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It was a chicken quesadilla, of all things, that set the diner off. Satellite Room General Manager Michael Richardson, as he normally does in these situations, introduced himself to the guest and asked what the problem was.
As Richardson tells it, the angry patron called the food “the definition of bad” and said that the chicken tasted “off.”
“He wouldn’t take a free drink or anything, and I checked the ingredients in the kitchen and chalked this up to him just being weird,” Richardson says.
The guest even handed over his business card, suggesting the staff “Google” him.
“Google him? For what?” Richardson wonders. “He had three friends meet him about five minutes later, and he loudly over and over talked about his quesadilla as though looking for attention.”
Most restaurants want to deliver a good experience, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Running a restaurant involves coordinating many moving parts, from the hostess who seats you to the kitchen staff preparing each dish. Mistakes are bound to happen. But too often, restaurant managers say, people don’t know the right way to complain. Understanding the dos and don’ts of addressing problems can make all the difference in turning a bad meal around.
Lyn Holland, a bartender and industry veteran, once had to deal with a customer who felt that the sun was shining too brightly at her table.
“The window clearly did not have blinds, but the customer did not want to move tables as was our suggestion,” Holland says via email. “She stayed at the table and groused every time the server came by.”
More often than not, D.C. diners are fairly knowledgeable when it comes to dining out—it’s the customers who sit in silence that can be the most frustrating for restaurants. Even the most seasoned diners can sometimes find it uncomfortable to bring up problems for fear of causing a scene in the dining room.
“I guess there’s something about being in a restaurant that intimidates people a little bit,” says Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema. “They might be on business, they might be on a date, they might just want to get away from the kids or whatever. And they just don’t want to make waves.”
But restaurant staff can’t fix problems they don’t know about.
“You’re not doing yourself any favors by sitting in silence and stewing and then writing to me about it,” says Sietsema, whose weekly online chat is flooded with diner complaints, many of which could have been resolved at the table.
A good manager will welcome a few ripples if it means an opportunity to make things better. Most just want the opportunity to turn a bad situation around—not question your judgement.
“When in doubt, just speak up. You’re not going to get in any trouble for it,” says Catherine Ker, general manager at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack. “We definitely want to make sure that everyone has a great time.”
In most cases, if something is wrong, the restaurant will already know about it. If they don’t, the first person you should tell is your server.
“If two or three things happened during the course of a meal that I didn’t find to be correct, then I’d ask to see a manager,” says Mo Cherry, general manager at Mintwood Place.
If you’re in a sensitive situation, consider getting up to talk to a manager or hostess privately and simply laying out the facts, without accusing or placing blame. Managers say they will happily offer up something to make amends for slow food or service, such as a round of drinks or a quick appetizer to buy time. If they don’t, confident diners should feel free to voice their concern and see if something can be done to turn their experience around.
“I think as long as it’s asked in a respectful manner, I don’t think it’s rude or incorrect to do so,” says Poste Moderne Brasserie General Manager William Smith.
The best servers also keep tabs on the dining room to try to proactively identify guests that might not be enjoying themselves. This might mean watching for plates of untouched food and other body language cues, like guests who are looking around the dining room, picking at their food, or even making funny faces.
“If for some reason you’re not enjoying yourself, it’s usually fairly evident,” says Matt Hollis, general manager at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab.
Many of the issues that come up can be quickly and easily remedied by restaurant management, which is one of the main reasons they want immediate feedback.
An undercooked dish can be brought up to temperature. Loud music or temperature issues can usually be adjusted. Dirty dishes or seating areas can be cleaned. Providing honest feedback also helps restaurants improve their menu or performance for the guests who come after.
“If we have five guests in a week say that they didn’t like the dish, if you get multiple feedback like that, that’s important for the business,” says Kendra Graves, managing partner at Farmers Fishers Bakers. “Maybe we need to check the recipe or maybe we need to revise the dish.”
At Joe’s, customer complaints over the authenticity of the Oysters Rockefeller led the restaurant to adopt a more traditional preparation of the dish. But it turns out that led to its own controversy.
“We endured such a backlash from our regular guests who had dined at our locations over the years that, after six months, we decided it was not worth the fight, and we changed it back to our original,” Hollis says.
When it comes to legitimizing complaints, certain basic rules stay largely the same, whether you’re eating fast food or haute cuisine, Sietsema says. Diners should expect hot food to be served hot and cold food served cold. And prompt, efficient, and gracious service is always in style, white table cloth or not.
Some situations can be more uncomfortable. Say, for example you went out on a limb and ordered a strange dish that, as it turns out, you just don’t like it. Or maybe you feel like that medium rare burger you’ve been craving looks more well-done. What is the best way forward?
Crystal Bailey, director of the Etiquette Institute of Washington, says it’s unacceptable to complain when you’ve received exactly what you ordered. Most of the time though, politely asking for substitution or a replacement isn’t likely to put you on the blacklist. The majority of restaurant managers will be more than happy to whisk away the dish in favor of something you know you’ll like, even if it means that perfectly good entrée ends up in the trash.
“If you came to my house and I served you chicken pot pie, and you don’t like chicken pot pie, then I’ll make something else for you. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. It’s just not what you’re looking for,” says Tico General Manager Steve Uhr.
Before you send back that medium-rare burger for looking slightly overcooked, though, have some sympathy for the kitchen staff. They probably won’t spit in your food, but they likely won’t be thrilled having to remake a perfectly fine dish.
“This happens a lot and is absolutely aggravating,” Richardson says. “All too often the kitchen gets yelled at for mistakes, and when something comes back to them that has nothing wrong with it, it’s frustrating for everyone. Now they have to rush another dish ahead of everyone else’s food. It slows them down.”
It’s understandable to be upset over something being wrong. Managers get that—within reason. After all, dining out is often a special and expensive occasion. Resorting to rude or threatening behavior, though, is not going make much progress.
“That one person at the table that becomes extremely irate literally ruins the entire experience for the whole table,” Smith says. “It’s almost like a selfish act that you had to go to that level and ruin not only maybe your day, but even that of the people around you.”
And think twice too before stiffing your server to make yourself feel better—at least not before you say something first.
“Unless a server is rude to you, in all likelihood, if something didn’t go the right way, it’s not their fault,” Uhr says.
For starters, a number of restaurants pool tips, which means your actions could affect otherwise helpful staff. Keep in mind that there are so many people involved in a meal that could be responsible for errors—from bartenders to cooks to dishwashers.
Finally, resist the urge to lodge a complaint on Yelp, OpenTable, or another online forum without attempting to resolve the problem. Firing off a complaint from your table or once back home is easy and avoids confrontation, but managers agree that amplifying the problem on social media is one of the biggest don’ts when it comes to complaining at restaurants.
“That’s kind of a modern day worst-case scenario,” Hollis says.
Illustration by Donna Grethen