One place where the adage “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” definitely does not apply is a restaurant.
“A lot of customers don’t like to complain,” said Doug Brown, a former restaurant manager for the Chart House chain and author of “The Restaurant Manager’s Handbook,” and to him, that’s a shame. “A lot of people will just not come back and never say why.”
Well-run restaurants welcome constructive complaints. And the best way to help them — and yourself, when you’re sitting there with a mojito when you asked for a margarita — is to speak up right away. “If they mention it on their way out, there’s very little that anyone can do other than [offer] an apology, and to try to have them come back,” said Atul Narain, general manager of Rasika and Rasika West End.
Flagging a problem with a server or manager will not only ensure you a speedy resolution but also often inspire something extra.
“The guest is always right,” said Boo Kim, director of operations for District Commons and Penn Commons and the winner of last year’s RAMMY award for Manager of the Year. “We’re fighting for their business. We have to treat every guest with the utmost importance. We have got to make them feel special.”
But if you instead go home to jump on Yelp, TripAdvisor or one of the other sites that allow customers to leave feedback, restaurants don’t always get that opportunity. Francisca Iguina Pearson, general manager of Mio, said she finds out about 80 percent of all complaints that way.
“In a way, we miss the old-school restaurant business,” said Pearson. “Yelp is not necessarily good for us. We try to control it, because anybody can Yelp.”
Narain, Kim and Pearson say they try to track down dissatisfied diners who leave reviews online, but sometimes it’s impossible. If they are able to connect, they might offer gift certificates and personalized service to get a guest to return.
Complaining is an awkward, emotionally fraught interaction — especially when you’re, say, on a date. That’s why it’s important for managers to check in with tables throughout the night to ensure that things are going smoothly. Brown advises managers to “touch” every table.
“You learn more that way than waiting for a problem to be brought to your attention,” he said.
When problems do arise, even the smallest issue — say, an overcooked steak — can snowball. Replacing the steak can back up the entire kitchen, and suddenly, Pearson will find herself trying to soothe the tempers and appetites of several tables.
When you need to raise a complaint with a manager, the best way to get what you want is to explain your problem calmly and constructively, they advise, no matter how hangry you are. Don’t wield the threat of a bad review on Yelp unless you feel that you’re really being mistreated; first give the restaurant a chance to recover. Understand that some things are outside a manager’s control.
“Explain the issue honestly without getting upset, with good body language, and you should get an equal response back,” said Brown.
And don’t overreach: Just because you had to wait 15 minutes past your reservation time, you’re not entitled to a comped check. A free drink or appetizer is more reasonable. Managers say they often base a decision about whether to give out freebies on both the severity of the offense and how irate a customer is. A smooth recovery can turn a one-star Yelp review into a five-star one.
“We try to be over-gracious,” said Narain. “That’s the foundation of our hospitality. That’s what we want the guests to carry back.”
As the quality of dining has risen in Washington, so have diners’ expectations of service — and that’s a good thing.
“It being a buyer’s market, I think people want it all,” said Kim. “Is it a high standard? No, I think it makes us mind our p’s and q’s.”
How do the managers handle some specific complaints, from the frequent to the rare and bizarre? Some examples:
“I asked for medium-rare. This steak is medium-well.”
This is the most common type of complaint. If your food is not cooked as specified — whether it’s the temperature of a steak or the presence of an ingredient that you asked to be omitted — a restaurant should always send it back to the kitchen and have an entirely new dish made as quickly as possible.
Depending on your level of inconvenience — e.g., if everyone else around you has finished eating by the time the fresh dish comes back — a manager might step in with a gratis dessert, or might have that item removed from the bill. But many guests are happy once they have their food and have no complaint about being presented with the whole bill, said Kim.
“Our server has disappeared, and we’ve been waiting for 15 minutes.”
This is often a problem when you’re trying to pay the check, especially if you have to get to the theater or a concert or movie. A manager should step in to replace your server and bring you whatever you need. When a meal has to end abruptly due to slow service, Narain has a solution: “We can always ask them to come back for dessert,” he said. “If their car is parked valet, we get them a cab.”
“I ordered the rockfish, but you brought me salmon. Your restaurant is terrible, and you’re an [expletive].”
A manager should replace any incorrect order immediately. “But the problem is that the other guests are eating” while you are waiting, said Brown. “I think giving them a little gift certificate is good, to get them to come back, rather than comping wine.”
As for the swear words, managers just weather the abuse. “We have to stay professional in every situation,” said Kim. “We cannot lose our cool.”
“My waiter has a bad attitude.”
Depending on whether this was based on a misunderstanding or your waiter really does have an attitude problem, your complaint could result in termination for the employee. That was the case for one of Pearson’s servers recently, when he could not provide any recommendations for dishes after guests asked.
If you don’t like your server for some reason, flag a manager. “Say, ‘Look, we’re not communicating well with Susan, can we get another waitress to help us, or can we move to another area?’ ” Brown said.
“I don’t want to sit next to that window/those children/the host stand.”
The restaurant can usually find you a new table. If the place is fully booked, you might have to wait at the bar or in the lounge.
“It’s up to us to provide an accommodation for them,” said Narain.
“This restaurant is too noisy.”
Yes, many restaurants could make better use of design materials to cut down on noise, but once you’re in a room with an overall noise problem, there isn’t much a manager can do.
What if the noise is due to a specific person seated nearby? We would ask that table to quiet down, but as a thank-you for them doing that, we might buy them a round of drinks,” said Kim.
“It’s hot/cold in here. Can you turn up/down the AC?”
You might be offered a table closer to or farther from an air-conditioning unit, heater or window. Sometimes there’s nothing a restaurant can do, as when the air conditioning at Mio broke on a 90-degree day. Because the restaurant has an open kitchen, the room quickly became sweltering, so Pearson passed out gratis shaved ice desserts to everyone, which cooled diners and their tempers.
“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
Even if you’re eating outdoors — where it would be less uncommon for a bug to fly into your food — a restaurant should replace the dish or drink free of charge. “I would do whatever it takes,” said Kim.
Over by the host stand: “You told us it would be a 15-minute wait. We’ve been waiting for more than 20 minutes!”
“I’m so sorry, I still do not have a table available. Is there anything I can bring you in the meantime — some bread, an appetizer?” said Pearson, reciting her typical script for this common complaint.
“I just don’t like the way this dish tastes.”
Maybe the fish was a little too old or the balance of spices off. Or maybe the dish was prepared perfectly and you just didn’t know what to expect. Seviche gives Pearson problems: “Just the other day, we had a customer say that they didn’t know it was raw and they didn’t want it,” even though the menu clearly designates it as raw. She always comps the dish because she doesn’t want anyone to leave with a bad impression.
If they’re open to it, Narain will bring the diners different dishes to try, on the house. He will leave his card and tell them that next time they visit, he will personally guide them through the menu.
“Don’t seat me next to anyone who is poorly dressed.”
Sometimes guests come to managers with, to put it politely, quirky requests. This is one of the most outlandish complaints that Pearson ever received.
“I didn’t know what to say. I don’t know how to control whether someone is poorly dressed or not in her eyes,” Pearson said.
If you have a very specific request — even if it makes a restaurant employee secretly want to strangle you — a good manager will still try to make you happy. (As for that woman, she didn’t end up eating at Mio. Once Pearson found her a table near well-dressed people, she noticed that the complainer was carrying a small dog — not a service animal — in her purse, and she had to ask her to leave.)
“I am VERY ALLERGIC to gluten.” Five minutes later: “Can I please have some more bread?”
Pearson says she overhears a conversation like that at least once a day. Servers are trained to guide allergic guests through the menu, but when you specifically request an item that you have claimed to be allergic to, Pearson or her servers will reiterate that said item contains the allergen, and then bring it. They take it as an indication that you are very health-conscious, and they tailor your experience accordingly.
A diner brings a shard of glass and puts it in a salad. “I need to speak to a manager. There is glass in my food.”
If it’s the kitchen’s fault that an inedible object makes its way into a dish, you’re right to be angry, and the restaurant should bend over backward to soothe you. Unfortunately, there are dishonest customers who will do anything to get a free meal — including planting dead bugs or glass in their meals, something that Brown witnessed multiple times in his stints as a general manager. Sometimes a server will even see it happen. But a customer crazy enough to do that is likely to raise a huge fuss and upset other guests, so a manager has to respond in the same way he or she would if it were actually the restaurant’s fault.
“You give him the free dinner. It’s a no-win situation,” said Brown.
More from Food: