Ask Tom: Plugged ears and pinched noses -- Diners' dismay about music and food

(Edwin Fotheringham)
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, November 14, 2010

While I'm away, eating for a story, please enjoy the following edited excerpts from questions and comments that have appeared in some of my recent online food discussions.

Live music in restaurants: I was having dinner, and there was a live duet playing. It's kind of unusual for music to be played there, but I guessed there was some sort of special occasion. The guy sitting at the table next to mine was annoyed and told the waiter to have them quit playing, and they did. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the music. What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: You don't specify what instruments were being played, or the volume. I love classical guitar, for instance, but might not want an organ recital with my dinner. (Believe it or not, I was once a waiter in a Minnesota steakhouse that had an organ player come in on weekends.)

On returning food: Please help me settle a debate with my husband. When is it acceptable to send back food because you think it's bad? I think it is one thing when there is something wrong from a safety perspective, but what about when it is just an issue of personal taste or mistaken ordering? He says you can send it back whenever you want; they ask you how the food is, and you are paying, so you should be honest.

This has been bugging me since a meal at a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Spain last summer that was so disappointing I am still bitter about it. We ordered a tasting menu, and course after course barely warranted more than one bite. The restaurant is known for avant-garde food, but its "fossilized salsify root and caviar" was totally foul. It was actually amusing to watch people around the restaurant look puzzled by the food, and even disgusted, but then eat it anyway, maybe because when it is that expensive, you feel obligated. But when we finally confessed to the waiter that we weren't enjoying our meal, they sent us new food off the menu that was way better.

So looking back, this makes me wonder how many other times I've been displeased with my meal and maybe sending it back would have been the smarter thing to do. If it is okay at a really expensive, fancy restaurant, what about at a more "everyday" type of place?

Tom: Situations vary, as you point out. It's one thing to get food that isn't prepared correctly, another thing to receive a dish that simply isn't to your liking.

In the former case, you should definitely send a mistake back; in the latter, I think honesty is the best policy. Restaurants don't necessarily owe you something different if you discover, say, that you don't like skate or liver after a bite or two. But a good establishment also doesn't want to lose a customer or risk bad word-of-mouth by ignoring someone's dissatisfaction. (Notice how your initial poor impression of the Spanish restaurant turned around after you piped up?)

Keep in mind, however, that a lot of "everyday" restaurants run on pretty slim profit margins, and the owner is going to have to eat a loss on a dish.

Fiftieth birthday celebration: I would love to go to a chef's table to celebrate my 50th birthday. What are some of the better chef's tables in town, both for food and, more important, for a fun experience?

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