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How to send back restaurant food without being labeled a jerk

Keep yourself, and your server, happy by being direct.

Keep yourself, and your server, happy by being direct.

Your short rib arrives at the table and it’s more fat than lean and inedibly salty. Now what? 

Do you:

A. Suffer quietly, tell your server everything is “fine,” and then leave a bad tip and a worse Yelp review?

B. Push the meat around the plate, try to bury it under the greens, and bring the $26 entree home to the dog? 

C. Look your server in the eye and tell him something is not right, allowing the kitchen to rectify the situation?

We all know the answer. While it’s the most obvious answer, it’s also the most difficult to do.

Keep yourself, and your server, happy by being direct.

Keep yourself, and your server, happy by being direct.

I once watched a man suffer through a shellfish ravioli that had clearly turned bad rather than draw attention to himself. We’re Midwestern. We like to avoid confrontation. And we’ve gone out for a good time, not a fracas.

But restaurant folk, the good ones, really want to make their patrons happy.

“I get 'It was different,’ or ‘Yeah, I guess it was fine,’ all the time," says Maren Thorstenson, a longtime server at Hola Arepa. "If you don't like something, tell me! I want everyone to be happy and enjoy it, even if they don't like the first thing they ordered.” 

Mel Klump, another longtime server, agrees. “Anyone truly invested in hospitality just wants people to leave pleased with their experience. It's frustrating when diners are too passive to let servers do their real job. As a cook and a server, I can truly say that all I really want to do is accommodate guests to the best of my ability.”

But Sarah Moeller, a world traveler and avid diner, says that proposition isn’t always as simple as it seems.

“We're kinda damned if we do and damned if we don't. If we say we don't like something we get added to the list of ‘jerks who don't know anything,' even if some of us eat at (and cook at!) more Michelin restaurants a year than just about anyone else they personally know. We're not idiots, we're just tired of being expected to love every move, every dish. So more often than not we nod and smile and go home and tell our friends what we really think, privately.”

As a person who practically lives in restaurants, I say it’s best to risk getting on the jerk list, if there is indeed one. Remember, it’s your money.

A few pointers for sending food back with as little pain as possible:

1. If you see something, say something. If the meat is clearly underdone, if the toast is burned, if your cheese is missing, say so right away. Don’t eat half, or worse, all of the food and then complain when there is little to be done.

When food is returned to the kitchen for a re-fire, it goes directly to the front of the ticket line, like a triage system. A good kitchen should be able to get your dish back to you in a matter of minutes.

2. Be as specific as possible. “These greens are inedibly salty,” or, “I ordered my eggs poached, not fried,” are examples of good, direct feedback.

If something arrives that’s simply not to your liking, or if it’s different than you expected, you can still say so, but it’s better to be honest than to invent a problem.

3. Say what you would like to see happen. Tell your server whether you would like a re-fire of the dish, a replacement item, or if you would simply like it taken off the bill.

We all know that servers are busy, and if you eliminate unnecessary guesswork on their part, it makes for a more streamlined process.

There are even rewards. If the diner is direct, polite, and gracious, a good restaurant will make it right. They may shave off the cost of a round of drinks or send out an unexpected dessert for your trouble (though a comp should never be the motivation for a complaint). 

Restaurants want your business. Their very survival depends on it. In a negative Yelp review, nobody wins. Risking a little on-the-spot discomfort can result in an ongoing relationship between you and a good restaurant.

And that is what you both want.