The Art of Criticism

Dear Helena,

At a restaurant, shortly after your meal has been served, the server usually returns to ask, “How is everything?” or “Is everything OK?” If there’s something really wrong with the food and I need to send it back, I speak up.

But I don’t say anything if the food is just blah. If the croutons seem like they come from a package or the trout is too bony or the sauce is underseasoned, it seems easier to just pretend and say everything is great. Should I tell the server the truth? If I were the chef, I would want to know how my food was being received. —Discriminating Diner

Dear Discriminating Diner,

Asking “How is everything?” is like asking “How are you?” Most of the time, only a stock answer is expected: “Fine.” As you’ve intuited, you need only speak up if you want something else (like ketchup or a side plate for a shared dish), or if you want to send the food back.

Otherwise, you should keep your opinion to yourself. For fear of a shoot-the-messenger effect, the server probably won’t share your comments with the chef. Jeff Porter, corporate wine buyer for the grocery chain Andronico’s Markets, says that when he worked as a sommelier at Tra Vigne in St. Helena, California: “Unless the critique was really severe, the server wouldn’t pass it on. Often the chef doesn’t want to hear it.”

After your meal might seem like the best time to share your thoughts. The server usually asks, “How was everything?” But even then he may be asking the question by rote, without the time to listen to your answer, or the confidence to pass it on.

It’s a nice gesture to send an email detailing specific feedback before publicizing your thoughts on CHOW or another restaurant review site. That way, you give the restaurant a chance to improve. The owner is more likely to take your criticism seriously if you put some sugar on it: “I loved the piquant sauce on my enchiladas, so it was a shame they were still frozen in the middle.” But if the owner ignores your email, or worse, attempts to argue with you, you need not feel guilty about trashing the restaurant’s reputation.

If the restaurant has no email address, however, telephoning isn’t necessary. It could be a hassle to get the right person on the phone, and you may catch him or her at the wrong moment.

If you review online, the restaurant owner or manager, or another staff member, will likely read it, and may respond. Brad Lauster, a user experience designer in San Francisco and frequent diner-out, says he’s been contacted by several restaurants and bars about his online reviews. Sometimes the owner may invite him to return and rethink his opinion, or a staff member may solicit more information.

Lauster’s review of one bar commented that it had “the second-best Manhattans in the city.” He continued, “I can’t stand their variable drink pricing policy. Depending on how crowded it is, their Manhattan might cost $7 or it might cost $10. Suck!” and added, “Also, I’ve been dumped here. Twice!” The bartender contacted him to ask who made the best Manhattans. Lauster says, “Even though my review was not particularly complimentary, she was very friendly. It was a positive exchange and in the end I felt better about returning to the bar. I still frequent the place.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.