Why sending something back at a restaurant is perfectly fine — and how to do it right


Bad food at good restaurants happens. It happened to me twice — two days in a row — recently in Seattle.

On Day One, at a place I’ve been to several times (and liked a lot!), the noodles could only be described as mushy, dissolving in the mouth in a very unpleasant way. A gluey sauce didn’t help matters, but the noodles had been unmistakably, distressingly overcooked. My friend and I left them nearly untouched, and they were our lunch’s main dish. We were hungry — it was a late lunch — and we were sad.

The next day, the issue was arguably a matter of taste. At another restaurant, a cheese dish proved so intensely salty, the same friend and I just couldn’t eat it. If it had been sprinkled over something, great, but there it was in chewy, eye-wateringly salinated slabs, with a sauce that did very little to ameliorate matters. No amount of tortilla was equal to this cheese. An odd choice, we thought, and there it sat, only nibbled on experimentally.

Plenty of people would rather suffer in silence at a restaurant when they get something that’s overcooked, or undercooked, or too salty, or just not to their taste. It seems rude to call attention to a problem in what’s supposed to be a pleasant, enjoyable setting; it might feel embarrassing, possibly an indictment of your own taste. The way we’re raised to think about food, it may even seem morally wrong, like Mom’s going to permanently revoke your membership in the Clean Plate Club.

But send it back. They want you to send it back. Send it back!

Restaurants are run by humans. Humans make mistakes, and humans also recognize that not all other humans like the same things that they do. The humans working at a restaurant really, truly want those patronizing it to enjoy themselves. They want you to come back. Maybe you’ll bring some friends! And tell more people how great the restaurant is!

If they mess up — or even if the issue is just a vagary of your own personal preferences — it’s only right to give them another chance.

Jim Drohman, executive chef and co-owner of longtime Seattle French favorites Le Pichet and Cafe Presse, says he’d “always prefer” that patrons take action. That way, “We can either fix it — if it is not cooked correctly, for example — or get them something that they would enjoy, if it is just not to their liking.

“We want our guests to be happy with their experience, and would hope that they would give us a chance to fix any problem instead of leaving unhappy,” he says.

Jake Kosseff, longtime Seattle sommelier and co-owner of downtown’s brand-new, very posh Circadia, concurs. He and partner Jeanie Inglis, seeking to set a new standard, have made Circadia service-included, neither tips nor service charge.

In terms of food, they strive for perfection, but Kosseff acknowledges that “there inevitably will be times when the guest feels otherwise.”

What then? “We try to figure out what was wrong, and at the same time to get something back to the guest that they will like as soon as possible,” he says. “Our goal is always to make our guests happy.”

Kosseff says he and Inglis “have been known to send things back” themselves. “This is important feedback for the restaurant to have,” he says simply.

So how do you send something back? Drohman says he doesn’t do it often.

“Truthfully, I think that everyone who is not a jackass finds it awkward to send back food,” he observes. “[But] I find that just by being polite and not too judgmental, it always turns out to be less of a trauma than I feared.”

First, don’t eat more than a small portion of the disappointing dish; otherwise, you ruin your credibility (“The food’s terrible, and the portions are so small!”). Second, remember it’s not your server’s fault; they didn’t make the food.

Then get your server’s attention, take a deep breath while recalling the golden rule, and briefly, kindly explain the problem. Apologize, if you like; no, it’s not your fault, but you are sorry this is happening.

Try: “I’m sorry/Excuse me, but these noodles are overcooked/this cheese is too salty for my taste/[insert your problem here].”

At a conscientious establishment, you’ll receive a swift apology yourself, plus an offer to have the dish adjusted or something else prepared.

If the solution doesn’t happen speedily, you might reasonably expect some sort of credit on your bill; if you decline, you shouldn’t pay for the uneaten dish, clearly.

If something goes awry along the way, feel free to ask to speak to a manager before you pay your bill to explain what happened, remaining polite throughout.

Inevitably, some will ask: But aren’t they going to spit in my food? No, they’re not. “They” are professionals who take pride in their work. At a place where the staff is reasonably well-paid and feels valued, this little urban myth is just that. (Something to contemplate with regard to the minimum wage and how workers are compensated in general.)

So what happened with my mushy noodles and salty cheese? I didn’t send them back. But I almost never do — it’s a matter of professional curiosity to see how such a situation plays out.

Will the server notice the uneaten food and inquire, sooner or later, whether anything is wrong? They ought to. And in both cases — though both servers were very kind — they never did. But that’s another problem, for another day.

As for you, take Jim Drohman’s advice: “Remember that a good restaurant wants to know when you are not happy, so that they can fix the problem.” Send it back.


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