Telling the Truth to Restaurants

If the food is really bad, how do you communicate that to the server...or do you?

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By David Hammond

Last Friday, I had a meal in an Oak Park restaurant that was so bad, it depressed me for a day, a full 24 hours. It’s not that it was rotten food; it was just terribly bland, ineptly prepared, boring…and expensive.

Still, when the server came by to ask “How’s everything,” I robotically replied “Fine.”

It’s been a long time since I sat in a linguistics class, but this kind of verbal exchange, initiated in this instance by a seemingly concerned host/server and completed by the customer (usually with mouth half-full), is what’s called “phatic communication,” essentially empty language uttered to maintain or acknowledge a social relationship rather than actually communicate information.

Hardly ever do many of us break the unspoken social contract by answering such ritualistic questions honestly.

I almost never tell the restaurant official what’s actually on my mind, unless it’s overwhelmingly positive, such as “The bread is excellent” or “These shrimp are fabulous.”

Negative perceptions – as in “You call this bread?” or “Five dinky shrimp for $25.00, what the @#*&” – I usually keep them to myself.

This may not be the right approach, but I feel that it can radically alter the mood to answer the question “How’s everything?” with any degree of honesty or accuracy – particularly if the answer involves anything other than praise. Maybe the host/server really seeks input, but my guess is that they basically just want us to know they care (nothing wrong with that, of course).

As I get older, crankier and harder to please, my impatience with poorly prepared/priced food becomes more difficult to restrain. However, I’m sometimes uncertain towards whom I should direct my well-meaning critiques of a restaurant’s food. Surely, the server is the obvious person to speak with about an unsatisfactory dish, but in most cases, s/he will be at loss for words, or may merely deflect with, “I’ll tell Chef” (who is usually inaccessible).

Eating out is almost always, for me, a celebration (even if it happens four or more times a week) – critical comments, however well intentioned, seem to break the fourth wall, bring down the energy, and violate the atmosphere of good cheer.

Do you ever tell the truth to servers? If the food is really bad, how do you communicate that to the server…or do you?

Reader Comments

17 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Stephen Miller from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 7th, 2012 10:06 PM

I recently adopted a "full curmudgeon" policy. I can't wait for my next bad restaurant experience!

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 7th, 2012 10:04 AM

I talked with the manager yesterday and he was very open and appreciative for the call. I wanted to make sure he knew I wasn't "looking for a pound of flesh", but rather wanted to alert him to the service issue. He alluded to the fact that this server may be going through some personal issues, which I was thinking anyway. Hope my feedback brings positive changes instead of stoking some fire. In the end, I am really glad I called. We also discussed the food we got (which was good!).

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 7th, 2012 9:06 AM

Marci, in theory I agree completely with what you're saying, but when you're out for an evening, there's a strong inclination not to "make an issue" out of bad food or service. It sours the mood...but you're right, it's good to communicate concerns to management. It seems, however, that posting on places like Yelp does, indeed, communicate concerns to management, though likely in a more public way than management might prefer.

Marci Hughes from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 10:54 PM

As a restaurant owner, we always want to know if there is a problem with service or food...or anything that you notice. A lot of times, customers don't bring dissatisfaction to our attention when we can resolve the problem immediately -- instead they post on blogs and websites about their negative experience. Unfortunately sometimes mistakes happen, or maybe there is an employee who is not following their training or someone just has an off night. No business owner wants a customer to leave unhappy.Please respect your local restaurants and give them a chance to rectify the problem and Tell them!!!

Comment Pulled?  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 2:22 PM

For whatever reason, Phil of Ideas comment at or around 2:00 got pulled so now my comment at 2:14 is out of context. So, please feel free to pull mine too as it no longer makes sense. Signed - "PS is as bad as PF" thanks.

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 2:14 PM

Sorry, it wasn't Winberie's...wrong part of DTOP. Funny thing is, we considered Chili's (I do like the new baja shrimp taco's there!) but wanted to stay local. I don't know if he was stoned, but he sure was mis-er-a-ble. It pained me to do so, but I only tipped 10% and wrote "Slow" on the bill. And I am an avid 20-25% er.

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 1:53 PM

That's it, I am done hi-jacking the thread :) I will post back with the manager's reaction, etc...in case anyone is interested. To the original point of the article, I always send food back if it's not good. If I simply don't "like" it, then I will probably give sending it back a second though, but I will usually provide that feedback to the server. It can go back to the kitchen many ways from the server...as a complaint, or as honest feedback. Depends on your server, and openness of the chef.

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 1:48 PM

(cont3) You might wonder why wa waited around...we kept asking about the food, and reminding him about drinks and each time he did say "be right back with that" but then strolled around the place. He'd catch my eye and all of the sudden remember us, and I felt a glimmer of hope that we were back on track. By the time the food came, we were in too deep to leave, but I did express my frustration with the wait many times. He didn't care.

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 1:43 PM

(cont2). We had two kids in tow and walked in there at 7:15 and out at 9:30 due to all of the waiting. I was ready to blow a gasket, and the kids were beyond cranky. $90.00 later (mostly driven by the 4 $10 glasses wines I went up to get myself from the bar), we left there frustrated and let-down. Inexcusable for an Oak Park institution I shall not name (but want to!). Terrible how one server can ruin an entire experience. Food was good though. I will be calling back at 4:00 today.

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 1:38 PM

(cont). He walked past us then at least 6 times and it was 15 minutes before he took our drink order. Boy did he have a miserable look on his face. He wasn't busy, he was watching the Bulls game between tables, and we were 1 of 6 tables in the place. Three times I had to leave our table to find him when he continuously dissappeared. There was no manager on duty last night...bartender told me to call today with complaints/feedback. Even he saw what was going on.

Poor Service is as bad as Poor Food  

Posted: March 6th, 2012 1:35 PM

We went out to eat last night and had the absolute worst service I have ever had since moving to Oak Park 12 years ago. It was SO bad, I am still bristling from it today. I called the restaurant and the manager doesn't come on duty until 4:00 but I do plan to call back then and discuss our horrible evening. I have worked in fine dining, and this place teeters on the edge of being more upscale. The waiter sneered at us when we walked in the door and ignored us, only to have someone else seat us.

Carol from Oak Park  

Posted: March 5th, 2012 9:56 PM

David, I think it depends on the restaurant. In some places there is a certain level of professionalism and loyalty required of the servers, and that includes conveying customer dissatisfaction to management. A good manager wants to know about problems, so that they can be addressed. A bad manager, not so much.

Anonymous from OP  

Posted: March 2nd, 2012 6:09 PM

Yes, absolutely, you should tell them. DO NOT start cussing and name-calling, but pull the server aside and tell him/her, 'I really need to speak with you' and then, when you have their attention, just let them know that you are not enjoying this meal and tell them why. If you usually do enjoy their food, don't forget to tell them that, too. Most servers, hostesses, chefs would be grateful to hear your criticism and would offer to fix or redo the meal or let you pick something else.

Jim Coughlin  

Posted: March 1st, 2012 6:02 PM

My nephew and I ordered a pizza at a Forest park restaurant. When the server brought the food to our table, I pointed out to her that the food was burned. She told us that she speak to the manager and returned shortly with his offer to us that we could to pay half price for the pizza! A polite, "No,thanks!", and we were out the door; never to return. The "place" is still in business.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 1st, 2012 12:57 PM

Carol, do you think there's any value in communicating dissatisfaction with the food to servers? I mean, in your experience, does that information ever get back to the kitchen?

Carol from Oak Park  

Posted: February 29th, 2012 12:25 PM

Speaking as someone with a history of working service positions, I don't think there is anything wrong with communicating your dissatisfaction with your meal to your server. My only caveat is that you should make it clear that your unhappiness with the food has nothing to do with the quality of their service.

Sarah Corbin from Oak Park  

Posted: February 28th, 2012 7:34 PM

I don't tell the server that the food is bad. But I would write the business owner, manager to tell them about my bad experience. I do that in small businesses every where.

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