The Portuguese Couvert: Rip off or Fantastic Value for Money?

By James Cave / Published: October 2018.
Posted in: Food & Drink

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Sit down at a restaurant in Portugal and within a few minutes the waiter will normally bring over bread, and maybe also some olives, tuna or sardine paste, small cheeses, Algarve carrots (in the Algarve), and croquettes like pastéis de bacalhau as well. It depends where you are: usually it’s just a basket of bread and maybe some mini tubs of butter or sardine paste. 

This is known as the couvert. It’s not free, but it’s usually not expensive. It is, however, very confusing for first time visitors to Portugal (and even those that have been coming to Portugal for a while). 

Algarve carrots and olives

Technically, the waiter is supposed to ask you if you want the couvert or not but, even though this rule has been in place for several years, most just put the bread on the table without saying anything. In fairness to the waiters, most people in Portugal do want the couvert and, if they don’t want it they just say. 

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Of course, anyone visiting Portugal for the first time won’t know what’s going on. Many assume it’s free and then feel scammed when they see it on their bill at the end. 

portugal couvert charge
This TripAdvisor user believes the couvert is a scam. What do you think?

It’s not a scam and, if it was, it wouldn’t be a very ambitious one: most places just charge a few Euros for the couvert. But, because the waiters never say anything when they bring it over, many people do feel ripped off when they see it on their bill. 

How much does the couvert cost?

A couvert containing bread, butter, and sardine paste, for example, will probably come to less than €5 and that’s for everyone at the table. Even if it includes more expensive items like meat and cheese, it should still come to less than €10 – much cheaper than everyone at the table ordering a starter. Note: this is for a normal traditional Portuguese restaurant and prices may be higher in higher end restaurants.

Not sure how much the couvert is likely to cost? Have a look in the menu. Everything will be listed, normally individually although occasionally the couvert has a per person price. As mentioned, basic items like bread and butter are normally inexpensive but it’s also worth checking just to be sure. It’s also worth paying attention to the more expensive items, and deciding whether you want to say no to anything.

Generally, the couvert won’t break the bank but it’s a good habit to check the prices before accepting it especially if you haven’t been to that restaurant before. Most Portuguese restaurants are honest but some places, particularly in touristy areas, will charge more than what’s reasonable for items on the couvert. 

You can refuse the couvert (or anything in it)

Legally, you should have been asked whether or not you want the couvert before it’s placed on the table. This doesn’t always happen but, if you don’t want it, all you have to do is say no. While giving you the couvert without asking is illegal, there are even worse consequences for forcing it on you and no restaurant is likely to try this.

You can also turn down specific items. Meats and cheeses, particularly plates of meats and cheeses, can add up so it’s worth checking the price and deciding whether or not you want them.

As well as cost, some people will refuse the couvert because eating white bread and butter isn’t particularly healthy. If you’re on a diet, or just being sensible, don’t feel like you have to eat the couvert.

Unhappy? Here’s what you can do

Legally, you are:

  • Supposed to be asked whether or not you actually want the couvert.
  • Allowed to refuse the couvert or specific items.
  • Supposed to be able to see how much every item will cost (or how much the couvert will cost per person or in total).

If you feel you have been overcharged in any way, the best option is to speak to the waiter first. Most will be very apologetic, and may even just remove the cost of the couvert from the total without you having to complain any further.

As a customer, your next two choices are to either refuse to pay the couvert (but pay everything else) or to put an official complaint in the complaints book (livro de reclamações).

Every business has a complaints book, which is a legal requirement in Portugal. The paperwork involved in processing a complaint is quite a big headache for most businesses, and so almost all of them will be likely to do anything to avoid you writing in the complaints book.

Generally speaking, though, the couvert is not a scam. In fact, it’s actually pretty good value for money.

What do you think about the Portuguese practice of the couvert? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Share your thoughts or ask a question below. 

12 thoughts on “The Portuguese Couvert: Rip off or Fantastic Value for Money?”

  1. If you feel reluctant to complain about 'couvert' charges whether you actually have eaten any or all of it, just regard the charge as a tip and make it known that is what you have done. The waiting service staff can work it out with the restaurant owner/manager who receives it after you leave. This puts the issue back where it belongs and you can be happy that you have tipped :-))

    Reply
  2. I am going to the Azores next month. So glad to have read about this. I, personally, do not like this. Just add bit of money to each item on menu and include it with meal like the rest of the world. I find this a bit of a scam and unsanitary. That would never be allowed in Canada. For sanitary reasons they would have to throw out the entire plate. You can't give it go someone else if I don't eat it. You don't know if I touched it. Pretty gross custom in my opinion. I will not be eating one ever. Who had it before me? Gross! I would stop this disgusting custom. Especially during a pandemic!!

    Reply
    • Hi Mag,

      It's often covered in clingfilm and most people say yes to it, or say no before the waiter puts it on the table, so I don't know how likely it is that you'll touch something that's been touched by someone else. No idea what happens to the refused bread/other food. I guess you'd have to work in a restaurant kitchen to know.

      Reply
  3. Hello James,

    Thanks for sharing.
    Do you happen to know if it is possible for people sitting at the same table to take couvert for some but not for the others?

    Reply
    • Hi Deanna,

      The bill is normally brought to the whole table, especially when it's a large group.

      You can ask the waiter to split the bill, but most people work it out amongst themselves and then tell the waiter how much they'll be paying. As long as it all adds up, the waiter/restaurant is happy.

      Reply
  4. I always refuse the couvert as it kills my appetite and a shame that I can't finish my food that I ordered. I do sometimes only accept the olives but not the bread and the rest.

    Reply
  5. Hey,
    I was at the time out market and seated at the counter of thr surf and turf. The waitress didn't ask me if I wanted this 'couvert' but she just showed up after a few minutes after my order with this plate and said it was a plus. I asked if it was for free and she said no, so I declined. I was very annoyed by that and after eating my starter I asked for the check, but even if she knew I didn't eat it, it was there! Like 2.95 or something. No more than 3 euros for sure. In fact, when I read couvert I thought it was the basic you have to pay for sitting there, plate, and cutlery, something like that. So, I was pissed but I did not imagine it was that. I thought the plate I ha refused would have been much morr expensive. So now I am even angrier because this is a scam! I'm angry at myself for not having asked what that couvert was on the bill, and furious at the crew that ripped me off. She knew I did not eat it and they charged me! So this is a real scam. And by the way, there was a guy next to me that came after 5 minutes, and she didn't say anything to him. She just gave him the couvert, which now, I know what it is.
    I wanna do something against that place... what do you recommend. Oh if I only knew or asked what that charge was, without taking for granted that it couldn't be that plate! I would have made a scene! And obviously never have paid it.
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hello Gabriele,
      If you find out something that you have not order on the bill, do not hesitate to let the staff know. They will remove it for sure without any problem. In Portugal, I always check the bill and say the waiter or the waitress : "Excuse-me, I haven't had the cheese, the bread, the olives, ... oh, and the pastel de nata as well!"
      I was able to save between 2 and 6 € by checking the receipt.

      Reply
  6. Thank you that is useful to know, as at the restaurant we visited last night and after leaving a tip - noticed on the bill 'Couvert' and assumed it was a cover charge (and that I had tipped on top - which made me feel a bit daft!). Now it is explained - which is a great help as amongst the various tapas etc, I had almost forgotten the delicious tuna/ sardine paste with some bread, ham and cheese at the beginning!

    Reply

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