FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Watching their wallets and their waistlines, Americans are ordering more free tap water when they eat out.
In the past two years, orders of water have gone up 3.2 percent while purchases of sodas, coffee and other beverages have declined 3.6 percent, according to research company NPD Group. That's more than 5 billion servings of tap water in 2011 compared to the 44.6 billion servings of drinks other than water.
Portions -- and prices -- of drinks such as sodas have gone up through the years and "consumers believe the cost of beverages in restaurants have gotten too expensive," said Warren Solochek of NPD.
Rita Flannery, of Fort Lauderdale, says she orders water on days that she's already had too much caffeine.
"I drink a lot of Diet Coke," Ms. Flannery said.
Restaurant operators have noticed the trend.
Fort Lauderdale eateries, like Yolo and Tarpon Bend, have seen a "dramatic increase" in the number of water orders, said owner Tim Petrillo.
"People opt not to have soda not only because of the economy, but because of their health," Mr. Petrillo said.
After finishing his lunch recently at Energy Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale, which fills its menu with low-calorie fare, Gary Brown said he orders a soft drink or tea only occasionally when dining at a restaurant.
"I usually just order water knowing that it's free," he said.
Some restaurants are fighting the water trend by spicing up their beverage offerings. McDonald's has added smoothies and specialty coffees. Wendy's last year added all-natural lemonade.
And there is even a high-tech twist: Coca-ColaFreestyle, a touch-screen machine that offers more than 120 types of Coke brand soft drinks.