How to complain about a bad meal

How should one deal with a dodgy dining experience? Food writer Vicki Williams spills the beanson the etiquette of eating out

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 9:37am

Restaurant critiques - much like the reviewers who write them - come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments, ranging from the positively glowing to the downright pernickety and even scathing. Often, the worse the food, the funnier the review as the writer revels in piercing culinary pretentions.

However, complaining in person is another matter entirely and, like many diners, food writers usually prefer not to confront the manager for all but the most egregious of offences; instead, silently vowing never to return.

People are often too timid to confront, but, equally, dining etiquette offers few avenues for complaints. Some people may choose not to say anything for fear that, in a fit of pique, the chef might do something unmentionable to their dinner. Of course, even a timid customer might feel the restaurant's behaviour is so outrageous that complaining is the only option.

On one such occasion, I wanted to do a Gordon Ramsay when, for a third time, my lamb main course was served rare, rather than medium as I had requested. I kept my head, but only because it was meant to be a romantic dinner, not a review. I did have a chat with the manager, but was told that the chef (from a two-star Michelin restaurant) was unwilling to cook the lamb to my satisfaction and would I prefer to have the veal instead. Seriously?

Of course, letting the chef decide on the dishes can work in your favour; the logic being that by giving them some creative freedom you will see them at their best. On one occasion when I did defer to the chef, the friendly but clueless server looked at us like we were stupid when we asked what the soup was. She said, confidently: "Soup".

I would complain about the wrong bill, but if I don't like the experience I just don't go back
Paul Seaman, PR professional

Contemporary Siberian - that's how my dinner companion described our degustation menu of dishes that mostly tasted like they had been dragged through a salt mine. I regret not saying anything, as there were two dishes we left largely uneaten. I was surprised that no one asked about them. Perhaps they were afraid of what I would say.

"It is acceptable to complain when food which is supposed to be warm or hot arrives cold, when those at the table receive their main courses at staggered times, and if the menu description is completely misleading," says Annabel Jackson, who teaches dining etiquette and is a wine and food educator, consultant and author.

Jackson recently made an exception to those rules when she complained about waiting. "I ordered two first courses and specifically asked for the first one to arrive at the same time as my son's order. We waited a long time and I complained three times; apparently they were being cooked in different kitchens."

While Jackson says she didn't complain in a forceful or loud manner, she thought that, "My body language told the story".

"I never complain," says Vicky Cheng, executive chef at Liberty Private Works, Liberty Exchange Restaurant and Bar, and Liberty Stone Oven Pizza. "As a chef I understand stuff happens and, sometimes, is unavoidable. I try to analyse what happened and still appreciate their effort, and have the best time I can with those I am dining with. We will talk among ourselves, but not necessarily complain to the restaurant."

A similar view is shared by Blue Butcher head chef Daniel Chaney. "I don't normally complain about food when dining out; as a chef I know how extremely hard chefs work. So, whenever I choose to eat out, I always remind myself I'm in the same industry and to stay humble and respectful. If it's really bad then I simply wouldn't go back."

That view is shared by Paul Seaman, a public relations professional. "I would complain about the wrong bill, but if I don't like the experience I just don't go back. I might give a place a second try. If things don't go well in a normally great restaurant, which can happen in the best of places, my protest is always through the tip."

But Chaney draws the line at steaks. "If it's undercooked I will say something. The problem is everyone has a different opinion of what medium rare is. If it's overcooked slightly I don't really care since the flavour of the meat is enhanced."

That's a view that Cheng shares. "I would only say something if it is an expensive steak and it's terribly cooked with a big temperature difference; say, it was ordered medium rare and it came out medium well done."

Restaurants respond to complaints differently. Some simply apologise; others may offer a replacement dish or a complimentary dessert or glass of wine, which is what happened to Jackson after she complained about the long wait. "I was just finishing a glass of champagne when a second arrived, on the house, as an apology."

Complaining about wine is appropriate in etiquette terms for certain transgressions, says Jackson. These include serving wine at the wrong temperature, filling glasses too full, or refilling too quickly with the aim of asking if you would like another bottle. Jackson feels it is also appropriate to complain if staff recommend a wine that is over your specified budget, or push you to drink a different coloured wine because they may feel they know better than you. Chaney says he would let the staff know their recommendation did not work, but would also "smile and drink it regardless".

Replacing a corked or spoiled wine is a given, but what if a wine is simply not to the diner's taste? "If a waiter recommends a wine the best approach is to let the customer try it and replace it with something else if it is not to their taste," says Seaman.

Jackson says different restaurants have different policies on this.

"I feel that if the customer says there's something wrong with the wine, or that they don't like it, the restaurant should take it back." At the same time, she believes diners should be careful when ordering. "Wine experimentation is, perhaps, for home and not the restaurant."


Bloggers bite back

Ale Wilkinson,

If something isn't quite right, I think it's absolutely vital to complain; if nothing is said about it then how will the restaurant learn from its mistakes and not repeat them?

I try to give constructive criticism where possible but I don't let it go by unspoken. This also applies to my writing. I write honestly - there's no point praising a place that will disappoint readers when they try it.

I am courteous and will indicate the good points that hopefully outweigh the bad. At one private kitchen I went to, I found the prices too high and the service uncomfortable, yet the food was absolutely delicious.

I wrote exactly this and unfortunately received a fairly abusive e-mail in response from the chef, which made me want to delete the good comments. I replied with an explanation, but she was still unhappy and sent me another rude e-mail. The aim of the complaint is to critique the restaurant so it can learn from this and better serve its future customers, not to hurt anyone's feelings.

Peter Chang,

I complain if I have a bad meal in a restaurant that I go to regularly or one that I would like to go back to. If the food or service is so horrible that I feel the place is beyond salvation, or it clearly doesn't care about its customers, then I don't bother to complain. I just never return.

If I complain directly, I try to make sure that I do so politely, without getting too emotional. Recently a Spanish restaurant failed so miserably that I was never going back - so there was no point telling them. My review was rather scathing and prompted the co-owner to message me and post on my Facebook page.

The opposite occurred in a Michelin-star restaurant in France. When the chef asked me how my meal was, I said everything was perfect except I thought the langoustine could have been fresher. He disagreed, but he took the dish off the bill. That is service. I think the view that it is disrespectful to the chef to complain is nonsense. For me, a restaurant that serves food that is below my expectations or tasteless is disrespectful to me, the customer.