’t apply when you’re simply sent a gift certificate or a coupon or something. For example, I’m in that AMC Stubs thing, which means I get a free popcorn and soda for my birthday. No objections, gimme that popcorn.]

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Who would willingly submit to such mortification for the sake of a chocolate lava cake? Not I. Often it’s a friend or, god help them, a significant other who makes the request for a complimentary cookie sundae and slice of hell. I’d rather just pay the $5, thanks, and I am not alone. No need for a bunch of hardworking people to sing a song they probably hate, against their will.

If free dessert weren’t so often accompanied by loud clapping and singing, who wouldn’t be willing to own up to the fact that it’s their birthday? They’d be giving out a lot more free desserts to honest people who just happen to have recently reached the anniversary of their birth. But beyond that, they’d also be giving out more free dessert to anyone who doesn’t feel weird about lying about their birthday in order to get an Oreo Madness.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been forced to endure this kind of tiny nightmare, but if memory serves, the wait staff won’t ask to see your I.D. if you say it’s your birthday. They just take your word for it, and then they make a goddamn spectacle of you. If they didn’t sing, what would stop the less scrupulous among us from having a birthday every single time we want dessert?

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The singing is there to scare us off free dessert. It is a feature, not a bug. It’s a plot by Big Restaurant to keep us from taking the free shit, while still giving the appearance of free shit. Also, lava cake sucks.