How to Complain at a Restaurant

This is the definitive guide on how to complain at a restaurant. Many restaurants can be a magical experience. They’re a place for first dates, pick-me-ups, birthdays, proposals, break-ups and everything in between. However, dining out typically comes at a premium, especially when tipping for service is mandatory. That being said, we’ve had had a restaurant experience that has left a sour taste in our mouths. How many times have you felt like complaining at the restaurant in full Gordon Ramsay meltdown? The chances are that you spent the rest of your Uber ride muttering about how you should have given a piece of your mind. Fear not, because this is The Chalkdown’s comprehensive guide on why, when and how to complain at the restaurant.

Tipping culture

Why should we spend our hard-earned dollars to dine out, and also be responsible to pay decent wages? The truth is that servers make a good living. In fact, some North-American servers and bartenders regularly take home more than the business owners themselves. It’s only fair that we take this into account when deciding whether to complain — after all, many places expect between 15-20% in tips for each bill. While the serving staff may not be responsible for problems in restaurants, they are the first and last point of contact for guests. For the sake of their own livelihood, they need to ensure prompt service, keep open communication and leave their bad attitudes at the door. In our first exploration of why to complain, it’s only fitting that we start with the service.

What good service should look like

In an ideal world, a server or host would greet you at the door, show you to your table and give menus. After a few minutes, they would take your drink order, make a couple of light recommendations and ask whether you need anything else. While the drinks are being prepared, you should have enough time to decide what to order. The server would come back and take the order. After the food arrives, the server should check that you’re enjoying their meal, and only tidy up once everyone is finished. The last step before the bill is to offer desserts and coffee. There shouldn’t be any pressure for the bill, and once payment is left on the table it should be processed quickly and diligently. If you’re wondering how to behave, click here for our guide on business lunch etiquette.

What to look out for

Of course, there will be times when it is clearly busy and the server is dealing with large groups or fussy diners, so make sure to keep this in mind when considering speed of service. Sometimes, the server will even forget to “punch in” an order (this happens more often than you’d think). However, if a server seems disengaged, snarky or bored, that’s a red flag. If service is taking clearly longer than it should, politely ask them for an update. If they ignore your table, engage in gossip with their colleagues or brush you off: you might have a knobhead server. It’s crucially important that you don’t complain to them, because you will have your food and drank spat in. We’ll deal with these knobhead servers later. 

The food

Now that we’ve covered the service, let’s cover the food. Problems with food can include cold, dry, under-or-over-cooked, salty, sour or stale dishes. If your food is too dry or not warm enough, the kitchen probably prepared it in advance, or left it sitting for too long. One of the most common complaints is improperly cooked steaks. When sending meat back, always salt it heavily before calling your server, so you can be sure it’s a fresh “re-fire” and not nuked by chef Mike R. Wave. Generally speaking, kitchen chefs will not tamper with your food as much as waiters, so don’t be afraid to point out issues when the server checks back. Remember to never waive, snap your fingers or raise your hand! That’s an express ticket to ingesting bodily fluids.

When to complain

As a best practice, we recommend only complaining at the end of a meal. This will minimize the likelihood of causing a scene, having your food spat in, or being purposefully made to wait (yes, this happens all the time). If, however, your food and drinks took way too long to arrive and the server never checked back and didn’t seem to care, you might want to complain. Remember that the bill is the final saving grace during service. Any good server knows that this last step of service is their only hope of claiming a decent tip, so this is their chance to speak up. If they hand you your bill and the card machine and stand there smugly expecting you to cough up extra cash, that’s grounds for no tip and a complaint.

How to complain at a restaurant

Remember our knobhead waiter? It is imperative that you do not engage them in complaint, because they will most likely cause a scene. Worse still, they’ll hold a grudge and make your next experience memorable for all the wrong reasons. Once you’ve given them every chance to remedy a bad experience, ask to speak with a manager before settling the bill. When the manager comes over, follow these steps to calmly speak your mind:

  1. Remain seated: you’re in control so they will need to address you at your level.
  2. Describe the steps that your server missed, along with the problems.
  3. Don’t over-explain, speak calmly while maintaining eye contact. And then shut up.
  4. Allow the manager to offer a solution.

Typically, the manager will offer one of three things:

  1. They’ll offer your free dessert and/or drinks. This is a great solution, because it’s cheap for them to do and will most often fix the experience.
  2. They’ll offer you a discount, usually equal to tax. This is less good, because they have an allowance for this kind of thing. Some shady places might adjust your bill after you leave, to still end up with a good tip.
  3. They won’t offer you anything, and may even be rude or accuse you of being an unruly guest. If this is the case, then it’s a zero-sum game. You could be brave and explain that you’re not paying, but you’re better off not tipping, and leaving quietly. At the end of the day, you’ll just find a new place to eat.

Final bite

If you’re paying restaurant prices and expected to tip, you deserve restaurant-quality food and service. Ultimately, you’re paying for an experience. Luckily, if you have a bad experience at one place, there are ten others that you can go to. Unless you live in a small town, in which case you’d better be prepared to tip for terrible food.


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