Tips on How To Send Back a Bad Meal at a Restaurant

Oversalted gnocchi.

Oversalted gnocchi. Return it or deal with it?

You’re at a nice restaurant and discover that your entree is not up to snuff. Maybe it’s missing the goat cheese that was listed in its description on the menu, maybe it’s supposed to be a hot dish and it arrives cold. Do you a) complain to the server and ask the kitchen to remake it or b) keep quiet and power through it?

As my foodie friends can attest, once you get in the habit of dining out a lot, you develop standards and then it just gets hard to suffer through a bad meal. We gotta say something. I’m not saying to complain just because you ended up ordering something you didn’t like, but rather if the dish is basically inedible.

“But what if the kitchen spits in my food because I complain?” you ask. I know, there was a time when I feared that, too, but then realized that the kitchen does not take these things personally and if you handle the situation right then chances are your redone dish will remain spittle free.

Mercantile refrigerated cases

Mercantile refrigerated cases.

I found this out with blogger friends Esther, Lindsay and Maya at our dinner at The Mercantile in Hollywood. We were using of our Blackboard Eats code to score the $20 three-course prix fixe dinner.

Our first course, the endive salad with dates, watercress, smoked almonds and warm goat cheese was divine. Even though it was pretty salty it was balanced with the sweetness of the dates, the tang of the goat cheese, and the freshness of the endive and watercress.

However, our next course of gnocchi with mushrooms, peas and parmesan didn’t fair as well with all the salt. Since there was nothing to balance out that very pucker-inducing seasoning, each bite just got more and more salty. I could feel kidney stones developing, heh. “Maybe they want us to drink more wine,” I joked. But the girls weren’t having it. Finally Esther flagged down the server. We calmly and very nicely explained how we thought the dish was unusually salty. “It tastes like it has potential to be good but the salt just ruins it,” we pleaded our case to her.

She listened carefully with nary a trace of attitude or defensiveness and then asked if she could take one of our dishes, since we had all four ordered the gnocchi, and have the chef sample it. After a short while she came back to tell us that Executive Chef Kris Morningstar said he’d redo our dishes. So nice!

Well, turned out he didn’t after all but the “managing chef” did. “Now it seems like he undersalted it,” Lindsay said. I was about to agree because it seemed so after tasting the really salty gnocchi, but then I continued to pop the delicate pillows of gnocchi in my mouth and savor the mushrooms. No, it was much better. You could actually taste everything now. In the salad that saltiness was fine but here it had nothing to play with. There was no sauce in this dish, no greens.

Caramel corn and vanilla bourbon ice cream.

Caramel corn and vanilla bourbon ice cream.

After scarfing down our entree we were relieved that we took a stand instead of just silently suffering through the meal and perhaps complaining about it in a blog later.

Bonus was that apparently Mercantile was so sorry that we were initially unhappy with our meal that they only charged us for two of our prix fixe dinners. Of course they didn’t have to do that but it was so nice that they did.

I used the extra money I saved to purchase an extra scoop of ice cream ($3) for dessert and a pint of vanilla bourbon ice cream ($7) to go, which by the way was sooo bourbony and delicious that I felt like I was cheating on my booze fast.

So what do you do when you’re not happy with your meal? Here are some tips. If you’ve got some of your own, feel free to voice them in the comments:

1) Don’t eat more than a quarter of your dish before you complain to the server. If you eat over that amount, you’re already committed to that dish. Let the server know asap that something’s wrong with your dish.

2) Be nice to your server, it’s not their fault after all. Tell them in a very calm and nonaccusatory way why you are not happy with your meal. The more specific you are the better since they will be able to address your issues more easily.

3) Do not act like you’re entitled to anything more than your dish getting redone. Don’t ask for a free dessert or a comped meal. If you don’t like your dish and they offer to redo it, that’s pretty fair.

4) Thank your server for taking care of this matter for you.

5) Be patient waiting for your dish, part II. If you want it done right, waiting for it is a small price to pay.

Now, we were lucky that our server at The Mercantile was very accommodating and friendly. Really great customer service in this instance. At other restaurants, that might not always be the case unfortunately.

At Capitol City in Hollywood when I had sent back a cocktail because it had more St. Germaine than Maker’s, my server came back with a drink that simply had a shot of Maker’s added which completely ruined the drink. But all one can do is be diplomatic. And if you still get bad service, i.e. the server is rude or refuses to remove the item from the bill even when the issue isn’t fixed, reflect that in the tip.

For more suggestions, check out this handy “foodie flick” about “How To Send Food Back at a Restaurant” on Slashfood.

The Mercantile
6600 West Sunset Boulevard
Hollywood, California 90028 (map)
(323) 962-8202

17 Responses to Tips on How To Send Back a Bad Meal at a Restaurant
  1. Emily R
    March 10, 2010 | 9:47 am

    I think this article is great, but one thing I have a problem with is “if you still get bad service, reflect that in the tip”. That may work for drinks because the bar staff usually gets tipped out, but if it’s food, the only person you’re hurting is the server who played no part in creating the dish. I only mention it because I used to serve at a restaurant with a really incompetent kitchen who could easily send out an ordered rare steak, well-done twice to the same table, which I had no control over.

  2. Leah
    March 10, 2010 | 10:15 am

    Great post Caroline. One thing that I’d like to add as a former restaurant manager is that when a guest is unsatisfied and doesn’t bring it to their server’s attention (or a manager’s attention) it undermines their ability to correct the situation. While it would be ideal if everything were always perfect it’s not reality. Iif you are polite and give the restaurant the opportunity to remake the dish then everyone wins in the end, because ultimately the server, the chef and the manager don’t want you to leave unhappy if you have a reasonable complaint. Telling your server after the meal is over doesn’t really help anyone. That said, it is the server’s responsibility to check in fast enough after meals have been delivered to actually correct any errors.

  3. Caroline on Crack
    March 10, 2010 | 10:25 am

    Emily,
    That’s why I said if you get bad service, not bad food. I mean bad service in terms of if the server refuses to fix the problem or worse refuses to take the meal off your bill when the problem isn’t fixed. I’ll try to clarify that in the post.

    Leah,
    Thanks for that. I’m sure it makes everyone feel better to know the restaurant’s perspective.

  4. H.C.
    March 10, 2010 | 10:44 am

    Great story with plot twists, evil gnocchi villains of doom, and a sweet happy ending! Sorry I wasn’t there with you peeps but glad the experience came out in the positive.

  5. Diana
    March 10, 2010 | 11:30 am

    Love this post! Wish I had read it before some of the regrettable meals I did “suffer through” this past year because I felt bad saying something. (And feared the spittle.)

    Very cool of the restaurant to handle the situation so well.

  6. Esi
    March 10, 2010 | 11:51 am

    These are really great tips and kudos to both you and Mercantile for being so gracious about the whole thing. Now, I want to try that vanilla bourbon ice cream!

  7. bk
    March 10, 2010 | 1:36 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with Leah. As a manager the hardest thing I deal with is when guests tell me after finishing an entree, eating dessert, and paying that something about an earlier course wasn’t up to par. Politely drawing attention to an issue gives us the opportunity to make your experience the best possible.

  8. Caroline on Crack
    March 10, 2010 | 1:53 pm

    H.C.,
    You were missed!

    Diana,
    Well, see, now you don’t have to suffer through them anymore. 🙂 Yeah, I was really impressed how the Mercantile handled our issue. Above and beyond.

    Esi,
    You really should. It is TASTY. I can’t believe it even causes that delicious bourbon burn at the back of your throat. I want to try it with Carmella’s Guinness ice cream as @domainela had suggested.

    bk,
    Yeah, I have to admit, there were meals that I’d rather suffer through than complain about. No one wants to be a complainer but at the same time if it’s really so bad I can’t finish it, I just bite the bullet. I was borderline about telling the server about the oversalted gnocchi. Fortunately my dinner companions took charge.

  9. Kate
    March 10, 2010 | 1:55 pm

    Loved hearing that you also got over-salted food at Mercantile. Went there for brunch a few weeks ago and while the breakfast cocktails were lovely, there was so much salt on the duck confit hash that it was essentially inedible. With scenes from “Waiting” playing in my mind, I attempted to power through– complaining to my dining companion all along the way. Great to know that they would have been so accommodating had I said something.

  10. Claudia
    March 10, 2010 | 2:06 pm

    I have never wanted to send anything back, I just figure I won’t return to that restaurant… Once at Pete’s in DTLA a server noticed we had barely touched our appetizer and asked about it, when we told her we didn’t really like it, she took it back and removed from our bill.
    Good Service, and the rest of the food was good 🙂

  11. e*starLA
    March 10, 2010 | 2:35 pm

    I think what also helped was that all four of us in our party ordered the same thing (brown butter gnocchi in windy weather? of course!) and so of course we knew that they were all made in one batch and would also aid them in their second attempt. Otherwise, we might have not been as bold! But definitely after our positive experience, I feel a newfound sense of customer responsibility.

    I don’t feel a restaurant is given a fair shake if a problem isn’t known to them and the customer, without giving them a chance, leaves with a poor impression and of course tells all his/her friends. They can’t read minds!

  12. Tara
    March 10, 2010 | 3:34 pm

    Thanks for these, I’m soooo bad at sending it back even when I really should. My husband recently did at Palms and they were actually great about it, that it gives me the courage in the future.

  13. Food GPS
    March 10, 2010 | 5:01 pm

    Good advice. At The Mercantile, it sounds like you, the chef and server all handled the situation well.

  14. Caroline on Crack
    March 11, 2010 | 10:18 am

    Kate,
    I’ve been hearing a lot about Mercantile oversalting their food lately. I wonder if they realize that.

    Claudia,
    I think that’s what restaurants are afraid of customers doing: not saying anything and then never returning. They def want their customers to be happy and to come back.

    e*starLA,
    Word! I’m glad we all ordered the same thing because, you’re right, I probably wouldn’t have been as apt to say something.

    Food GPS,
    Thanks, Josh.

  15. IL
    March 11, 2010 | 11:51 am

    Great read!
    Just wondering, how kosher would it be to change the order to something else after you’ve realized that the dish tastes just horrible. And that recooking the dish or tweaking it slightly wouldn’t improve it in any way?
    I was at the Hungry Cat in Santa Barbara (BTW, the hollywood one is better) a few weeks ago and ordered the grilled whole fish (Vermillion) and not only was it bland, but the fish just wasn’t all that fresh. Vermillion meat should be flakier and moderately firm. This was just mushy. I inquired about it to the server and she said that all their fish was fresh… I guess I could’ve pushed a little further but I didn’t want to rock the boat too much (Although after this column, I will approach things differently from here on out).

  16. Caroline on Crack
    March 11, 2010 | 3:44 pm

    IL,
    I think the restaurant peeps were saying you have that option to either get your meal redone or order something else. As long as you’re happy.

  17. […] For our mains, we all had the gnocchi with peas, mushrooms and parmesan. This was a sauceless dish, which made its saltiness stand out even more. It was just over the line of saltiness where it made the dish unenjoyable, which was a shame because it was good otherwise. And since we all ordered the same thing, all of us decided to send the gnocchi back, and our server and the kitchen were very accommodating and remade our dishes. Check out fellow diner’s Caroline’s post on how to send back a bad meal at a restaurant. […]

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