It’s happened to us all. Each of us has ordered food at a restaurant and gotten something that differs to some degree from our expectations. Kitchen work is a very human business, and sometimes we get caught up in a multitude of orders. All the same, as a consumer, it’s hard to know when it’s appropriate to send food back. On one hand, you don’t want to be judged as a graceless complainer. On the other hand, you are paying for a meal, so you should get what you want. Here’s how to walk that fine line:
Size Up The Joint
If you are in a fast food joint or family-oriented chain and order your burger rare, there’s not much the kitchen will be able do (unless the burger is as hard as a hockey puck, that is). Of course, if the cheese is missing from your cheeseburger, that’s a different story. When you’re at a lower-end chain, think of your meal as simply filling your belly, unless the order is outright wrong. If, however, you’re at a nice “tablecloth restaurant” and the waiter tells you about the osso bucco that is falling off the bone—but you wind up sawing through it with a steak knife, that shank should go back.
One exception: In a business setting, I advise my clients never to send food back. The business meal is not about food—it’s about business.
Pull A Switch
If you ordered one thing and got another, then the waiter either ordered the wrong dish or mixed yours up with someone else’s. If you ordered salmon but like the tuna dish that came in its place, inform the waiter: “I ordered the salmon, but I’m happy to keep the tuna.” Between the waiter and kitchen, the restaurant can figure out the problem and assure that the woman at the next table gets the tuna she had ordered.
Make The Call
As far as other situations, it’s going to come down to your tolerance. If something is too salty to eat, burnt, or the opposite of what you envisioned, you are doing a disservice to yourself as well as the restaurant if you don’t send the dish back.
Prevent A Catastrophe
Alert the waiter to any allergies and sensitivities, like to salt or spicy dishes. If the waiter lists ten vegetables as part of a pasta primavera and doesn’t mention eggplant, protect yourself by saying: “I’d like the primavera…but I can’t stand eggplant. You didn’t mention eggplant, but I know sometimes extras end up in dishes.” If you go to a restaurant regularly, get to know its tendencies, and order accordingly. I go to a local joint for a burger once a month, but they tend to overcook the meat. I noticed this at first but did not send the burgers back. Instead, I’ve begun ordering my meat rare…which arrives at the table perfectly medium rare.
Time Your Restaurant Visits
The best strategy you can use to receive the ideal meal is to avoid the most hectic times. Holidays and “prime time”—7:30 to 9:00pm—translate to a busy kitchen. A cook will be able to spend more time on your dish at 6:45pm on a Wednesday night than at 8:45pm on a Saturday night.
Be Gracious And Think Smart
When you send something back to the kitchen, remember to be gracious to the waiter, as the error may not be his fault. Even if it is, remember that he’s human, too. If others have already made a dent in their meals, consider ordering something quick from the kitchen. Or, just send the offensive part of your meal back (the overcooked steak, for example) and keep the sides. That way, you won’t keep the rest of your party waiting on you.
If a dish is taken off the bill, remember to adjust your tip to reflect the deducted item…if the waiter handled the situation graciously, that is.