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When Is It Okay to Complain in Restaurants?

Once, at one of those basic meat-and-potatoes American chain restaurants, my father requested a bottle of steak sauce. When he opened it, a large cockroach (well, a bug at least, I can't be positive about the species) crawled out!"Whoops!" my dad exclaimed softly, scooping the bug into his hand and...

Once, at one of those basic meat-and-potatoes American chain restaurants, my father requested a bottle of steak sauce. When he opened it, a large cockroach (well, a bug at least, I can't be positive about the species) crawled out!

"Whoops!" my dad exclaimed softly, scooping the bug into his hand and back into the bottle, as if it was his fault for disturbing the creature.

Courtesy Flickr user TwoDotsComic

The waiter, still standing there, was obviously horrified. My dad did request a different bottle of sauce, but nothing more; he ate his meal calmly and paid the bill at the end. (Desserts were on the house, which in retrospect seems pretty weak on the restaurant's part. Shouldn't the whole meal have been free after such an egregious health code violation?)

So maybe because of my upbringing, I rarely speak up when dissatisfied in restaurants—although I've certainly grumbled about them later, to friends. (I even screwed up the courage to write a complaint letter once. But it wasn't nearly as funny as this guy's rant about airline food.)

It occurred to me recently that this is an unhelpful habit; how can a restaurant improve or offer to solve a problem if it isn't aware that one exists? (Of course, that assumes that they aren't simply ignoring problems...but why not give them the benefit of the doubt?)

On the other hand, I still don't want to be an obnoxious customer, the kind that inspires diatribes on sites like Waiter Rant and Waitress Stories. I know that most chefs and servers work extremely hard, since I've had several friends who worked in restaurants. I tried being a waitress myself once, and lasted less than a week. (As the diner's owner kindly put it after a few days of watching me drop dishes, mix up orders, and furrow my brow so fiercely that customers asked if I was okay: "I think you might be better at other things.")

There must be some middle ground between cowardly and picky, right? It depends on the situation, of course, but I've developed a few basic ground rules.

It's okay to politely complain when...

1. There is evidence of a bug in (or near) your food. Or a rodent. Or any other animal you did not plan to eat!

2. You did not receive what you ordered.

3. You suspect the food is spoiled or unsafe (curdled cream; chicken or pork still raw in the center; allergens you were told wouldn't be there).

But it's probably NOT okay to complain when...

1. You receive what you ordered, exactly as described (i.e. "very spicy chicken") and simply don't like it ("It's too spicy! And I hate chicken!").

2. The waiter tells you that the kitchen is out of a certain dish on the menu. Hey, it happens. Not the servers' fault. Order something else. (It is definitely not okay to complain with your fists, as this woman did. She must really, really like chicken nuggets.)

3. The bill is "too high," but you received exactly what you ordered, and prices were listed on the menu. (I've seen people do this.) Don't leave a terrible tip simply because you didn't do your math ahead of time.

Can you think of any others? And if you have any horror stories—from either a diner's perspective, or a kitchen/waitstaff perspective—I'd love to hear them!
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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