Vancouver Restaurant Professionals Dish On How To Complain

It's not burnt. It's not cold. But the food you ordered is just... not great. Is there anything you can do?

November 7, 2018

By Stacey McLachlan / Photo: STIL via Unsplash

The restaurant had been recommended to me a million times over as a great date-night spot, and finding myself in the ‘hood a few weeks back, feeling peckish and with my love interest close at hand, I climbed the stairs up to an enchanting little brick-lined space with fairly high expectations. I don’t want to name names, but let’s just say it wasn’t the gem it was made out to be—though the view was charming and the share plates menu looked inventive, the dishes that ultimately came to our table were straight up flops.

It’s not that we were served up the incorrect order, or that there was a flaw in execution—it wasn’t burnt, it wasn’t cold, it wasn’t full of broken glass—but the flavours and textures we discovered on both the cured tuna and octopus-chorizo dishes we ordered were shockingly incompatible. If I had been on a date with a new lover and not a man who is legally obligated to stand by my side through richer/poorer/sickness/health/bad meals, the night probably would’ve ended there—there’s probably nothing less romantic than watching someone scraping quinoa crunch off a cold slab of fish.

Our friendly server popped by and asked the age old question: “How are the first few bites tasting?” In response, we naturally stopped complaining to each other and spooned more rubbery tentacles into our maws. “Great, thanks!” we smiled through our grimaces, moving the food around on the plate like Mr. Bean trying to hide his steak tartare.

We picked away at the rest so we wouldn’t go home hungry (because in addition to having high standards, we’re also gluttons) but a question nagged at us the rest of the night: Why did it feel impossible to just say that we didn’t like it? Is it actually taboo to speak up if the food you order just isn’t up to snuff, or are we just overthinking people-pleasers who would rather choke down a plate of grapefruit-covered tuna than ruffle feathers?

Ultimately, we got what we ordered, so my gut was telling me that the issue with our critical menu analysis skills (my gut also told me that I shouldn’t ever order “kelp pesto” ever again) and not something that should be the restaurant staff’s problem. But I don’t actually want to eat anymore of my own disappointment, so I started asking around for advice from seasoned restaurant professionals.  Because, well, if they don’t know the proper etiquette, who does?

Though some people in my informal survey subscribed to a, “You win some, you lose some, suck it up and don’t go back” philosophy, the overwhelming consensus was that restaurant service teams are happy if you speak up—as long as you’re not a jerk.  “I had tables send something back on more than one occasion, and I was never bothered by having their meal replaced, or comped with manager approval,” says former server Mike Gunderson. “I think as a consumer it’s important to give feedback: Most servers want to actually know how your meal is. Don’t just say it’s good as a knee-jerk reply. Places can’t improve if there’s no criticism.”

For a particularly kind server, even asking for a new dish because of a misread is acceptable if you do it with grace. “If someone didn’t read that the dish comes with truffle oil, or cabbage or whatever thing they don’t like, and they apologize and ask for it again without, or even something else, I was always happy to accommodate. But they need to be very gracious about it, or pretend they forgot their reading glasses,” says Carla Andre-Brown, who has served in Vancouver as well as Montreal and Buenos Aires.

Our subconscious worries about hurting someone’s feelings may be for naught. “When I worked at [a breakfast restaurant years ago] I found that any problems with the food inevitably got lost in a spiral of blame that never resulted in anyone on staff taking personal accountability, and thus no offence being taken. The kitchen would blame the waiters for getting the order wrong, the waiters would blame the kitchen for cooking poorly, the managers would blame insufficient deference to management’s leadership, etc.,” says J.J. McCullough. “If people just didn’t like the taste of something, we just blamed it on a menu that no one on staff had any hand in designing—we knew a lot of stuff was an acquired taste/gross but that wasn’t our idea.”

“I worked as a line cook for nine years, and 90 percent of the time we wouldn’t care if something came back if they simply didn’t like it,” adds Travis Boulter. “It was more annoying when people would send back food for phoney reasons. If they just said what they honestly thought, no problem.”

Really, it’s all empowering feedback for my next restaurant visit, but also great advice for life in general. As Gunderson puts it: “If you’re not satisfied with something, then express yourself—but don’t be a dick about it.”

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