Most of us can probably agree – going out for a meal and having a poor experience is a bummer. Aside from service blunders (a whole different topic than what I intend here) chowing on a tough, over-cooked and bland piece of chicken, suffering through limp French fries, or shelling out loads of cash for a ho-hum dish is disappointing and can change the tenor of the event.
What’s likely to be more debatable is – how to handle such a situation?
Recently a large group of friends and I went out to a restaurant, a place that has been one of my go-to’s for the last two years. It’s a pricey and popular spot which I’d not visited in many months, not since a chef change, though that was coincidental.
We had a good time – the primary point of the get-together. But I was also excited to try the food and see what they had up their sleeve lately. When I am paying $34 for an entree, over $40 after tip, I have a certain level of expectation, especially from restaurants with such reputations. (Mind you, $40 is par for the course when we are talking about steakhouses or dreary spots in touristy locations, I’m talking about a different sort of restaurant). The food ended up being a letdown – in fact, most people echoed that they wouldn’t order what they ordered again, and some were surprised about various aspects of the presentation and preparation.
That’s all I will offer about this particular meal, because I’m not interested in breaking down each dish and what each person disliked – the point isn’t to call out this restaurant. Or call them out again, rather, because the next day after my meal, I put out a tweet about my displeasure with the experience. I knew it would generate some feedback, and I’m always willing to put out my honest opinion, regardless of chefs or industry folks I know, but I always try to keep it civil and factual. This one I sort of floated out there, because I had heard murmurs of poor experiences from friends and I wanted to just toss it out there and see if anyone else would offer some opinion. I didn’t get much in the way of that, but I did get something from the restaurant and from some followers:
“Did you let your server know? Did you give us a chance to make it right?”
It’s a phrase which has been relayed to me a handful of times now, and I’ve seen chefs and restaurants pose it to others, and I think it’s completely unrealistic most of the time.
People are probably all over the map on this, but for me, I send back food or discuss the quality of my food with my server for a very, very short list of reasons.
#1 – The food is dangerously prepared. Undercooked chicken. Huge bits of grit or sand or pits in food. Anything in that vein.
#2 – Expensive foods, namely steak, not cooked to desired temperature. And even then, I only do it when it’s more than one shade different on the commonly accepted temperature scale.
That’s it. If it’s grisly, greasy, slimy, fatty, tough, chewy, stringy – that’s just tough luck. If the food is sparse, unimaginative, deceiving, boring, pretentious, tasteless, or fares better as decorative art than food – tough shit, I ordered it. I file it away – don’t order that again. Enough of these dishes at a place, I go there less frequently, maybe eventually it’s completely off the rotation unless I hear things change.
One thing I’ve never done, for any of the reasons above, is call over the wait staff. How would that play out? In what way would this begat a positive outcome?
“Uh yes, could you let the chef know that this is overwrought and a bad value for the price, and that none of my friends like to come here much anymore because of things like this?”
Yeah, that would end well. How about even a more political:
“This isn’t really what I expected and the pork was a little fatty.” OK now what? You look like a whiner and maybe they bring you something else, maybe not, either way the staff and chef probably curse your name and if it were me, I would be embarrassed that I look like “that pain in the ass snooty food guy” at the table.
Here’s what happens instead, and what I see 99% of people do, and we may all be pussies for it, but the waiter interrupts conversation and asks “How is everything?” and everyone basically nods their heads and says “good” or “great”, unless reasons #1 or #2 above have been tripped. There are exceptions to this, I know, but especially for social outings, I don’t know a lot of people who want to interrupt the meal, change the pace, and change the conversation to complain about this or that.
Here’s the rub – I am constantly seeing chefs and restauranteurs talk about how they can take criticism, and they need feedback in order to improve, but where is this feedback coming from? We have Yelp, and that’s basically a joke. The smattering of terribly uninformed and hurtful people on there destroys any credibility.
But who does the restaurant deem credible? If I did stop during my meal and give feedback, how would that even go up the proper channel, and when it goes there, would they consider me someone who doesn’t know what I am talking about? Maybe I don’t, but there are people who do, and where are their opinions going? They are going online, or they are going to each other via word of mouth. The one place they probably aren’t going is to the restaurant or the chefs, which is the funny part. There are restaurants we all know are likely to fail, and I bet there are people who work there who don’t have a complete picture of why, but there are customers who know.
I don’t think diners want to be negative or critical, I know I don’t. I’m always excited to see what they have to offer, to see what professionals can do. I do wish there was a better way to offer feedback, the kind you would give a friend over a beer, or at least some way that didn’t involve associating myself with Yelp, and without isolating the experience on my blog which gets at least a small amount of carry which could be damaging.
I don’t have the answer, and this has just been bugging me, and I wonder how other people handle these situations. What do you do when one of your favorite places drops the ball a few times? Do you let them know, or do you tell your friends, “That place is really going downhill”? I feel there must be a better solution.