Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hey Guys, So How is Everything? Dealing with a Bad Restaurant Meal

I am just back from one of the worst meals, in fact, worst restaurant experiences I've had in years. It's a new place called Country Kabob #2 in Pt. Loma. My parents had read Caroline Dipping's review of it in the San Diego Union-Tribune on Thursday and wanted to try it. I read it as well, and it sounded pretty good so we went there for a Father's Day lunch.

Briefly, the avgolemono soup was so sour my mom's mouth literally puckered after she took a sip. Her chicken kabob was so undercooked -- raw, really -- she had to send it back. I ordered the spanikopita after reading Caroline's take on it. Her one criticism was that the phyllo topping needed to be "a tad more flaky." I thought I'd see if the chef had paid attention. The phyllo was soggy. I sent it back and the server returned it upside down. It was a mess. The topping -- now the bottom -- was still soggy and the filling was dreadful -- the nutmeg overwhelmed everything and the texture was gummy and chewy. I even had to spit out an olive from the accompanying Greek salad because it was too bitter to eat. And, they have a thing about limes -- on the salad, in the iced tea and the water glasses. Fortunately, it being Father's Day, my dad was happy with his lamb kebab plate.

OK. Things happen and not everyplace you dine is going to live up to expectations. But I didn't expect the server to tell the chef I didn't like the meal and that the chef -- it turns out, chef/owner -- would come flying out to confront me. (By the way, he didn't know me or that I am a food writer; I was simply a paying customer.)

He asked why I didn't like his spanikopita and when I started to explain about the phyllo and the nutmeg, he yelled at me that he had been a chef for 26 years and that no one had ever complained about his cooking and what did I know. I told him I didn't want to argue, but he kept at it; my mom's word for him is "aggressive." What was wrong with the chicken kabob? What was wrong with the soup? Then said he wanted to make us something to take home for dinner. Obviously, his pride was hurt and he wanted to show us how good his food is. He wasn't going to let us leave without something so my folks settled on two Greek salads. The server brought out the two salads to go and the owner came out again, and pulled the top salad out of the plastic bag. He wanted us to admire how beautiful it was. And, yes, he charged us for the meals. (My mom just called to say that it turns out instead of providing them with the dressing on the side to be tossed together later, he mixed the salads with the dressing, which leaked on the way home; by dinner the salads will be limp and soggy.)

Okay, enough of that place. We've all had bad experiences. My question to you is do you take it on the chin (and in the wallet) or do you speak up? What do you do when you are served lousy food? How do you answer your server when she says, "Hey guys, so how is everything?" (We won't even go into the fact that I'm not a guy and this bugs me no end...) Do you ask for another dish? Do you just say everything's fine? If you do complain (politely, I hope), how do you want the staff to deal with it? Should an undercooked dish be returned to the kitchen for more cooking and brought back to you? Do you want to order something different? Will a free glass of wine or a free dessert do it for you? A free meal? A gift certificate to dine there again? What are your expectations? And what have been your experiences when you've complained?

If someone is going to charge you for a meal, you should get your money's worth. This is true in good economic times and times like today, when for many of us, dining out is a splurge and we feel it in the bank account. So, when you have an unsatisfactory experience, I'd like to know how you handle it. Think of this as an opportunity to enlighten restaurant owners and assist fellow diners when they go out to eat. And, even vent a little!

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  1. It's hard to do, but worth it to complain. It gives the chef a chance to make things right. If the chef knows you're unhappy and still doesn't make the effort or succeed in satisfying--then you have every right to warn the rest of us.

  2. Caron, this is an awful story, made worse because you wanted to treat your parents and especially your father to a nice meal on Father's Day.

    What do I do when facing a bad meal? Undercooked or cold food always goes back because this is in theory so easy to fix. Anything with an insect, a hair, or other debris gets pointed out. I expect those sort of dishes to be completely replaced and something done for me to ease the yuck factor (drinks on the house or not being charged is a fair gesture).

    I've never sent anything back because of the taste. I've never gotten anything so bad and I assume it's just me. I just never go back.

    I know that mistakes happen and I don't get upset or angry unless the restaurant staff or owner reacts badly to the honest truth that I'm politely calling to their attention. Own your mistakes and fix them!

    Where the real power lies is in telling other people you know about a bad experience. Negative word of mouth can kill a business. In this era when we have the social media megaphones of blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, a post like this one can be devastating.

    In this case, the restaurant owner richly deserves the blast. Packing salads to go for consumption later that are fully dressed? What a numbskull! And he charged you? I'll never ever go near the place and I'll warn others against it. That's called consumer payback and he sure did earn it.

  3. Thanks for chiming in, Amy and Gayle. I'm interested in others's experiences, too!

  4. When one encounters a problem while dining out it absolutely should be brought to the attention of your server.

    As a Chef and restaurateur I want to know!!

    The confrontational manor of his response, as you described it, was way off base.

    A savvy owner spends a GREAT DEAL of time training the waitstaff about the menu, ingredients, allergies, amd problem solving, & much more.

    The spanikopita? - TSK TSK!

    Too much lemon in the soup? - not at all a good sign.

    The aggressive nature of the chef?/owner - unforgiveable!

    Charging for the suggested salads, soon to be soggy - the last straw.

    P.S. " Was everything okay?" is never a believable question.

  5. Went to Hexagone last night...after waiting 25 minutes for our reserved table, with lots of "sorry-they are just not leaving the table," I discovered the prices on their web site AND the little menus for the taking at the check-in desk are priced DIFFERENTLY than the actual menu by about a 15% price difference. I mentioned it to the owner and his only response was a very feeble, "This could be." COULD BE? Uh, excuuuuuse me, it WAS. Not "could be."
    The soup went back three times each time simply asking for it to be heated (funny that a review I read said the soup the reviewer got was so hot she had to wait to have it cool off before she could eat it), the coffees were barely even lukewarm and each time it came out it did not get better...get this-- at 7:15, they already ran out of several key dishes...When the waiter pointed out this this meant the restaurant was good because it was busy, and it meant they only served fresh food, I pointed out that it could also mean that the chef did not buy enough and what was left was undesired...the waiter was appalled and flummoxed...the owner sent over a SLIVER--I swear, a SLIVER--of barely a taste of some dessert, with 4 forks as an "apology"...we all looked at each other and laughed...the waiter shrugged...told us about the new Laurel opening soon across the street with a lower priced menu than they previously have.
    Poor guy...not entirely his fault, but certainly not a good night for the restaurant.
    So much for that place. Average age seemed to be, well, senior citizens.
    We compare every restaurant to Arrivederci, where we are heading to right is our twice weekly fave and NEVER EVER fails to deliver the FINEST food, service and ambience.

  6. I'm sorry you had that experience. Mine wasn't that dissimilar with the additional irritant that they played the same Edith Piaf CD over and over the entire time I was there. I wanted to throw something at the speakers after the third round of La Vie en Rose.

  7. Oh dear. I'm pretty patient if I really want to like a place but if they really dont care I dont always bother complaining. Thats the brit in me coming out.

    I've had great experiences at Starlight lounge where I've not enjoyed my meal and I always tell them, because I think they are always experienting and that they'd be genuinely interested to know.

    I had a crappy meal at the mediterranean place at the top of the hill in mission hills in the place that used to be jimmy carters and they obviously just werent interested in making good food so we thanked them and didnt return.

  8. I'll never forget going to the Outback at Mission Valley and my friend's steak was undercooked - I told him he was being obnoxious for saying anything, especially since Outback servers are pretty good about making sure people understand that their idea of medium is pinker than many other places (though his steak really was much closer to rare - it was pretty raw). But the server immediately took the steak away, brought him a properly cooked steak AND the manager came over to let him know that they weren't going to charge him for the meal. I was impressed - I really wasn't expecting that from a chain. But what's particularly sad is that the reason that night sticks in my head is that I think that level of service is just not common. I get that some customers can be out of line and demanding but I definitely think a server's first response should always be to ask how to make things right. Getting defensive or otherwise responding poorly is sure to make me avoid that restaurant in the future.

  9. recently we complained after horrible service at Islands burger (we got the wrong food, they didn't do anything to fix it, made us eat it!) and we ended up with a $25 gift card. Which means we'll probably go back.

  10. So sorry to hear you had another bad meal but this one really seems to take the cake! My friend recently reviewed a restaurant on Yelp and gave them a fair but critical review. The restaurant manager contacted her, apologized and sent her a $50 gift certificate. I thought this showed a restaurant that cared about customers opinions and the power that sites such as Yelp have

  11. Always send something back if it's: The wrong thing, the wrong temperature,contains an ingredient you are alergic to and were not aware of, if something tastes "off"(like your mom's soup). Sending something back simply because you don't like it is not a good reason (at least in my book) unless it is completly inedible.

    I worked in the industry for years and there is nothing more frustrating than seeing a person clearly not enjoy their meal but refuses to say anything. Waiters work on the information you give them, they are not mind readers so by all means say something.

    And I have heard form a few people that they don't like the word "guys", I think it might be generational as that term was never viewed as gender specific for me. Plus the caliber of the resto usually dictates the formality of the greeting.

  12. Sometimes, if the food is mediocre, but certainly still edible, I won't say anything. I'm a vegetarian, so no undercooked meat for me, but I would definitely say something if my meal were inedible.

    A few months ago, I happened to go to Ki's Restaurant in Cardiff twice in one week. Their service was always just ok--not usually anything special--but the food is always tasty, However, on these two visits, two separate waitresses were AWFUL. Actually, they were completely inattentive, unhelpful, and very nearly rude. I emailed the manager through the address found on the restaurant's website, and was very graciously offered a free meal for me husband and I by Barry. We took him up on it, enjoyed a completely gratis meal (including drinks and dessert), and very much enjoyed our server, Sarah. If you go for dinner, do ask for her--she was fabulous.

    In short, if something ain't right, tell someone. You'll never know if it can be made right unless you ask!

  13. Wow. Well that's high on my list of places NOT to visit. I can honestly say I've never had an experience quite that bad. But if I did, you can bet I'd spread the word about it. That's what we writers do! :)

  14. I found into your food blog going through a few links. Glad I ran into it. Didn't know that the food blog community was so big. I love your posts!

    I was wondering if you would like to exchange links. I'll drop yours on my site and you drop mine on yours. Email at or stop by my site and drop a comment. Let me know if you would like to do that.


  15. If something is simply not to my liking, I usually don't say anything. However, if something is truly done wrong (undercooked, poor service, etc.), than I say something, so I can give the restaurant staff a chance to respond and win back my favor.

    I was once left waiting for 40 minutes for a table (even though I had a reservation and arrived on time). I told the server that I was dissatisfied, and would have been happier had they at least offered us a place to sit with some cocktails on the house. To their credit, once I told them that, they did bring some free champagne. It's often so simple to make customers feel better by just offering a little bit of hospitality.

  16. If this Country Kabob #2 place is a branch of the Country Kabob restuarant on Adams Avenue, then I'd have to agree with you about the food. Mediocre and overpriced, and their Spanokopita really sucks. I love Spanokopita, and couldn't eat more than a couple bites....