One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
— Virginia Woolf
Eating out is one of my greatest joys in life; someone else thinks about what to cook, buys the ingredients, prepares the food and, best of all, cleans up afterwards. Dining in a restaurant is also a great way to try new foods or, better still, indulge in those meals that are too fiddly or ‘cheffy’ to cook at home.
On the latter point, I have never understood people who order, and pay through the nose for food they could easily cook themselves. I’m thinking raisin toast or muesli for breakfast, ham and cheese toastie for lunch or spaghetti bolognaise for dinner. I don’t get it – but each to their own.
While I love eating out, the act is also one of my greatest sources of frustration; what could potentially be a brilliant night (or morning) out can turn into a horrific nightmare because of one simple detail — quality of service and/or food.
Allow me to tell you a story:
At the end of a long day of competitive paddling, a band of weary athletes sat anticipating the sumptuous meal to come. What was it that prompted their salivation? Nothing really, only they had pre-ordered their meal several weeks prior to the event and the descriptions on the menu were nothing if not luscious.
(OK — maybe I exaggerate here, but bear with me.)
And they were hungry.
The appointed time of dining came and went. The group waited.
And waited …
… and waited.
Too polite to say anything — fingers drummed on the tables, watches were glanced at and long, hard stares were directed towards the kitchen. Comments were made in stage whispers and photos which left no doubt as to the level of frustration and despair were taken.
‘Hallelujah!’ came the unfettered cry from one member of the party as a single plate of food emerged from the swinging doors.
Excitement (or was it sheer near-starvation) lit the eyes of the ever-patient group … but it was to be short-lived and soon replaced by abject disbelief.
‘Is your meal hot?’
‘I can’t cut this.’
‘My fish is still frozen in the middle.’
‘Does ‘well-done’ mean black?’
On the latter point — ‘You asked for well-done steak … that’s well-done,’ said the surly staff member indicating the blackened piece of leather on one plate.
The night continued on, singing the same tune over and over again. Food was returned, the offer of replacement refused —what was the point?
A significant amount of uneaten (dare we say, inedible) food sat congealing in dishwater gravy.
‘Let’s all go down to the service station for an ice cream!’
A suggestion well-made, and one which potentially saved the evening.
This story, slightly embellished but for the main part, true, got me to thinking. At what point is this level of service and food quality acceptable? Temperatures ranging from luke-warm to stone cold to still frozen; food overcooked through to burnt; inedible owing to being overly salted, tasteless or unable to be cut and chewed … or a combination of two or more of these factors.
Nothing is ok about this.
So, for every person out there who has endured sub-standard service or food — yet paid for it — I present my top 10 restaurant pet hates (in reverse order):
# 10 Charging for water when it’s only tap water
Very few restaurants do this, but I have been to a few who have. Albeit, I have not returned.
# 9 Restaurants that have a ‘tip jar’, ask for tips or, worse still, have a tip option on their credit card bills
Tipping is not common practice in Australia. Here, our wait staff are paid relatively well (compared, apparently, to their American counterparts). If I have received exceptional service AND exceptional food, I may leave a tip. Generally though, this is not the case and I do not like feeling obliged or ‘guilted into’ providing a tip (either by the restaurant or the people I am dining with).
# 8 Restaurants that have a separate section of the menu written in another language
I see this most frequently in Asian eateries. While this may seem innocuous, I can verify that in at least two Japanese restaurants I have been to, the other menu contains different dishes (often more traditional). When I have asked if I can order off that menu (because I can read it), I have been denied my request because it is a ‘special menu for Japanese’). This just serves to make me suspicious about other restaurants where this practice occurs.
# 7 Dirty cutlery, glasses or crockery
This is just gross. Nobody wants to eat off cutlery with blobs of crusty food on it.
# 6 Eating establishments that ‘can not’ modify your meal
Minor modifications to meal requests should be able to be accommodated. I don’t like bananas or mushrooms, so will ask for them (whenever reasonable) to be left off the meal; occasionally I will say ‘Can you replace the bananas with berries?’ Most places can do this; those who can’t, I am wary of. It makes me wonder how much is already pre-prepared. Restaurants in Japan are really bad at modifying meals; in my experience the usual response has been, ‘Oh, we can’t do that.’ In Japan, I learnt it was futile to argue, but in Australia I will always question it.
Some restaurants go above and beyond in this respect though. A huge shout out to my local café, U&Co, who have been known to accommodate reasonable requests for items not even on the menu.
# 5 Meals that are served with ‘alternative’ or missing accompaniments
Usually this is ok. Peas instead of beans, plain bread instead of sourdough. I get that kitchens run out of food, but if it is a potential allergy issue, or a major change, customers should be notified ahead of the meal being prepared. If the staff can’t do this, the kitchen should expect the meal to be returned.
Worst example I’ve ever had: a certain Thai restaurant I used to frequent offered ‘sticky rice and mango’ on the specials board. It was mango season, so we were expecting fresh mango. What we actually got was tinned peach. No explanation. I had to wonder if they thought we wouldn’t realise, especially when the waiter looked surprised when I questioned it. I made him take it back, which he did after a brief, lost argument, and ordered something different.
# 4 Wait staff who hold your glass by the rim as they put it on the table
This is where I put my mouth to drink!
I do not know what your hands have touched recently, or indeed, whether or not you washed them the last time you used the toilet. Hold the bottom of the glass; it is only slightly more awkward, but a lot more hygienic.
I should add here, this isn’t reserved just for glasses, but plates as well. Nothing worse than having wait staff present your meal as they are taking their thumb out of your curry or soup.
# 3 Any part of the meal being sent out burnt, or not cooked properly
There is nothing worse than anticipating a nice meal and having it arrive with burnt bits, or still stone cold, or frozen, in the middle. The latter may be undetectable in the kitchen, but should not be put up with by the customer; the former is inexcusable. I have had food come out burnt beyond recognition; nuts that are little balls of charcoal, toast that is black, steak that is a crispy black slab (see # 1 below).
Burnt food does not taste good. It does not look good. Sending out burnt food also sends the message, ‘We really don’t care about our cooking.’
# 2 Returned meals coming back out with offending items just scraped off
Note to kitchen staff: if I ask for my order to be prepared ‘without bananas’ then I expect no bananas. If it comes out with bananas, expect for it to be sent back. If it is then returned and I can still taste bananas (which I guarantee I will if you have just scraped them off the top) expect for the meal to be sent back again; I requested ‘no bananas’ for a reason.
The worst example of this I have ever been subjected to was in Pusan, South Korea.
The toast we ordered came out with mould on it. Naturally we sent it back and when it was returned it was clear to all at our table that someone in the kitchen had been at the original toast with a knife.
# 1 Chefs who are unwilling, or unable, to cook a piece of meat well-done
A friend who is a chef often says to me that chefs will choose the worst cut of meat for a customer who has ordered a well-done steak, because well-done is overcooked anyway. Sorry to disappoint all the chefs who do this but an inability to prepare edible well-done steak just shows a lack of skill on your part.
It is possible to produce a juicy, tender piece of meat which doesn’t show any pink — my Dad used to do it all the time … on the barbecue!
Some of us do not like our steaks ‘still mooing’ and that choice should be respected.
Note to all chefs and other people who think no meat should be asked for ‘well-done’ — well done does not mean overcooked or burnt.
So, what to do about all of this?
I believe the reason for ongoing poor service is because many people just ‘let it go’.
This has one of two effects:
♦ Not alerting the restaurant to their poor service means they may never actually realise what is going on and, therefore will not be able to take steps to rectify it. (Sometimes I like to give restaurants the benefit of the doubt.)
♦ Not complaining is the same as condoning. If restaurant staff know they are doing the wrong thing (like sending out burnt food) but nobody says anything, that’s the same as saying, ‘It’s ok, we’re cool with this substandard level of service and we’ll pay anyway.’ Would you bother to change?
These days, going out to eat is expensive. A really great dining experience makes it worthwhile and you may just ‘think well, love well and sleep well’ as suggested by Virginia Woolf.
On the other hand, a poor experience only leaves you feeling disgruntled and ripped off.
To those people who say, ‘Oh just let it go,’ or who stand by in discomfort when I do complain — have you ever thought you may be making it worse?
A well phrased (and politely articulated) complaint may or may not achieve anything; but no complaint will definitely ensure the same level of service will continue.