Eating at a restaurant can be a pretty awkward experience as it is. Just like gyms, restaurants are fascinating little microcosms of human behavior and culture. Ostensibly, you’re there to have a private meal with friends or family. But you’re attempting to do this in a public, probably busy place. If people wanted to hear your conversation, they probably could. And you can eavesdrop ‘till your heart’s content as well. You’re also counting on a team of overheated, overworked strangers to cook your food with care and excellence. And you’re counting on another stranger or team of strangers to be your personal assistants and food experts and to serve you like eager little busy beaver butlers. And if you have dietary restrictions or food allergies, putting trust in this whole process is that much more terrifying.
One of the most awkward situations you can encounter at a restaurant is when you are not happy with your food. What do you do? No one wants to be that customer. No one wants to be difficult, picky, or worry about the urban myth of the cook spitting in food that is sent back. So you, the diner, are left in an awkward situation. You either a) Eat food that you’re not happy with and you’re not enjoying or b) Create an awkward situation for yourself, the wait staff, and your other guests by sending back a meal and waiting for the restaurant to either re-cook that meal correctly or to cook you something else that’s more to your liking. At this point, you’re living a cliché, either between a rock and a hard place, choosing between the lesser of two evils, or picking your poison.
So what is the best way to handle this situation? Well, as with most things in life, it depends. But in my opinion, the majority of the time the correct decision is to send back your meal. If your meal is cooked incorrectly, which is to say that certain ingredients are either over-cooked or under-cooked (especially the protein), send the meal back. If you ordered a medium-rare steak and it comes out medium-well, send it back. You’re probably paying at least $20-$25 for that steak, and the bottom line is that you’re the customer and the restaurant’s entire job, everyone from the hostess to the server to the cook, is to make you happy. Period. Any legitimate restaurant worth its weight will have no problem with you sending back a meal most of the time. You leaving with a smile on your face and the intention of coming back are really the only things that every employee in the restaurant should be concerned with. And if that takes re-cooking a meal, so be it.
Poor quality ingredients should also not be tolerated and are a totally legitimate reason for a meal to be sent back. Much of what good cooking is starts with quality ingredients, so if that’s not there and you’re paying good money expecting it to be there, don’t hesitate to send back the meal. Always take into account the setting and price of the meal, and if certain ingredients from the protein to the vegetables to the starch are of poor quality, alerting the wait staff and sending back those portions of the meal is totally acceptable. Also, this probably should go without saying, but if you are dining with dietary restrictions like no gluten or dairy, be extra careful with your meal. Often times dishes need to be modified (or “special prepped” in restaurant lingo) in order to be gluten or dairy free, and if the dish doesn’t come out with these special modifications, send it back without giving it a second thought.
One last final legitimate reason to send a meal back, even if it’s perfectly cooked, is if the server didn’t give you accurate information about the dish. Did he or she say that tuna or swordfish is a mild, delicate fish? Did he or she say that a ribeye steak will be nice and lean with a perfect texture? If a server describes a dish one way, and when you eat it, you find his or her description to be poor and misleading, send the meal back. If the server takes it personally, so be it, maybe they’ll learn the menu and ingredients better. Your dining experience shouldn’t suffer because the wait staff isn’t as knowledgeable as they should be.
The one sort of sticky situation is if your order something, perhaps trying to be a little too adventurous, and simply don’t like it even if it was well described and well cooked. On the one hand, the restaurant did nothing wrong and executed the dish well. But on the other hand, you’re not enjoying the meal you’re paying for. At this point it’s a judgment call, but it is okay to send back the meal and just be honest. Just say that it’s well-cooked and that it isn’t the restaurant’s fault, but that you’re really not enjoying your meal and you’d appreciate something else. As long as you haven’t eaten much of the dish (if it’s over half eaten, realize the restaurant will at least raise an eyebrow, and rightfully so), a send-back of a meal that simply isn’t pleasing the diner is totally legitimate. You’re in a restaurant, and this is the hospitality business. How a restaurant (just like a person) handles an adverse situation will say a lot about the character and integrity of that establishment.
Only you, the diner, can make the right decision in the moment if you are not happy with the food you receive at a restaurant. Take into account multiple factors but realize that you’re the customer, and you are always right. It is a restaurant’s collective job to make the customer happy. End of story. Too often, diners aren’t happy with their meal but don’t say anything out of fear of embarrassment or awkwardness. But if you swallow your tongue, don’t hold it against the restaurant. You need to give honest feedback about your meal and dining experience and then let the establishment decide the best course of action. If you’ve been honest, kind, and understanding, then how the restaurant handles the situation is up to them and will say volumes about their professionalism and commitment to customer satisfaction. That said, happy dining.
Article Courtesy: Andrew Steingrube