The subtle art of complaining

Want to send it back? Jeanne Horak-Druiff's top tips.

by: Jeanne Horak-Druiff | 05 Jan 2010

Why is complaining at a restaurant so difficult?  It seems that there are only two schools of thought and no middle ground in between.  Allow me to elaborate.

Scenario 1:
You arrive at a restaurant and have to hang about in the bar as your table is not ready until 20 minutes later. Your starter is described as grilled halloumi but it tastes a whole lot like feta. The waiter disappears after the starter and apparently reads a long novel before returning with your main course.  And the steak that you ordered rare suffers from a distinct lack of pinkness.  And when the waiter asks:  “Was everything OK?” you grin manically and say: “Oh yes!”.  

Scenario 2:
You are at a restaurant with your boss. He sends back at least three barely opened bottles of wine which seemed fine to the sommelier, but which he insists are “obviously corked”.  He orders his steak well-done but when it arrives he takes a bite, flings down his cutlery and calls to speak to the chef personally as he has detected a drop of lingering blood in the meat. He is rude to the young waiter and leaves no tip, vowing loudly never to eat there again.

Both dining experiences clearly left the diners unhappy, but neither approach to complaints achieves much.  So how does one go about complaining effectively?  First you must decide when things have progressed from faintly annoying to complaint-worthy.  For instance, a waiter being totally unable to tell you how a dish is sourced/prepared might be an annoyance to me, but complaint-worthy to somebody with a nut allergy who needs to know exactly what's in the dish.  Try not to blow your top over trivial stuff - save your righteous indignation for when something actually goes significantly wrong!

Here are some steps to help make sure that you get what you want, without making the staff want to poison your espresso:

  • Complain as soon as something goes wrong - don't wait until the bill arrives.  This gives the restaurant a fair chance to correct whatever the fault may be.
  • Try to remain calm and objective.  "I'm afraid this steak is not done the way I ordered it" is a lot better than "how do you think you can get away with serving rubbish like this?" or "this is undoubtedly the worst restaurant in the world", which will instantly make the restaurant staff confrontational.
  • Suggest how you would like the problem to be resolved - this could be anything from a replacement dish to a glass without lipstick on the rim to a discount off the bill.  It's cheeky to expect a dish to be taken off the bill if you've eaten most of it, but of course if there is a hygiene issue (e.g. you find an insect in your last spoonful of soup) then this might be your only option.
  • First address your concerns to the waiter - don't immediately demand to speak to the manager or chef.  Only ask for the manager if the waiter does not manage to resolve the issue to your satisfaction, or if your only problem is the waiter himself (e.g rude or very slow service).
  • And finally, you can of course show your dissatisfaction by not leaving a tip - but remember that this punishes the waiter rather than the restaurant.  If your problem was with the kitchen, then it is really unfair to reduce or remove the waiter's tip.

Have you ever complained in a restaurant, and why?



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