How to complain in a restaurant - even if you're British

It’s a national handicap: a survey a couple of years ago claimed that 38 per cent of us would never complain at a restaurant, however bad our experience. 

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I had a memorably bad meal last week. A real stinker. (I won’t name the offending establishment – suffice it to say that the number of Porsches outside suggested to me that New Statesman readers were probably not its target clientele.) As I was waiting for my coat, the manager asked me what I’d thought of the meal. The kitchen, he said, was eager for feedback.

There was an awkward pause. I couldn’t lie; after all, I’d already told the waitress who sweetly enquired about my half-eaten pasta that it was a little overcooked for my tastes, though I spared her the remark that I’d had better at 40,000 feet. But her boss looked so very hopeful, standing there in his almost empty restaurant, that I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth, either. So I dodged the question, grabbed my jacket and all but ran out of the door. His forlorn farewell suggested I hadn’t fooled anyone.

Back home, working my way through a packet of biscuits before bed, I guiltily pondered what I should have done instead. In such situations I try hard to channel an American friend, who never shies away from an opportunity for constructive criticism. If the coffee isn’t to her taste, or the staff get an order wrong, she gives them the benefit of her (considerable) opinions. Politely, but firmly.

In theory, honesty is the best policy for all concerned: letting the restaurant know your dissatisfaction not only helps the staff improve things in the future, it also allows them to make it up to you immediately. How can they hope to put things right if you don’t tell them anything is wrong?

The problem is, many of the people my friend is complaining to are British (or at least have adopted the British mindset) and they react accordingly. Instead of thanking her for her feedback, they regard it as a personal attack, which often leads to what I believe is technically known as an escalation of the situation, from which no one comes away happy.

It’s a national handicap: a survey a couple of years ago claimed that 38 per cent of us would never complain at a restaurant, however bad our experience. Perhaps we’ve been put off by the horror stories – as a friend in the business observes, “Why would you be rude to someone who’s in charge of your dinner?” – but do it right, and it’s unlikely that anyone is going to use your hamburger as a handkerchief.

Complain immediately if something is wrong; indicating the two chips left on your plate as evidence of a heavy hand with the salt is unlikely to elicit much in the way of sympathy from your hard-pressed server. Stay calm, rather than going straight in at full-throttle rage; they’ve only forgotten your saag bhaji, and there’s still a good chance everyone will come out of this alive. And don’t be unreasonable in your demands: slow service merits a free drink, not an entire meal and a cake with a sparkler.

Perhaps most importantly, know what you’re talking about: objecting that there are bones in your whitebait, or that your hiyashi chuka ramen is cold, will make you look like an idiot. Contrary to popular opinion, the customer is not always right.

If you’re not getting anywhere with the staff, don’t make a scene, however tempting it is – walk away with your dignity intact and contact the manager in writing. You may be surprised how much more reasonable people become when they aren’t in the heat of service.

However, none of this eminently sensible advice helps when somewhere is simply terrible; where the problems are so many and various that your heart bleeds for the staff. Perhaps sometimes a smile and a tip is the best policy. After all, you don’t ever have to go back. They do. Revenge really is a dish best served cold.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister