Kerry Bolognese is like most diners. He doesn't usually complain. Eating out "is supposed to be fun," says Bolognese, who works for a local trade association. A confrontation "just ruins the whole event."
Bolognese speaks for many of us: Our experiences at restaurants are generally pleasurable--oh, maybe a few minor glitches, but usually we go out and enjoy good food and service. But against this backdrop comes the occasional unfortunate and unhappy moment that throws us for a loop: lousy service, disappointing food, inattentive waiters, a rude hostess. What do we do?
Many diners would rather walk away from the restaurant, never to return, than stop the meal to voice criticism to a waiter, maitre d' or owner. Yet some area restaurateurs say they appreciate feedback. "Restaurants want to hear legitimate complaints," says Bob Kinkead, owner of Kinkead's Restaurant in Foggy Bottom. "It's important to get them."
Still, for all those who fume silently, there's a growing minority who do complain--and who do it badly, say restaurateurs. Call it the dining equivalent of road rage; tempers and time are short, the computer age has made people accustomed to instant results and the fast-food era has gotten them used to having it their way. Plus, with nearly 7,000 restaurants in the Washington area, they figure they can be picky.
So in the interests of defusing table tensions, here is a guide to help you decide when to complain and how to complain--and when to know if you're being a jerk.
You arrive 20 minutes late for your 7 p.m. reservation and the restaurant has given away your table. You're told you'll be seated as soon as another one becomes available. Do you pitch a fit?
Restaurants have different grace periods for how long they will hold a table, ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. And they will often hold it longer, if you let them know you're running late.
But restaurateurs are all too familiar with the nervy types who show up without a reservation--but insist they have one--or intentionally arrive at the wrong time. "Some will agree to a reservation time but fully intend to come when they want," says Robert Hall, head maitre d' at McCormick & Schmick's, the popular seafood eatery on K Street NW.
Maybe the party wanted an 8 p.m. reservation but the restaurant had only 7:15 available, says Sallie Buben, co-owner of Vidalia in downtown Washington and Bis on Capitol Hill. So starting at around 7 p.m., "they'll call every 10 minutes and say they're on their way," says Buben. "Then they end up here at 8 p.m."
Our ruling: If you're late for a reservation, tough luck. "It's no different from missing your plane," says Ed Johnson, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington.
A reservation is "kind of like a friendly contract," says Bob McKay, a Washington restaurant consultant. "So if either side doesn't do their share, they're equally in the wrong."
Which brings up the next scenario.
You're on time for your reservation, but the maitre d' tells you there will be a 20-minute wait. Should you expect some nicety in return?
There are lots of reasons why this happens. Overbooking is one. Many restaurants do it, although few confess to it.
Ellen Marconi, managing partner of the Georgetown Seafood Grill, admits it. "You overbook a little, maybe 5 to 10 percent," says Marconi, since that's the percentage of people who make reservations, don't call and don't show up. "Most of the time it works out."
It's a vicious cycle: People don't honor their reservations, the restaurant overbooks in response and then sometimes everybody shows up and people have to wait.
That's why Lavandou, a Cleveland Park restaurant, stopped overbooking. "It's better to have three empty tables and 20 happy tables, than a full restaurant with 30 people unhappy at the door," says Frederic Cabocel, Lavandou's new manager.
On the other hand, another factor is beyond the control of the restaurant: Late-arriving diners. Restaurants plan on a certain turnover time for each table, and if the first party is late, it can throw off the whole schedule. For example, if a party has a 6 p.m. reservation, arrives half an hour late and orders a five-course meal, it probably won't be done when the table is needed for an 8:30 reservation, says Michael Nayeri, maitre d' at Galileo on 21st Street NW. Nayeri says he would be loath to ask the late-arriving diners to relinquish their table, but he knows he must compensate the party that has shown up on time. "I'm caught in the middle of everything," he says.
Our ruling: The establishment should do something. Or at least make you feel as though it has. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what a restaurant should do if you arrive on time for your reservation but have to wait. It depends on the length of your wait, whether you've been sandwiched in a hot, crowded lobby, and so on.
"The restaurant should be concerned and sympathetic," says Tim Zagat, co-publisher of the Zagat Survey, a national restaurant review. "If the time draws on," the maitre d' might ask if you want a complimentary drink or a "little nosh," he says. "Anything that says, 'We're really sorry, this isn't something we like to do.' "
The service is as slow as the molasses in the gingerbread. How do you speed things up? And what should the restaurant do to compensate for the wait?
The reasons for sluggish service are rarely disclosed to diners. "When you walk into a restaurant, there's no sign above the door that says the chef is hung over and a waitress just broke his heart and so the food will be slow tonight," says McKay, the consultant. But it happens.
A large party causes an unexpected crush. Your husband selected a dish that takes longer to cook than the rest of the order, prolonging everyone's wait. Or it's after the lunch rush and the waiters are relaxing and chatting in the kitchen; service is actually better during peak times when the chefs and servers must be on their toes.
Or maybe the restaurant doesn't have enough staff: The nation's lowest peacetime unemployment rate since 1957 has left many restaurants in the lurch as workers are taking their pick from easier, higher-paying jobs. Maybe it's the kitchen that's missing the help.
That's why Juli Boyer of Chantilly had to wait an hour and 45 minutes for her entree at a Fairfax restaurant, leaving her party about 15 minutes to eat. (She had to leave at a specified time to pick up her son, a fact she mentioned to the hostess that night as well as when she made the reservation.) The problem, according to the waitress, was that the kitchen had only one chef that evening.
"That was the extent of the explanation . . . no apologies from the management," Boyer wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post, after the Food section asked readers to send us tales of their restaurant experiences. Boyer wrote that she even called the owner a few days later to complain, stressing that she understood how these things can happen but that if proprietors wish to have happy patrons, "it's only good public relations to do something to make us want to return." Even a complimentary glass of wine would have made her feel more charitable, she told him. The owner said there was nothing he could do about it and that he hoped Boyer would give the restaurant another chance.
Our ruling: As Boyer's case demonstrates once again, it's not the mishap that causes the problem. Restaurateurs rise to the occasion by how they fix things. Beating guests' remedial expectations will turn them into walking advertisements for the restaurant. Even meeting an expectation--an apology and a complimentary glass of wine in Boyer's case--goes a long way. It's the thought rather than the actual freebie that counts.
As for speeding up sluggish service, Matt Mulvihill, manager of Maggiano's in Chevy Chase, suggests that you ask the waiter to check on the status of your meal, then "if you don't get a proper response, ask for the manager." When this happens at Maggiano's, Mulvihill goes back to the kitchen and tells the chef he needs the complaining customer's order first, then personally takes it to the table.
You're at a seafood restaurant and there's no steak on the menu. You ask the waiter to get the kitchen to cook you one. After all, this is a fine, high-priced eatery and the chef should be able to accommodate you. He refuses. Grounds for a complaint?
Believe it or not, this happens at Kinkead's, a popular seafood restaurant. Accommodating such requests is "way beyond the call of duty," says Bob Kinkead.
Our ruling: You're a jerk.
You'd like the tuna cooked through rather than rare, as the menu describes. The waiter says no. Grounds for a complaint?
This happens at Greenwood in Cleveland Park, where owner Carole Greenwood refuses to cook her signature dish any other way. As for other requests, Greenwood says, "People want what they want," and "sometimes I'll do it and sometimes I won't." Most chefs, says Greenwood, "really love getting a dish right and when someone starts to dissect it, it's just demoralizing."
Our ruling: Upscale restaurants shouldn't turn into short-order grills, and diners shouldn't be tinkering with things that destroy the integrity of a dish, albeit a subjective call. But cooking something more or less to suit a diner's taste? Serving the sauce on the side? Leaving something off the plate? Maybe it's art, but it's also just dinner. And who's eating it anyway?
Your dinner arrives and it's not at all what you expected. How should the restaurant respond?
Not a problem, say many restaurateurs. Just ask for something else.
"If you don't like what you ordered, within four minutes, you can have what you really want," says John Scheible, general manager of Timpano Italian Chophouse in Rockville.
This reporter tested Scheible's promise by eating at the restaurant recently and ordering a special of blue marlin with a black olive-cream sauce. Although it was ordered as a test, the dish was honestly unappealing. The waiter, obviously well versed in the policy, took it away without batting an eye, bringing a chicken panini in . . . seven minutes. Pretty darn close.
While most restaurants will offer a replacement, it doesn't always return so quickly. Just ask Mary Kate Black of Vienna, who admits she is famous for sending back food. For the second go-around, sometimes she waits as long as it took to get the first order. Her husband tries to linger over his dish so they can both end up eating at the same time. "It usually works," she says. "I have a nice husband."
Our ruling: Send it back, send it back. To avoid a long wait, a smart waiter will suggest replacements that don't take long to cook, says Zagat.
You order a dish you end up not liking, but you don't send it back. Hungry, you eat it anyway. When the waitress asks how you enjoyed your meal, you say you didn't. Now what?
It's one thing if you honestly didn't like it, but restaurateurs are on to the diners who deliberately angle for free meals. One restaurant public relations consultant recalls a gentleman who cleaned his plate at a local restaurant only to tell the server that it was the worst meal he had ever eaten.
The server then offered the man a free dessert, to which he responded: "The last three times I complained, you gave me a free dessert. What are you going to do for me this time?"
Our ruling: If you've polished off an unsatisfactory meal without a word of complaint, a restaurant shouldn't be obligated to take it off the bill.
But McKay believes it only makes good business sense for the restaurant to deduct it. "If you take the chili off the check, that's $5" the restaurant loses, he says. "If they come back, they'll spend $40. It's repeat customers, stupid."
There's a fly in your soup. What should the restaurant do?
We know that insects are part of the food chain, but do we really have to share our meals with them?
Larry Green and a friend decided not to, after a cockroach-like creature crawled out of their hummus at an Adams-Morgan restaurant. The manager, who nonchalantly identified it as "just one of those bugs that comes in with the fresh spices we use," offered a replacement but no apology. Green and his friend left, more annoyed by the lack of an apology than the presence of the critter.
As it turns out, Green is a chef at the Wyndham Hotel on M Street NW., where the arthropod policy is to automatically offer an apology and a free replacement. "We'd probably offer a dessert for everyone at the table, too," says Green.
Our ruling: The dessert is a nice extra; at the very least, expect an apology and a bugless replacement on the house.
If these specific scenarios still leave you lacking in the basics of constructive complaining, here are some general tips on being an effective kvetch.
For one thing, speak up immediately, say many restaurateurs. "It would help tremendously if people would complain the evening of the incident," says John Scheible, of Timpano. "I would much prefer to fix the dining experience."
But Kinkead maintains that it's not always realistic to expect diners to complain on the spot. It's one thing if your food is undercooked. "That's an easy fix," says Kinkead. But "a lot of times you have to digest what ticked you off . . . like you didn't like the way you were received at the door, the waiter was rude . . . service sorts of things."
Still, for those inclined to complain on site, or for situations that warrant immediate attention, there are mindful ways of handling it.
Even though you might be angry, give the restaurant "the benefit of the doubt," says Jan Ferris, a Culver City, Calif., psychologist who specializes in assertiveness training. "Maybe it's just a genuine boo-boo. Don't make assumptions about the reasons why something happened."
Ferris suggests calling the waiter over to "quietly explain what the problem is." Often, says Ferris, the waiter will offer a solution before you've finished explaining. If he doesn't, "then you need to be specific about what you need," such as "I want a replacement or I want this taken off my bill." If you still don't get a resolution, Ferris says, "then it's time to kick it upstairs," by calling over the maitre d' or manager.
Joseph Margolin, a Washington psychoanalyst, believes it's important to "assert your own authority" in restaurant situations, although "that doesn't mean being pushy and bossy," he says. It means being specific about what you want.
Margolin used a personal example to explain: After arriving at Gerard's Place on McPherson Square for lunch a few months ago, he didn't like the table he was shown. So Margolin said to the maitre d', "This table is very nice, but I think we would like that table over there." Says Margolin, "I could have said, 'I don't want this table.' But he's still faced with the problem of what does this person want?"
Margolin also believes that restaurateurs are less likely to get complaints if they give customers a sense of empowerment. For instance, if a maitre d' simply seats a party next to the bathroom, he'll likely "get resentment," says Margolin. But if he asks, " 'Will this table do?' it makes it look like the most desirable thing in the world."
Experience the Lunch Crunch From the Other Side
It's noon when you and two colleagues arrive at McCormick & Schmick's, the busy fish parlor on K Street NW. At the front desk, the maitre d' greets you, takes your name, checks your reservation. Simple enough.
Now let's say it's that same day, but you're standing on the other side of the front desk. It's not so simple. This reporter recently spent three hours observing life from behind the restaurant's mahogany lectern, where head maitre d' Robert Hall monitors the tables like a traffic cop, keeping track of who's coming, leaving and lingering, all the while juggling the unexpected: latecomers, no-shows, table hoppers and so on. In those three hours, he will shepherd 500 hungry people in and out of the restaurant. They'll all get to sit down and eat lunch before he does.
Here's a synopsis:
11:20 a.m.: Three people behind the large lectern are answering the phones; all six lines are lit up. The restaurant only takes reservations for 12:15 (or earlier) and 1:15 (or later). But those callers looking for a lunch spot today will be out of luck; the restaurant is booked.
11:30 a.m.: A party of seven that made a reservation for eight is seated, then decides it wants a different table. The tables that are available are always changing, says the peppy, preppy Hall, who keeps a constant eye on and a black grease pencil near the plastic-covered seating chart.
11:35 a.m.: A party of four arrives, but there's no record of their reservation. They think a fifth guest is coming, too.
11:45 a.m.: A cancellation allows Hall to seat the party.
11:55 a.m.: The fifth guest shows up, but now the table isn't big enough. They move to a larger table.
Noon: Lunch crush. Humanity rolls in like a tidal wave, the phones are still ringing off the hook and everybody behind the lectern keeps bumping into one another. In rapid fire, Hall directs the staffers who seat diners to take them to their tables: "Five to table 61, please . . . four to 66 . . . three to table 25 . . . four to 75 . . . "
12:03 p.m.: Hall gives guests a 15-minute grace period for reservations. Four parties have failed to show up for their 11:45 reservations, so he has four tables to give away to walk-ins.
12:10 p.m.: He's eyeing the list for the noon no-shows, but hasn't crossed them off just yet.
12:23 p.m.: All but one of the 52 tables in the restaurant is occupied. Hall knows that to seat the 1:15-and-later reservations, the people now eating their lunches must be out of there in 45 minutes. Otherwise, the newcomers will have to wait.
12:33 p.m.: One of the staffers surveys the floor for Hall, reporting back that the dining room is moving slowly. Hall realizes he will have to hold every table that now becomes available. Walk-ins will have to walk out.
12:40 p.m.: A large party arrives, and Hall seems momentarily panicked. "This makes me really nervous, to see a party this size come in at this time . . . we could have screwed up their reservation," he says. As it turns out, it was really two groups without reservations that happened to walk in at the same time. They both agree to be seated in the bar area, where tables and stools are not reserved.
12:59 p.m.: Hall needs 11 tables to leave in the next 16 minutes, in order to accommodate those with reservations for 1:15 and later. The right sleeve of his blue-and-white seersucker suit is now black from leaning on the seating chart.
1:05 p.m.: He needs 10 more tables to leave.
1:11 p.m.: Seven more.
1:13 p.m.: Five more.
1:15 p.m.: Three more.
1:20 p.m.: Two more.
1:25 p.m.: There are three no-shows for 1:15 reservations. He's safe. This time. But "one little mistake," says Hall, "and the whole tower falls down."
To Vent Your Gripes
In the 20 years Tim Zagat and his wife, Nina, have been publishing the Zagat Survey--a national restaurant review--restaurant-goers have consistently cited poor service as their biggest complaint. That's why the Zagats have drafted a "Diner's Bill of Rights," a list of proposed statements aimed at raising awareness about the issue. To vote on that list, plus to add any of your own pithy comments, visit the Zagat's Web site at www.zagat.com. The final version of the Bill of Rights will be announced by fall.
To vent more specifically, there's always the Better Business Bureau. The BBB asks that you first try to get a resolution by writing or calling the restaurant. Then, if that doesn't work, you can file a complaint with the bureau by explaining all the details of your mishap and what you would like the restaurant to do about it. Include the complete address of the restaurant, your address, two copies of the letter of complaint, plus any previous correspondence with the restaurant. Write to: Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington, 1012 14th St. NW, Washington D.C. 20005. Or, you can file a complaint online at www.dc.bbb.org. For more information, call the BBB at 202-393-8000.
CAPTION: Maitre d' Robert Hall, left, tries to keep 500 diners a day happy as he juggles tables at McCormick & Schmick's, and that's just lunch. How does he do it? See Page F4.