Do you complain in restaurants?

Eating out, Food politics
How to complain about bad food

You ordered something that sounded tasty.

The waiter arrives with your meal, puts it down in front of you and you start eating.

You realise quickly that the expected juicy steak has been grilled to within an inch of total carbonation, or that the chicken is salmonella pink in the middle.

The waiter reappears, a smile on his face.  He asks if everything is OK with your meal.  Maybe there’s a slight hint of nervousness in his voice that betrays the fact that he knows that the chef is nearly useless and the meal under discussion is terrible, but he has to ask…

At a distance, and safely hidden behind a laptop, it’s easy to say that you should be politely assertive and tell the waiter exactly what’s wrong with your food, and ask for it to be rectified.

But does that always happen?

Do you not sometimes just mumble something vaguely positive, carry on eating and feel like a fool?

What do you do?

I asked Twitter:

“What do you do when you get served bad food in a restaurant? Keep quiet or complain?”

@zadmarsh said:

“Complain and fear the wrath of the kitchen!”

…a sentiment echoed by @E8ays:

“…oooh no, they would spit in the ‘apology’ “

She has a better, more satisfying plan of attack:

“I’d bad mouth them to ALL and sundry and not go again!”

@_jonb enigmatically agrees:

“A bad review is best served cold.”

@SoleBayCheeseCo was concerned that I might have been ripped off:

“Complain of course! You didn’t pay for bad food, did you?”

I explained that it was a hypothetical question.  This time, anyway.

@RantsandRamblin stuck to the middle ground:

“Bit of both, I’m not good at complaining – although I’m getting better!”

@SheSimmers was quite fair and objective:

“If “bad” means old ingredients badly cooked, I’d complain.  If food is well-prepared but turns out not to be my cup of tea, no”

A range of opinions, and some concerns about the consequences of tackling a problem, but a general sense that complaining is the right thing to do.

What about me?

I’m not very good in this type of situation.  I once ate entirely the wrong meal rather than make a fuss.  It was quite nice, I must add, just not what I ordered.

Like some of the Twitterers above, I’ve always got a nagging worry about the consequences of complaining.  I’ve read enough Tony Bourdain and Jason Sheehan to understand  a very small minority of kitchen staff can be malicious little bastards sometimes, and I’m nervous that my returned food might come back ‘altered’ in some way.  I’m sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen nearly as much as I think it does, but still, I’m paranoid it might.

If something is very badly wrong, I’ll say something and I’m happy to do so – I’m never going to eat raw chicken, for example.  It’s the times when things are generally OK, but just not up to scratch that I find most difficult.  How on earth do you approach an ‘OK’ meal?

My borderline cowardly approach to bad meals in restaurants should not be your model.

It shouldn’t even be my model, really, should it?

The rules of complaining in a restaurant

So, from now on, this is how  I’ll deal with a bad restaurant meal:

  • Raise it straight away. If there’s something wrong, I’ll call the waiter immediately and explain what’s up, calmly and politely.  They need a chance to react to the problem and deal with it.  In many situations, the true caliber of the establishment is shown not in the fact that they made a mistake, but in how they deal with it.
  • Seek a reasonable resolution commensurate with the problem. If you threaten not to pay for anything just because they’ve brought you sparkling water instead of still, you’re going to get thrown out of the restaurant, and you’d probably deserve it, too.  Asking for a simple replacement is perfectly reasonable.    If something is cooked as described on the menu, but it’s not to your taste when it arrives, it wouldn’t be reasonable for you not to pay for it.  If it’s half cooked, it would be reasonable not to pay.  Be fair and objective.
  • Speak to the manager. There are limits to what the waiter can do.  Sometimes, you have to take things to the next level, but when you ask to do so, stay calm and be even more polite.
  • Tips and service charges are not mandatory. If your meal was terrible, or your complaints were handled badly, don’t tip, and deduct any service charges from the bill.
  • Remember your consumer rights. When you order something, you do so on the basis that the food you receive should be as described on the menu.  Your order is essentially a contract between you and the restaurant for the provision of goods and services to the specification described.  You could, if you were so inclined, had a lot of time on your hands and were really bad at sorting things out like a rational person, sue the restaurant for breach of contract.
  • Never, ever, ever march into the kitchen and confront the chef. The kitchen is his terrain, he’s very busy, it’s a dangerous place for people who don’t know how professional kitchens work and he has all the knives.  You will get shouted at and you’re likely to lose any argument you try to start.

I’ll follow these rules if you will too.

Have you ever had a bad meal in a restaurant?  What did you do?  Got any tips?

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