How to complain in a restaurant (without causing a scene)

We've served up a surefire etiquette guide on how to raise your concerns like a gentleman...

There’s no denying the restaurant industry is having a tough time. Forced to close for months due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions, even those safely equipped to reopen are now contending with less tables and consumer wariness. All of this means that, if you do venture out for dinner, things aren’t likely to be perfect but the last thing chefs, waiters and maitre d’s need is surly customers adding to their stress levels.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making a complaint in a restaurant, the British propensity for politeness seems to short circuit. A recent study found that 49% of Brits feel uncomfortable sending food back, and from our own (unofficial) findings, it seems that those who take no issue with starting beef over an undercooked steak don’t always go about it in the best way.

As ever, Gentleman’s Journal is on hand to serve up a surefire guide on how to raise your concerns like a gentleman.

Always remember to keep your cool


Let’s start with the basics. If your food is a) not the dish you ordered, or b) cold when it shouldn’t be — then this is an appropriate and reasonable time to alert your waiter. Do so immediately, and explain the problem without exaggerating or raising your voice. Mistakes happen; allow the restaurant to correct it.

Even if you’re particularly timid, and could do with some Dutch courage to assertively voice your concerns, we’ve all been guilty of mouthing off after one martini too many. So, to avoid peppering your complaint with more slurred words and expletives than anchovies on a Caesar salad, don’t over-drink and remember to always keep your cool.

Have a conversation, don’t save it for TripAdvisor

wine waiter

There’s no question that TripAdvisor has changed the game for the hospitality industry. Today, before we book a flight, plan an excursion, or organise a date night, we spend hours sifting through slews of good, bad and ugly testimonials to decide if we’re making the right decision.

And yet, for all of its usefulness in collating some honest reviews, TripAdvisor is not the first place you should be heading to voice your ire at the temperature of your food, or that fly in your soup. First and foremost, you should flag this with the wait staff; those paid to attend to your every need.

Only then, and only if they offer little or no help, should you take to the internet and funnel your frustration online.

Don’t expect a freebie


We’d hope that this would go without saying, but as long as your complaint is met with a solution (i.e. a fresh plate or an appropriate gastronomic alternative), then the establishment you have taken umbrage with owe you nothing more.

Nobody likes a miser, and restaurants tend to operate on razor-thin margins – never more so than now. That said, if you are lucky enough to score a free round of drinks, express your polite thanks, and be sure to tip accordingly.

Accept that you might not be in the right

Good restaurants will always deal with complaints constructively. Often, the offending dish will not be immediately thrown away, but rather passed back to the chef, who will examine the food to see if an error was made in the cooking or plating process.

If they determine that your criticism was indeed well-founded, then you can feel happily vindicated. If, however, they decide that your issue is more a matter of personal taste — and you’ll know if it is — then learn to pick your battles more carefully and instead politely request a different dish from the menu. You have bigger fish to fry (if seafood is your preference…)

Finally, let it go


When all of the above is said and done, it’s important to remember that mistakes happen. If you’ve adhered to all of the above, and the restaurant staff have taken all possible steps to rectify the situation, then it’s time to let the small matter of an over-salted soup or under-sized side dish go.

And if it’s really irking you, just order another bottle.

Looking for more etiquette advice? Here’s why it pays to pick up the bill on a first date…

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