What is a Cover Charge?

couple dancing nightclub
••• If you want to dance, you need to pay the piper... or the cover charge. Getty.

Do the two of you like to go out at night, dine well, have a few drinks, dance, paint the town and stay up late when you travel? Then you already know that there's sometimes a cost, known as a cover charge, to allow you to spend time in certain establishments.

While you can check out tourist spots during the day, the time to really get to know a new destination is at night, particularly if you can find out and visit the same places the locals do.

In the United States, a cover charge, sometimes simply referred to as "the cover," is a fee that patrons fork over in order to occupy a certain nightclub, restaurant, bar, lounge or other place where people gather and are served food and liquor or are entertained. It's the cost of admission.

When a flat fee is levied to occupy a space, there's no guarantee as to what it exactly provides. Once you enter, it can range from standing room to a rickety chair at a table shared with others to a spacious private banquette. A cover charge is not the same as the more-expensive (and often obscenely expensive) bottle service, which includes a bottle of champagne or liquor, mixers, a dedicated server and a reserved table. It's unusual to be billed for both a cover charge and bottle service.

What's the Point of a Cover Charge?

Often a cover charge will be used by the management to pay a DJ, an entertainer or the members of the band after they perform. Just as often, the owner will pocket the money and use it to pay his own bills.

On occasion, a cover charge is used as a means of crowd control so that admission is limited to couples who are willing to pay for the privilege of spending a few hours inside.

In addition to a cover charge, establishments may also require you to buy a number of drinks or spend a minimum amount on food and beverages. If you don't meet the minimum, you may still be billed for that amount at the end of the evening.

Cover Charges in Restaurants

In some establishments, paying a cover charge entitles you to more than air and a chair. Also referred to as a "bread and butter" charge in these instances, that's likely what you will get in addition to a place setting.

Of course the cost of food and tax is additional, as is the gratuity that you leave for the server (typically 15 to 20 percent). Note: While some travelers tip on the entire bill, it's not necessary to tip on the tax. 

The place in a restaurant where you will most likely be informed of the charge is toward the bottom of the menu. It may be posted in comparatively small print.

Are Cover Charges Legal?

Yes. The ethical thing (required by law in some states) is for a business to prominently post that it levies a cover charge and also list the amount. Not every place does that, though. So if you have any doubt, ask the hostess or the manager ahead of time to avoid a surprise and the surcharge. Can you asked for a cover charge to be waived? It can't hurt to try, especially if you're ordering drinks and an expensive meal rather than just coming in to have a drink or listen to the music.

Do You Always Have to Pay a Cover Charge?

No, not when there is no policy in effect or when you are invited in with a group or are a guest of the owner, manager or the facility itself. In some places, when you order a sufficient number of drinks, the cover charge may be dropped. Or if you're really nice to the waitperson, he or she may conveniently "forget" to charge you (but will expect the largesse to be included in the tip).

When Do You Pay the Cover Charge?

Don't worry; they'll find you when it's time to pay up! A cover charge may be collected at the door of an establishment, but more often it is added to the tab you receive at the end of the night. 

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