How to complain in restaurants

    19 June 2019

    There is nothing we Brits hate more than ‘making a fuss’. The old ‘mustn’t grumble’ attitude appears to be hard-wired into our people-pleasing brains and no amount of dodgy goods or lousy services can stir us into action. No wonder the restaurant industry has given up trying.

    The high street’s painfully protracted death is largely down to our refusal to condemn mediocrity. The recent spate of restaurant closures is a good case in point. Jamie Oliver blames Brexit for the recent demise of his lacklustre Italian brand (of course he does) but financial uncertainties, spiralling business costs and private equity expansion aside, a restaurant’s success hinges on customer satisfaction.

    Our reputation for not grumbling has allowed arrogant restaurateurs to get away with murder – otherwise known as a £15 bowl of microwave-heated rigatoni. One Trip Advisor complainant recently described the food at his local Prezzo in Milton Keynes as ‘soggy pasta with dollops of cold sludge, pizzas like cardboard and salad like it’s just been resurrected from a compost heap.’ On the same site another customer describes the Kingston branch of Prezzo as ‘absolutely filthy’ while another calls it ‘absolutely awful’. We’ve all been there.

    While venting on Trip Advisor has its uses, a far more effective way to improve standards would be for all of us to swallow our embarrassment and go head to head with the managers of these ailing establishments. For too long, middling chains like Giraffe, Carluccios and Byron Burger have been taking full advantage of our good natures. Dull menus, half-arsed service, dingy venues and exaggerated claims (Jamie Oliver’s ‘authentic’ Italian restaurants used the same Derby-based supplier as Wetherspoons) have led to an inexorable lowering of standards. But this ‘let’s see what we can get away with’ attitude would never have happened had we not allowed our own standards to slip so precipitously. In the end, we get the restaurants we deserve.

    So why are we so fearful when it comes to holding restaurants to account? Well, many of us are simply uncomfortable with the whole notion of being waited-on – it all feels a bit ‘upstairs, downstairs’. Guilt over our feudalistic past along with timidity, reserve and a pathological aversion to ‘making a fuss’ gives unscrupulous restaurateurs licence to cut corners. While the seasoned complainer sees it as his moral duty to point out a restaurant’s flaws, we confuse legitimate grievance with fussy entitlement. Rather than speaking out, we simply pay the bill and never come back. But why shouldn’t we be entitled to decent grub and efficient service? Isn’t that what we pay restaurants for?

    Having observed the Brits at table for many years, I have noticed three stock responses to poor standards. Most of us simply bite our tongues, eating whatever is put in front of us while turning a blind eye to harsh lighting, dank carpets and uncomfortable seating.

    We thank the indifferent waiter and dutifully pay the extortionate bill but inside we are seething. Then there are the passive aggressive blusterers who allow self-righteous indignation to get the better of them – complaints to staff often begin ‘I hate to be rude…’ and end with ‘…I just think it’s really out of order.’

    Finally there are what I call the ‘it’s an outrage’ mob. These tend to be entitled city-boy types who drink to excess and then think it’s fine to be obnoxious to waiters ‘because the customer is always right.’ In the end, none of these ineffectual responses does anything to improve standards. What we desperately need are lessons in how and when to complain. And for this we should look to America.

    During a recent trip to California, I witnessed at first hand the fine art of restaurant diplomacy and I can tell you, as an anxious, uptight Brit it was a joy to behold. I was with a bunch of friends at a reasonably priced neighbourhood joint in Venice Beach. During supper, one of the guests sent back his starter and main course. Back home this would have elicited the usual raised eyebrows and awkward silences. For my chilled LA friends however it was the most natural thing in the world. The conversation went something like this:

    My friend: (to the waiter) ‘Oh hi, yeah, I ordered the medium rare sirloin and this is a little over cooked.’

    Waiter (without hesitation): ‘Oh I’m sorry. I’ll have that changed for you right away.’

    My friend: ‘Thank you so much’.

    Waiter: ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?’

    My friend: Yeah, could we get some more of the Chablis and make sure it’s good and chilled. And these potatoes need heating up.’

    Waiter: ‘Of course. I’ll bring an ice bucket and some fresh potatoes and I’ll make sure to tell the chef. Everything else okay with you guys?’

    My Friend: ‘Yeah, we’re all good, thank you (turning back to the table). So, as I was saying…’

    In truth, Peter’s ‘complaint’ barely even registered as such. At no point did he talk down to the waiter and the waiter never once questioned the validity of his grievance by pointing out that ‘no one else has complained’ (surely the weaseliest of all reposts). The rest of the table carried on chatting as normal and no one showed even a hint of discomfiture.

    No one worried about the chef spitting in our puddings and the waiter couldn’t have been more charming and discreet as he whisked away the offending plate and returned ten minutes later with a perfectly cooked steak and a fresh bowl of steaming potatoes. The chef even came out to thank us for the head’s up.

    We need to get over the idea that there is something intrinsically rude or ungrateful about holding the hospitality industry to account. As soon as we order food in a restaurant, we are entering into a contract with the owners. In return for cash, the restaurant has an obligation to serve food that is to our liking. If that food fails to live up to our expectations, then the retailer has effectively reneged on the deal and it is our duty to let them know.

    By politely calling out substandard food and poor service, we are informing the owners that there has been a dereliction of duty. We are also sending them a positive message, that maintaining standards is good for customer satisfaction and good for business. Any restaurant worth its salt will thank us for our honesty. If on the other hand we decide to put up with that plate of ‘soggy pasta with dollops of cold sludge’, we are in effect giving the owners carte blanche to continue ripping off other customers. And guess what, when that restaurant eventually goes out of business, it will be down to our negligence.