Malis Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

What To Do If You’re Unhappy With Your Restaurant Meal

What to do if unhappy with your restaurant meal depends what was wrong. Whatever you do, don’t sit there and stew in silence, composing a Trip Advisor review. Speak up and let them the manager know. You may leave having had a better time than if you hadn’t complained.

As travel writers who wrote guidebooks for many years, we have literally reviewed thousands of restaurants. We’ve heard diners complain about their bad experiences at restaurants, and we’ve heard chefs, restaurant managers and waiters complain about customers.

While we sympathise with chefs who get orders for “chili crab – no chili” and complaints that diners’ food was cold (only to learn later that the waiters stood gossiping for ten minutes with the customers’ plates in their hands), sometimes it’s hard to empathise with diners who don’t speak up and give restaurants a chance to address the issue.

After so many years doing this work, we have theories why they don’t. People see the decisions they make – whether it’s a restaurant to dine at or the hotel they’re going to check into – as reflections of their taste and abilities to make good choices. If they select a restaurant that’s disappointing they may see this as poor judgement and nobody wants to admit they made a bad call. This is why some people have a tendency to exaggerate a problem – especially on Trip Advisor – to make it clear the restaurant was at fault.

People also don’t want to create tension by speaking up and risk the night ending badly – and we’ve all see Kitchen Nightmares and know how bad things can end at a badly managed restaurant. This is especially the case if people are on holidays. Everybody wants to be able to go home and say they had the best holiday ever, and everything was absolutely 100% perfect, from the wonderful hotel they chose to the fabulous restaurants they dined at, even when they might not have met their expectations or there might have been problems.

So while restaurants may complain about customers complaining, we reckon that the majority of customers don’t complain at the time of dining and instead wait until they get home to have a rant on Trip Advisor in the safety of their bedroom and anonymity.

The thing is that if there’s a problem or series of problems, it’s far better to speak up at the restaurant – at the very time of dining, not as you’re walking out the door – to give the restaurant a chance to fix things so that you leave on a high. Here’s when, why and what to do if unhappy with your restaurant meal.

What To Do If Unhappy With Your Restaurant Meal

When you’re eating out and there’s a problem with the food or drink, you need to speak up. But first it’s important to identify the problem and differentiate between these three situations: this item is not what I ordered, this item is not to my taste, and this item has a flaw.

This Item Is Not What I Ordered

The first problem should be an easy one to solve in these situations, especially if, say, you order salt and pepper squid and a plate of mixed tempura seafood is placed in front of you. Or if you order a vintage bottle of wine and the wrong vintage is presented to you. You just send it back, right?

Funnily enough, we’ve been in both situations and my complaints were questioned. In the first instance, the waitress insisted that tempura seafood was in fact the same thing as salt and pepper squid. In the second case, I ended up selecting another wine, as I wasn’t about to pay the price of a good vintage that had been substituted with a wine from a year that was sub-par for that region.

It rarely goes like that, however, and when it does, if you don’t have a manager that you can escalate the complaint to, all you can do is make sure that you don’t recommend that eatery and never return.

Another problem that falls into that category that we are weary of when eating out is the result of incorrect cooking temperatures. If I order a medium-rare steak and it still comes out mooing, I still deliberate over what to do, even after thousands of restaurant meals. Sending it back means either you sit there watching others eat, or, if your dining companions are incredibly polite, they’ll sit there making small talk as their food goes cold.

Nine times out of ten, if I send the steak back, the same piece of steak comes back well done, because the kitchen assumes that you’re a customer who can’t stand the sight of blood, when in fact you’re simply not a vampire who revels in having a moat of blood around your steak. I have been known to call a staff member over and show them that it’s not cooked to the right temperature but I’ll still eat it so as not to ruin the flow of the evening — and everyone else’s food.

Our advice: always inform your wait staff of the problem, regardless of whether you decide to send the dish back to the kitchen or not. Well-trained staff should still report the problem to their manager and the kitchen so if you choose to complain afterwards they will have it on record. If you’re with a partner or a group make sure you state that the only reason you’re not sending it back is because you don’t want to ruin everybody else’s meal.

This Item is Not to My Taste

When you have an item placed in front of you and it’s not to your taste, first check to see if it has been served as described on the menu. If you ordered a Southern Italian pasta and they neglected to tell you that this particular dish arrives jacked up with chili and you can’t handle the heat, you have a legitimate complaint.

If you order a ‘creamy carbonara’ and assumed the ‘creamy’ texture was from the egg and didn’t ask first whether it actually had cream in it, you just have to put it down to experience when it arrives looking like there’s been a spillage at a dairy farm milking station.

If you’re not in Italy, don’t assume that the chef at the Italian restaurant you’re dining at knows that carbonara does not have cream in it.

Our advice: if the menu is not clear, and they rarely are these days, with most descriptions of dishes reading like an ingredients list, ask lots of questions when you’re ordering and if the waiter doesn’t have answers, ask him/her to check with the chef.

This Item Has a Flaw

When the food has a flaw or the wine is corked, you need to stand your ground. I recommend that anyone who is interested in food and wine to do a wine tasting course. At the very least, it’s a good value way to try different wines you might not be able to afford or purchase where you live, as well as to learn how to order wine with confidence when you’re faced with a wine list that’s as thick as a bible.

Knowing the characteristics of an oaked Chardonnay from a Burgundy and knowing that it has a very different profile to an unoaked Chardonnay from, for example, a Southern or Eastern Australian region, will help you better assess the wine.

To get an understanding of the characteristics of cork taint, it really only takes opening a couple of tainted bottles before you recognise the distinctive aroma of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), the main culprit in cork taint. TCA is the reason we’re seeing more plastic corks and screw caps in the market.

TCA is pretty easy to detect with a sniff test. If the aroma is somewhere between a wet newspaper, a damp dog or a dank basement or like a damp dog sitting on wet newspapers in a dank basement, you can safely send that bottle back. If a sommelier tastes the wine first, it’s unlikely that the wine served will be technically flawed. But this doesn’t preclude you from having an opinion on the wine and in certain circumstances, where you’ve asked for a recommendation for a clean, fresh, and unoaked Chardonnay and receive a wine that is the opposite, you do have the option of sending it back. For a great discussion on wine ettiequte, check out this recent New York Times article, Should Restaurants Offer Guests That First Taste of Wine? and make sure to peruse the comments.

Oxidised wines and heat-damaged wines can be a little harder to pick for the inexperienced, but you learn something with every new bottle you open — look at the colour and then after you’ve poured a little, take a good sniff. With white wine, knowing the colour characteristics of the wine you’ve chosen can give you a hint that it might be oxidised or heat-damaged. For example, a sauvignon blanc that has the dark orange colour of a dessert wine should immediately be sent back.

With your food, if there’s something technically wrong – for instance, it tastes or looks off – then you need to inform a waiter and ask the staff member to take it back out to the chef. If it’s a bloody chicken and the staff member says “that’s how the chef prefers it”, run. But nine times out of ten, if that really is how the chef prefers it, then they will probably offer to exchange it for another dish from the menu if you object to eating bloody chicken, or pigeon, as I was once served in Italy.

One night while eating at a restaurant owned by a chef friend, I was the first to try a dish that landed at the table while the chef was sitting with us. The meat in the dish was off, but I asked him to try just a little bit to confirm, telling him, “I don’t think you’re going to like it.” He thanked me and went straight to the kitchen.

I wouldn’t want to have been the chef at the pass that night. He took the criticism well because it wasn’t just “that’s too salty for me” or “I don’t like that flavour combination”. We actually saved them from serving something that was off to other customers.

Recently, there was a couple in Siem Reap who went to a good local restaurant, ordered a few dishes, and at the end of the meal asked to take home one of the dishes. The staff (rightly) thought that the couple were full but enjoyed the leftover dish so much that they wanted to take it back to their hotel to eat it later.

When we asked how the meal was the next day they said the dish they took home – a Cambodian beef lok lak – was “off”. When we asked them if they told the waiter or chef (who we had introduced them to through his cooking class), they said they had asked to take it home but gave it to their driver to eat! We notified the restaurant and checked with the hotel to make sure the poor driver survived.

Our advice: speak up! Always speak up if you’re unsure about anything on your plate or in your glass, but especially if you know for certain that something is wrong.

How to Deal with a Restaurant Problem – Speak Up!

So here’s the thing: the staff can’t possibly know that you’re having a less than satisfactory meal unless you let them know at the time – especially if you ask to take leftovers home. They’re obviously going to conclude that you loved the food.

People in the hospitality business want you to have a good time. They want you to return, tell your friends how great it was, and leave glowing comments on those review websites.

We often see people complain on social media that they had a bad experience at a restaurant. Mario Batali, with so many restaurants and such a high profile, gets his fair share of disgruntled clients. His first response is always: “Did you talk to management?” Because they can’t fix the problem when you’ve left with a doggie bag and then angrily tweet your complaints from your bed at 3am like a newborn president.

In my experience in kitchens, the most professional chefs see an unfinished dish coming back to the kitchen – or a dish that hasn’t even been touched – as a serious problem that needs to be rectified immediately. The chef on the station who cooked the dish and the head chef will taste the food, discuss the problem, and find a way to make the client happy.

If the staff reacts negatively to your complaint then you can bet that they probably hear complaints a lot and there’s a systemic problem in the kitchen. And just like restaurants who have staff who don’t know the difference between salt and pepper squid and a plate of mixed tempura seafood, or that swapping vintages of wines on a wine list is unacceptable, sometimes you just have to try to make the most of your time at the restaurant.

But at least you spoke up and attempted to do something about it. They didn’t take the opportunity to set things right? Now you can start composing your Trip Advisor review.

Pictured above: Malis restaurant, Siem Reap, where the service and food have been consistently good.

What to do if unhappy with your restaurant meal – any tips to add? What do you do? Do you speak up or do you hold your tongue and go write a Trip Advisor review instead? 



There are 3 comments

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  1. Cathie Carpio

    Hi Terence, I just read this post now. Everyone who eats out a lot should read this.

    Just want to share that the willingness to speak up can be something cultural too. I come from a culture that values the concept of saving face, so any form of confrontation is often avoided. In my dining experiences in the PH, when I have an initial complaint/issue that I share first with the people I’m with, people would often tell me, “hayaan mo na,” which means “just let it be.” This culture perpetuates mediocrity in some restaurants because they are so blinded with their flaws since nobody speaks up. I’ve often raised immediate feedback to staff when the chef or owner is not around; other people still find this too confrontational, but objective feedback can help improve a restaurant.

    Great post!

  2. Cathie

    Forgot to mention that the Philippines is an online engagement hub as the country tops social media use. Even if our culture values saving face and don’t raise issues during their restaurant visit, they’ll post it on IG (and tag the establishment) or food review websites. Social media is therefore a particularly important marketing tool for restaurants, but it can also easily destroy your online presence that may translate to lower actual restaurant visits.

    Some are only confrontational online, which fits what you described above. I get a lot of comments/messages on IG sharing their experiences on a restaurant and I’m the first person they’ve told. I personally don’t bash restaurants online, but a lot of people do without raising feedback to anyone from a restaurant before making a negative post.

  3. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comments Cathie. It’s a terrible shame that people don’t bring up problems discreetly during or after a meal. Raising it on social media afterwards doesn’t really give the restaurant a chance to rectify any mistakes.

    I do understand the behaviour, particularly if the meal is a family get-together or a special occasion as sending back a dish is very disruptive to the pace of the meal.

    What I have done in restaurants is to call a waiter over and point out that a steak is a little overcooked for my liking and have them confirm that by showing them. I do say that I don’t want the dish refired because it will disrupt the service and the rest of the table’s meal.

    Just the other day we were having a series of tapas dishes in a busy restaurant and the last dish seemed to be taking forever to arrive at the table. Lara really wanted to try the dish so we asked them how long it would be. They not only profusely apologised, the dish arrived shortly afterwards and we were informed that it would be taken off the bill. Instead of leaving unhappy with the restaurant and late for our next appointment, we appreciated the gesture and the way they handled the problem.

    So instead of ranting on social media about it after the meal, the problem was solved on the spot. As you know, that’s the best way to handle it to everyone’s satisfaction.

    Thanks again for your comments.


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