The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
In a perfect world, every restaurant reservation would be seated exactly on time and every steak would arrive precisely cooked to temperature. But dine out often enough and inevitably you’ll find cause for complaint. Whether it’s a casual neighborhood spot, fast-food chain, or a fine dining destination, restaurants are complex operations, meaning a lot of things can go wrong: Maybe the hostess lost your reservation and you had to wait an extra 25 minutes, or a newly hired cook oversalted the Brussels sprouts, or a leaky air-conditioning unit is dripping onto your table.
After sitting through countless brunches, lunches, and dinners, both at the table as a customer and behind the scenes as a front- and back-of-house employee, I’ve noticed a clear pattern when it comes to complaints: People who do it the right way usually get what they want. (People who do it the wrong way sometimes get what they want, too, but they also make everyone — including the other people at their table — miserable.)
While many minor snafus can and should be taken in stride — please don’t be that person who complains about a fingerprint on their wine glass — when a fixable issue arises that’s negatively affecting your dining experience, you should feel empowered to complain. Know this: restaurateurs like Mr. Hospitality himself, Danny Meyer of NYC-based Union Square Hospitality Group, train their staff to solicit and encourage all sorts of feedback.
“One of the oldest sayings in business is, ‘The customer is always right,’” Meyer writes in his book Setting the Table. “I want… to create opportunities for our customers to feel that they are being heard even when they’re not right. To do so, I always actively encourage them — when I’m on my rounds, in our comment cards, and in letters or e-mail to us — to let us know if they feel something’s not right. When they do, I thank them.”
Good restaurateurs want to know when something goes wrong as soon as possible — while the diner is still in the restaurant, ideally — so they can fix it, and avoid a complaint in the future (or in the age of social media, a complaint that goes directly onto Yelp). For people who are used to communicating via email and text, speaking up about a cold plate of risotto can be somewhat anxiety-inducing. According to a recent survey by restaurant consulting group Technomic, 52 percent of millennials are uncomfortable sending food back at a restaurant (by comparison, 61 percent of people over 55 are comfortable doing so). They shouldn’t be! Restaurants want you to have a good experience! Hospitality is their business, and they want you to leave happy — and hopefully, come back again.
But there’s a better way to do it; here’s how to complain at a restaurant:
Know when to speak up
Though it’s not always possible, the best time to complain is as soon as possible, while you’re still at the restaurant and while the offending dish is still in front of you or the issue is otherwise ongoing. Additionally, you should evaluate whether your problem is truly worthy of complaining about: New York strip came out medium-well when you ordered medium-rare? Say something. Curry arrived inedibly spicy when you requested mild? Definitely tell your server. Ordered a salmon dish with dill but then remembered you hate dill? Sorry, that one’s on you; share it with your dining companions and better luck next time.
If the need to complain arises, flag down your server or a manager and calmly explain the issue. A good place to start is: “Excuse me, but my [insert dish here] is [overcooked/too salty/inedibly spicy].” If your concern involves a corked or otherwise problematic glass or bottle of wine, speak directly with the sommelier or beverage director (again, explaining the issue calmly and directly).
This should go without saying, but do not be a jerk (and definitely do not call 911). Act like a normal, respectable human, and treat your server like one, too. Remember: If your branzino is overcooked, it’s certainly not your server’s fault. And the old adage is true, you catch more flies with honey.
Be specific about a resolution, if you have one in mind
If you’ve alerted a staffer about an issue with a plate of food and they don’t immediately offer to remake or otherwise replace the dish, ask if that’s an option. Otherwise, assuming you haven’t already eaten most of the dish, ask if it can be removed from the bill.
Similarly, if there’s something wrong with a cocktail, ask if the bartender can remake it or tweak it to your tastes. If there’s an issue with a glass of wine, a manager or beverage director should offer to swap that glass out for another; if a bottle of wine is corked or otherwise off, it should be replaced.
If you have a specific idea about what would resolve the situation to your liking (within reason!), feel free to ask: “This cocktail is too strong. Can I get a glass of prosecco instead?” “This calamari is rubbery. Do you think we could get the shrimp cocktail instead?” The manager may not necessarily be able to give you exactly what you want, but if it’s within their power, they probably will. It’s in their best interest that you leave satisfied.
If your server is disrespectful or has a bad attitude, it’s fair to ask for a manager to resolve the situation. This should go without saying, but if you’ve ordered and consumed food or drink, it’s never okay to walk out of a restaurant without paying. On a related note: Tipping badly just makes you look like a jerk.
Know that feedback is welcome, but you might not always be right
Good restaurants are always looking to improve, and that means dealing with complaints constructively. Often, dishes that are sent back to the kitchen will not be taken directly to the trash, but to the chef, who will examine the food to see if an error was made in the cooking or plating process.
“If I’m in the kitchen, I want to know what the issue is,” says Tanya Holland, chef-owner at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, California. “When I’m not [at the restaurant], people might email me directly and say, ‘Hey, the shrimp tonight wasn’t like you make it,’ and that gives me an opportunity to investigate what the kitchen is doing differently. So we do want to know, and we definitely want to have an opportunity to make the correction. We strive for perfection and consistency but... there’s always going to be room for human error.”
But remember, even if you’re Yelp Elite and have seen every episode of Good Eats three times, it’s not your restaurant, and the customer isn’t always right. “Sometimes it’s the customer’s misunderstanding of the preparation standards for the food,” says Holland. “A lot of people think chicken that’s been brined and is really moist inside [is still raw] and we have to explain it’s cooked to the proper temperature, for instance.”
Don’t expect a freebie
Restaurants tend to operate on razor-thin margins, and constantly doling out free appetizers and rounds of $15 cocktails can really eat away at their profits. That said, if you are lucky enough to score a free round of drinks, express thanks, and tip accordingly.
Do expect a dish you don’t eat and send back to be taken off your bill
Once the server whisks away that overcooked steak you took one bite of, it should definitely not show up on your bill at the end of the night. If it does, politely point it out to your server — they probably just forgot and will quickly remove it from your tab.
Let it go
Restaurants have lots of moving parts and mistakes happen. Provided that the staff acknowledge your issue and take reasonable steps to rectify the problem, don’t let a spilled glass of wine or too-salty soup ruin your night. Put the issue aside and enjoy your meal — and if all else fails, just have another glass of wine and order all the desserts.
Don’t say nothing and then write a scathing Yelp review
It bears repeating: Restaurants want to know when something is wrong in the moment so they can fix it immediately. By taking your complaint to Yelp in the form of a one- or two-star review, you’re not only potentially affecting the restaurant’s ability to earn revenue (studies have shown that even a half-star reduction in a restaurant’s average Yelp rating can have a huge effect on its ability to attract customers), you’re preventing the restaurant from being able to fix the problem right then and there — and preventing yourself from leaving the establishment happy.
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior associate editor.