I Ordered Wrong

Dear Helena,

The other night I went to a French brasserie and was disappointed with my dinner: grilled monkfish with fingerling potatoes. It was kind of bland, like it needed some sauce to go with it. I was going to tell the server, but my date stopped me, saying I would embarrass her. She said you can’t complain about a dish unless there’s something wrong with it—otherwise, you should just not eat it. If you don’t like a dish, should you say something? And how should the restaurant respond? —Discerning Palate

Dear Discerning Palate,

Most everybody agrees that you can send back food that’s not properly cooked (crunchy spaghetti) or served as advertised (there’s only one shrimp and it was billed as “Seafood Pasta”). But you can also send back food if you just don’t like it. This might seem counterintuitive. After all, you were the one who ordered it. But a decent restaurant’s greatest wish is to have you leave happy and satisfied. “Your repeat customer matters more than losing $20 on a piece of fish,” says Paul Einbund, sommelier at and partner in San Francisco restaurant Coi.

It’s OK to say you don’t like something even if you knowingly ordered an avant-garde or peculiar dish. Weird Fish, a San Francisco restaurant, offers an item called Suspicious Fish Dish. The servers won’t reveal what it is when you order it, and customers sometimes aren’t happy with their surprise. But co-owner Timothy Holt doesn’t like servers to point out that the word Suspicious was a clear warning. He prefers that they offer customers something else. “I want people to feel taken care of and like they’re having a good time.”

If you decide you dislike a dish, don’t take more than a few bites. Otherwise, you won’t have much credibility when you complain. The general consensus among restaurant staff is that you shouldn’t eat more than a quarter or at most a third before sending a dish back.

As soon as possible, flag down the waiter and explain. Use extreme tact. Zachary Koff, general manager at a Bravo! Cucina Italiana restaurant in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, says: “Take the onus on yourself.” In other words, make it about you: “I’m sorry, I made a bad choice.” Then tell the server why you don’t like it. And don’t be shy. Jesse Fox, who has worked as a chef in restaurants in New York and Chicago, as well as at the French Laundry in Napa, says: “As a chef, it’s good to know what you did right, but even better to know what you did wrong.” Specific criticism is more helpful: “The tarragon and pink grapefruit combo doesn’t quite work for me.” That way, says Fox, “If the chef decides to rework the dish, he knows where to start.”

Then explain that you’d like to order another entrée. It’s polite to say you’re willing to pay for it. But a good restaurant won’t allow you to. If the distasteful dish is on the bill, you probably shouldn’t go back. And if you aren’t charged for it, then you should reward the restaurant for doing the right thing. One server who has worked in Pasadena, DC, and San Francisco says that the gratuity should be “automatically bumped up by another 3 percent.”

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