When the waiter or waitress comes by and asks, "Is everything all right?" is this a question of pure courtesy, like "How are you?"
Should you always answer, "Just fine, thank you," unless you or your dining companion are already suffering from an attack of botulism?
Or, if everything is not entirely "fine," should one answer honestly?
This issue came up on two different occasions:
1. My husband and I had a meal at a charming, moderately expensive French restaurant. Most of the meal was delicious, but my rice was too salty. I did not eat it, but said nothing to the waitress.
On the other hand, when my husband found a ceramic potsherd embedded in his frozen dessert, he gently pointed it out to the waitress. She apologized and told the chef, returning later to say he had no idea how it got there.
2. At another quite nice restaurant, my steamed mussels tasted strong, almost gamy, and rather unpleasant. I frequently order mussels, so I know how they usually taste.
I was hungry and did not think they were spoiled, so I ate them anyway, but I can't say I enjoyed them. I did not say anything.
Later that evening, I had an attack of nausea, but since I am in the early weeks of pregnancy, I put it down to that rather than the mussels.
Should I have said something about the salty rice, in the interests of helping the restaurant improve its cooking? Should I have sent the mussels back, or is a diner stuck with the dish she orders unless she suspects the food is actually spoiled? Should I have asked the waiter to taste the mussels to see if that is how they usually taste?
Ordinarily, Miss Manners has a high tolerance for useless courtesies -- she is not one to froth at the mouth upon being wished to have a good day -- but this innovation happens to annoy her.
It's not just that "Is everything all right?" is superfluous, because a properly run restaurant can assume that everything is going well if the patrons do not complain. One does not generally wait to be asked if one is suffering from botulism.
What irritates Miss Manners is that pretentious restaurants have steadily increased the intrusive interruptions of patrons' conversation, while the standards of actual service have declined.
However, if they are going to do this, let us make a use for it.
It is not for serious criticism. Such complaints -- legitimate complaints are about food that is spoiled or seriously misprepared, or contains foreign elements -- should be volunteered as soon as the problem is discovered. A good restaurant will prefer receiving such a complaint to losing a customer, and will correctly respond by apologizing profusely, replacing the dish, and, as an extra courtesy, adjusting the bill to compensate for the problem.
Thus, your husband was most definitely right about the ceramics, and should have complained about the chef's reaction, as well. If your mussels could have been spoiled, or your rice was truly inedible, you should have complained about that.
But if those foods were just not as skillfully cooked as you would have liked, you can't send them back. Ordinarily, you can only resolve not to return.
However, if the waiter is going to come up and ask you, Miss Manners hereby gives you leave to say politely, "Everything else is fine, but I find the rice a bit salty," or "I'm a little disappointed in the mussels -- they were so much better here before."