Michael Bublé in a punny Superbowl ad for ‘Bubly’ water. Youtube

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian writer. This is his column for Esquire.

MOMENTS AFTER SITTING DOWN at a nice restaurant recently, a waiter approached our table and asked my wife and I one of the most consequential questions of the modern age: ‘Would you like still or sparkling water?’

It’s a question that concerns etiquette, finances but most importantly, it concerns class. The consumption of sparkling water (and its lesser, but still overvalued cousin, ‘still’) have long been a contentious issue at dining tables in Australia. In a country where we are blessed with some of the world’s cleanest drinking water straight out of a tap, we seem to have imported contamination anxiety from our cousins in Asia (bottled water only in Bali) and delusions of grandeur from our grandparents on the Continent (Italy and Switzerland are the kings of exuberantly priced table-ready H2O). Therefore, ordering bottled water over ‘tap’ in Australia casts you as posh, a germaphobe, an anti-environmentalist or, at best, a schmuck. 

More recently, however, the question of ordering water at a restaurant has shifted into even more precarious territory. Sparkling water, which, when I was growing up, meant a litre of Acqua Panna that arrived at your table with the lid already unscrewed so you couldn’t send it back when you discovered how much it was, has been replaced in many new restaurants by a built-in sparkling water tap. That means it’s free or very cheap, but the problem is, no waiter will ever tell you this piece of information unless you ask. And here we reach the class conundrum.

By not telling us whether sparkling water is on the house – or will cost you a house deposit – restaurants bank on the knowledge that we are too embarrassed to pose the question, lest we be tarred as people of simply average means. And their gambit pays off; I see it happen all the time. Worse yet is when you don’t ask the question because you assume it’s on tap, only to be faced with the inevitable unscrewed $17 luge that you now feel bound to chug purely out of principle.

This dovetails somewhat with the rise of quiet luxury, a movement in which the wildly wealthy dress in high end clothes with no branding that look like they could come from Uniqlo, except they’re made from the woven eyelashes of dragons. When I was a kid, at the tail end of the ‘Greed Is Good’ era, big brands and loud logos were everything. That’s still true now, but all-over Balenciaga prints are mostly considered the domain of UK rappers, Real Housewives of Wherever and the proletariat. What these brand-less couture clothes signal is that if you have to ask, you don’t know. My puffer was $119, yours was $9100, and only those on a certain level will know the difference.

The sparkling water problem is perhaps the most pernicious form of quiet luxury, in which the implication is it’s accessible to everyone but the dual outcomes – whether it’s expensive or it’s free – only affect those not working in corporate finance. It reminds me of a story that did the rounds with many of my groups of friends during COVID, which was surely made up but speaks to this anxiety.

It goes something like this: a young legal clerk from Melbourne went on a first date with a more established man at a fancy restaurant in Central London. He was running late and told her to order any bottle of wine from the menu. She chose the one that said ‘15-’. When he arrived, they drained it and later polished off another. It was only when the bill came that she realised the ‘-‘ stood in for three zeroes, or thousands, written in small print on the final page of the menu. She’d downed a year’s worth of rent and tuition fees on plonk with a guy she thought was a prat and never saw again – and he never pointed it out to her, as he assumed she knew.

The fact that this likely false story gained currency on the precipice of a global cost of living crisis speaks to how class can embed itself in the simplest of actions (buying a jacket, ordering hors d’oeuvres) and can sometimes do so without a single word being uttered. That sparkling water, one of the most unnecessary and inexpensive forms of carbonation on the planet, can play in this space tells us a lot about where we’re at as a society: a very confused place indeed. 

My wife hates sparkling water so she finds all of this hand-wringing hilarious. “Just ask them”, she says every time we pick up our menus. But I can’t. Evidently there is something wrong with me. I still remember the first time I went to a party and they gave us mini bottles of Pellegrino upon arrival. Even though I know it’s bullshit, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s special, that defiling perfectly drinkable water with gaseous bubbles somehow makes it more luxe. A few years ago, the global sparkling water market was valued at $33 billion. That’s a lot of investors who don’t want me to ask about those dispensers.

And you know what? I bet you those investors drink tap.

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian writer, father and nu-metal apologist. He is the author of a memoir called It’s A Shame About Ray and a novel titled All the Beautiful Things You Love, which is out now. Jonno has some interesting things to say about music, fatherhood, Aussie culture, mental health, problematic faves and the social gymnastics of group chats. This is his column for Esquire. You can see all of his previous columns here.