Bitterwallet's How To... complain at a restaurant

Bitterwallet - Mister CreosoteI once stayed in a nameless chain hotel in the US whilst on a work trip, and halfway through my dreadful breakfast, a woman who bore the facial attributes of a scrotal sack drifted up to my table and asked without feeling: "How is everything here? Fine?"

"Er, no, it wasn’t," I wanted to say, "my luke-warm eggs are like yellow blu-tack." Instead, I mumbled "yes, thanks." It was at that moment I felt a deep sense of shame. I have prided myself on always answering that question with an honest, but fair response. I’d let the team down. My team. I knew that Bitterwallet readers needed to hear my story.

I've put this guide together for two reasons. One, Brits are rubbish at saying anything other than "fine, thank you" when asked if their food is OK, and two, I’m sick of what a lot of restaurants feel is passable in terms of service and food. Have you ever reeled at either? Then this simple guide could be for you. It’ll tell you how to get what you deserve on the spot or later.

Why should you believe me? I used to run a busy restaurant after starting out as a chef. I loved it, but it’s brutal and only for those who are single or don’t mind being single in the near future. I’m out of the restaurant trade now, but I do enjoy seeing it from another perspective – that of the punter. I’m not a snob – I’ll eat off formica as well as linen, and I’m not unreasonable, nor do I make a fuss just for the sake of it. When I went on honeymoon, I got to know the chef of a seriously swanky five star hotel very quickly because their menu was seriously tired, and two weeks later, he’d re-written the whole lot.

Complaining in the restaurant

This is a delicate one. I can tell you categorically that if you tilt the balance too far away from you, there are plenty of waiters (not usually chefs) who would happily add to your food. This will help you get it right.

1. Remember - the reason you’re asked if everything’s all right is to give you a genuine opportunity to say no, and have it redressed, there and then. This is important. If you answer yes, and then later claim that your food was rubbish/cold/insufficient/covered in grit, you’ll politely but rightly be told to lump it, especially if you’ve eaten it all.

2. Don’t be afraid. Remember, chefs are proud people, and want you to enjoy their food. If they’re pumping out rubbish and are the only ones that don’t realise it, they want to know about it. There was nothing more infuriating to me as a chef to hear from someone weeks later that they hated your food and didn’t say anything. Imagine if you had people round for dinner and they slagged your cooking off to all their friends without you knowing.

Bitterwallet - gazpacho soup

3. Know your stuff. I once had someone send back some gazpacho soup, complaining it was cold. The other chef threw everything on the floor and stormed out of the kitchen, screeching "It’s supposed to be fucking cold. It’s gazpacho. It’s a fucking Delia Smith classic," and never returned.

4. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, because you’re just too bally British, then have a quiet word with the manager before you get the bill.

The key things here are:

• stay calm (you don’t want to let emotions run the conversation)
• be balanced (talk about what you loved as well as what you didn’t)
• be constructive (suggest what you didn’t like about the dish)

Try to do it aside from other staff, so as not to put the person on the defensive. You’ll be amazed what comes off the bill.

5. Don’t put up with crappy excuses. I was celebrating a special occasion and my other half had a fairly significant amount of sand on the radishes in her starter salad. When asked if everything was ok, I pointed out that all was very tasty, but perhaps the kitchen could be washing their veggies more carefully before serving. The response was "yeah, some of them are like that." When dug up, perhaps, but they shouldn’t be shattering my molars.

Writing the killer letter of complaint

Much of the stuff I said above counts here too. You shouldn’t be writing unless you tried to make your thoughts known at the restaurant and not felt sufficiently pleased with the response. It shouldn’t come to that, as most restaurant managers would be terrified of the owners/head office getting complaints about their shift.

If you do feel the need to write, be warned: restaurants can spot template/serial complaint-writers a mile off, so a little bit of eloquence and humour never goes amiss.

Remember, competition is fierce and a place can be out as quickly as it can be in. Also, the sad reality is that vast majority restaurants go bust in the first year, so restaurants don’t like to lose customers, especially if they don’t know why.

1. Start with praise. If the meal was good on the whole but just one part of the food service wasn’t, then say so.

2. Make it sound like you’re the sort of person they don’t want to be speaking badly of their establishment. If they get the feeling you’re some Herbert who normally eats in an Angus Steakhouse, they’re not going to give a shit about you and your Ed Hardy-clad tools-for-mates not coming back. If it was lunchtime, imply that you take clients out to lunch regularly. In the evening, it helps to give the impression that you don’t know where your own kitchen is.

3. Be specific. If it was a problem with the service, make sure you have the name of the person and say exactly and truthfully (see 4) what happened. If it was the food, detail exactly what you ate, and what was wrong with it, and why this wasn’t addressed on the day. It might be a bit over the top to have taken a cheeky snap on your phone, but in extreme cases, this wouldn’t go amiss.

4. Be truthful. It’s always tempting to bend the truth a little bit to make your point, but beware: I once complained to a well-known noodle chain that my food had sat on the counter for 20 minutes getting cold (true), and that my drinks were served with my bill. Their reply stated that they’d checked the CCTV and could verify my story, whilst enclosing £30 worth of vouchers.

5. Say that you were really looking forward to your meal there and would love to return.

6. Know your stuff. See above. You don’t want to be the author of the gazpacho letter.

7. Be constructive. Say that you’re not writing in simply to get compensation (whether that’s true or not) but that you really want to help them hear what their customers are saying. When I was a manager, it gave me the much-needed evidence I needed to shift some dead wood.

Armed with the above, I can assure you that you’ll get your just desserts (arf), without getting egg on your face (or spunk in your soup). I’ve had more complimentary meals for two or free nights in a hotel than I count, and I’ve never been a dick about it. Good luck!


  • hju
    bravo..i enjoyed reading it and would love to hear morefrom you it was educational, but too fucking long and boring is that a good enough complaint?
  • Noghar
    I had a meal at a restaurant with the wife once and she moaned to me about the food and service constantly... till the manager walked up and asked, 'Everything OK?' And the wife said, of course, 'Fine, thanks'. I nearly pissed myself laughing. But then I'm not English.
  • kev
    as mentioned above you gotta be very careful how you approach it, you don't want your replacement to be spat on or "accidentally" dropped on the floor
  • VGrumpy
    Why do you assume that we are being asked about our meal because they actually want to know? I have always assumed that they ask because it makes them seem more "customer facing" and actually don't give a flying fuck. It is probably the most annoying thing that happens in a restaurant - I want to be left alone not pestered. It's like waiters who top up your glass - I will drink at the speed I want to drink at, go away (yes, I know it is so that you will then order more wine which pisses me off even more) And don't call it a vegetarian option when it is the only vegetarian thing on the menu.
  • MrFerret
    I once worked at a resturant (A very classy one too, hard work and the owners were a magical, generous and mysterious couple) It served pretty much quality meat dishes, unfortunatly it had a number of visitors from birmingham during the summer who sometimes wanted 'to class it up' as they were on holiday.. We once fielded a complaint about a cut of the best fillet with vegetables that 'It was missing the egg and chips loike' (It sounded better in a brummie accent) The response from the kitchen could be described as 'Furiously violent' and the serving staff had to hide for a while as pans were being wielded somewhat menacingly..
  • zleet
    'Could you return this to the kitchen as there's not enough spit on it and the steak could really do with being licked or rubbed on someone's crotch, thanks'
  • The B.
    I think it depends on where you're eating, if you're in a Harvester I wouldn't send it back (but then I wouldn't eat in a Harvester either) for fear of additional products being added. But in a restaurant on many occasions I've said things like "could you give this steak a couple of extra minutes as it's blue and I asked for medium". I think the best one was a dessert my wife had (I can't remember what it was) that was frozen in the middle, they asked us if everything was okay and she said "just a bit of a tip for you, my dessert was frozen in the middle, you might want to watch out for that", they acted all mortified and took our desserts off the bill. Saying that, the service in half of the Michelin starred restaurants is bloody awful, Rhodes 24 was the worst, mainly because they're massively undermanned.
  • leeisgood
    Whilst working away in Plymouth recently i went to Pizza Hut for a takeaway, after waiting 15 minutes i was told they had ran out of Pizza's. This was at 8:00 pm . What a shower of shit
  • sb
    @leeisgood sorry, are you saying Pizza Hut is a shower of shit, Plymouth or both? it's pizza hut. who gives a flying fuck.
  • Paul C.
    I very rarely have issues dining out - though I'm typically British and would never cause a fuss unless absolutely necessary. I sent back a steak tartare once that was very undercooked. ;)
  • PaulH
    Hey BW please moderate my comment
  • Tom
    I hate it when they plonk the food down then ask if everything is ok not 2 minutes later. And ALWAYS when you're chewing so you have no choice but to grunt and nod wildly.
  • pay o.
    i worked in restaurant too. in a kitchen central london to be exact. i do beg your pardon that british do not complain. maybe it is just in london. in fact i met a lot of customers that made complains hoping that some items will be taken out from the bills. i feel ashame for these people who couldn't afford to dine out. 1. complain made when the dish is almost finish. eg seafood carbonara, customer finish the whole pasta and claim the clam is off, expecting the manager to take it out o the bill 2. do not understand the menu esp new item/ethnic food and claim that it does not suit their michelin taste 3. ask to take out clams from carbonara and replace with prawns(???)
  • blagga
    @pay what... I think that was covered fairly adequately in the article. The point is that if someone complains when the dish is finished, the restaurant/kitchen have every right to tell them to fuck off. BTW, do you have some broken keys on your computer, or very fat thumbs and are trying to use an iphone? But I do totally agree with you on your points.
  • Sideysid
    Chefs special sauce mmmmm...
  • Tom
    Posted by pay what you ordered | September 16th, 2010 at 5:55 pm i worked in restaurant too. in a kitchen central london to be exact. i do beg your pardon that british do not complain. maybe it is just in london. Are there any British people in London? My Pakistani friend was complaining at me the other day saying he does not like London as it has too many foreigners. Uhmm ironic?

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