23 August 2014

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'Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup…' How to complain in restaurants


diner complaints 2011 - waiter_soup_200174722-002-hi.jpgMost other nationalities put us Brits to shame in the complaints stakes; stick us behind a white tablecloth and suddenly it’s all strained smiles and pleasantries. Restaurateurs all agree: they’d much rather a customer complained than didn’t, in order to give staff a chance to make up for their mistakes. So what is the appropriate etiquette for making a complaint in a restaurant? And how can taking action help you to get what you want? Knowing when it’s time to complain isn’t always easy, so we asked the experts’ advice.


Snooty waiters, surly service and waits longer than a last-minute visa queue. Chances are, if you’re angry at dinner, it’s because the service isn’t up to scratch. After all, if you’re paying top dollar, you want to be taken care of. If things aren’t going well, the trick is to get in an early complaint, and even if the grumpy specimen dishing up your food doesn’t care, his or her boss will. Sit back and watch the marked improvement.

Common gripes:

Service that is slow, surly, overattentive or lacking in knowledge.

Expert view:

Sam Harrison, owner, Sam’s Brasserie and Harrison’s: ‘However busy the restaurant, it should be easy to spot who’s running the floor and to get their attention. If you’ve been waiting too long for your meal, there are things the restaurant can do. They might be able to bump an order without affecting another table, for example, or make it up to you in another way. Just remember that ranting and raving gets you nowhere: be polite and respectful.’

Good complaint: ‘I’ve been waiting 30 minutes for my starter.’
Bad complaint: ‘I think the waiter is looking at me funny.’


If there’s one thing that can strike self-doubt into even the most seasoned of diners, it’s complaining about wine. What if it’s not actually corked? Are you wrong to dislike it? Is asking the waiter to chill the red wine tantamount to requesting that he stick a shot of sambuca in it? Luckily, most snooty sommeliers disappeared along with Laura Ashley curtains, and there’s no longer a valid reason to fear the wine server.

Common gripes:

Wine that is corked, served at the wrong temperature, or not the bottle that you asked for.

Expert view:

Ronan Sayburn, director of wines, Hotel du Vin: ‘The days of the overbearing sommelier, who takes personal offence if a customer claims a wine is corked, are gone. Sommeliers are a lot more personable now. Still, it’s always helpful if a customer is polite and says something like: “Excuse me, I have a problem with this wine, please can you change it?” Be respectful and firm, and – whether a wine is faulty or not – if a sommelier is doing his job properly, he will realise the customer isn’t enjoying it and will replace it. The last thing he wants to do is to make the customer look stupid.’

Good complaint: ‘Your recommended wine is too dry for my taste.’
Bad complaint: ‘This isn’t the Aussie claret that I asked for.’

diner complaints 2011 - 200174733-009.jpgFood

Overcooked steaks, rubbery scallops, dry fish, limp vegetables: we’ve all had culinary crimes served in establishments where we expected better. But before you complain, remember two vital things: firstly, don’t eat all of the offending fare before speaking up; and secondly, the proverbial stories of what chefs do to complaining diners’ food are utter fiction.

Common gripes:

Food served over/undercooked or the wrong temperature; the wrong description on the menu; certain foods not available; no information on dietary requirements; food arriving at different times.

Expert view:

Russell Norman, owner, Polpo: ‘Customers should complain as early on as possible – preferably at the point when things start to go wrong, rather than when they’ve gone wrong monumentally. If you don’t like something, restaurants should change it straightaway; no quibbles, no arguments. Any other response is completely unacceptable in the 21st century.’

Good complaint: ‘I’m afraid my steak is overdone.’
Bad complaint: ‘I don’t like bones, can you fillet my whitebait?’

Paying the bill

We’ve all been there: the meal is over, the bill has turned up and, just as you lay down your credit card with a cursory glance at the total, you spot that bottle of wine you didn’t order, or the three extra starters. Are you right to be annoyed? Is it just an honest mistake, or is someone trying to pull a fast one?

Common gripes:

Miscalculated bill; wrong items on bill; high or hidden service charges.

Expert view:

Will Smith, co-owner of Arbutus, Wild Honey and Les Deux Salons: ‘The whole point of issuing a bill is for the customer to check that it is correct, so it doesn’t make sense to immediately assume the worst. But obviously no one wants a mistake to be made, as a guest might well feel that the restaurant is trying to be underhand. Whether or not a serious complaint is warranted about a mistake on a bill might depend on how good the meal has been overall. If a genuine mistake has been made at the end of an otherwise enjoyable experience, then a complaint might be an overreaction. However, if an incorrect bill comes at the end of an hour-and-a-half’s bad service, then yes, complain away. Even if it’s at the bill stage of a meal, making a valid complaint can still lead to the removal of the service charge, or an offer of wine on the house.’

Good complaint: ‘I’d like to pay the service charge in cash.’
Bad complaint: ‘I didn’t realise the lobster was priced per kilo.’

diner complaints 2011 - live_music_92365828.jpgAtmosphere and surroundings

It’s not just Friday-night curry houses that can reverberate with mid-meal cheers and bellowed profanities. If you’re unlucky, the same sozzled crowd who view a top-of-the-voice ‘phwoaaar!’ as an acceptable means of communicating could well turn up at the table next to you during dinner at a smart brasserie. But you’re scared of making a scene, right?

Common gripes:

Rowdy neighbours; badly positioned tables; dirty surroundings; loud music; tables too close together; being given a table next to a draught or radiator.

Expert view:

Fred Sirieix, general manager, Galvin at Windows: ‘Customers should make a distinction between a complaint and a comment. A comment is when you see something go wrong early and draw attention to it. For example, if the table next to yours is being rowdy, and the waiter hasn’t spotted it, you can have a word with him and he will discreetly ask the revellers to calm down. You have to be respectful of the waiter if you want him to be respectful of you. It isn’t necessary for people to go over the top and lose their temper.’

Good complaint: ‘Please can you turn the music down, we’re right next to the speaker.’
Bad complaint: ‘I don’t like the carpet.’

Table turning

One of the fastest-growing gripes among diners is that of table turning: being informed upon booking when you have to vacate the table, or worse, being cajoled into leaving a table you thought was yours for the duration of the evening. Is there anything you can do about it? There’s always the pre-complaint: tell the restaurant staff when booking that you’re not going to dine there if they’re going to dictate the leaving time.

Common gripes:

Restricted dining times combined with short, sharp service; the bill arriving without being requested.

Expert view:

Simon Girling, restaurant manager, The Ritz: ‘Table turning is the one thing that really does upset people. It’s completely unacceptable if you’ve booked in advance and then you’re asked to leave early on the night. But if you are a walk-in, and the manager says he can only squeeze you in before a later booking, then that is acceptable. If someone told me what time I had to leave when I was in the process of booking a table in advance, I personally wouldn’t go to that restaurant.’

Good complaint: ‘I didn’t ask for the bill.’
Bad complaint: ‘I would keep to my word and leave, but it’s raining.’

Words by Tom Vaughan.

A fuller version of this feature was published in the autumn 2011 edition of Square Meal Lifestyle.