Be polite and don’t eat it first: the art of sending food back at restaurants | Australian food and drink

Sometime before the last Sydney lockdown, I was in a local cafe, staring down a pretentious bowl of chickpea-centric vegetarian mouse I’d had countless times before. But that day I took a bite and all I could taste was salt. This had never happened before. I had a few more mouthfuls, hoping the rest would be fine, but the whole meal was uncomfortably salty.

I didn’t know what to do. I’m not one to complain about food unless it is genuinely inedible. On the other hand, I’m friendly with the owners of this cafe, and I thought maybe the kitchen should know, so it wouldn’t happen again. The whole thing got me thinking about the public dining social contract. When are paying customers justified in sending a meal back? How should they do it so nobody spits in their replacement meals?

I have asked a mixed plate of food professionals to weigh in. Their opinions vary on a number of matters but the overall consensus is that people should feel confident in sending back dishes containing off items or undercooked meat, eggs or seafood, as well as dishes missing key ingredients or with bonus hair, objects or critters.

Food temperature also came up a lot but with the caveat that if your meal or beverage is cold because you waited too long to start, that’s really on you. Beyond that, it gets pretty subjective.

the chef/owner

Ben Shemesh and his partner, Emily van Loon, opened Small’s Deli in Sydney’s Potts Point in early 2020. Determined not to let a little thing like a global pandemic get in their way, they worked tirelessly to make their Italian-inspired takeaway sandwich joint a neighborhood stalwart.

‘After receiving a textbook medium-rare sirloin, they sent it back and said they couldn’t understand why the chef would choose to cook it that way.’ Photograph: The Picture Pantry/Getty Images/Alloy

Shemesh has a lot to say about customer gripes: the good, the bad and the farcical. “I once had someone order a steak and, when asked how they wanted it cooked, they said “chef’s choice”. After receiving a textbook medium-rare sirloin, they sent it back and said they couldn’t understand why the chef would choose to cook it that way, and could they have a new steak?”

Though chronically non-confrontational himself, Shemesh encourages others to speak up in salty situations. “If someone is paying for something that they think is inedible, they should feel free to voice their opinion.”

Citing the potential for human error, like the time he once forgot to put lobster in a lobster spaghetti, he says people should give a venue the chance to rectify the problem. “Or to shoo them out the door with a salt shaker. Either way.”

The waiter/cafe manager

Lynsey Martin has just hung up her apron after almost two decades in food service in Australia and her native Scotland. The most egregious complaint she has ever encountered was about chocolate brownies that were “just too chocolatey”. Long blacks that aren’t hot enough – a gripe she fielded countless times – are also a bugbear. “We can’t make boiling water any hotter.”

I’m incredulous to learn that people often try to get a replacement meal, discount or full free ride because they simply don’t enjoy a perfectly executed dish. “We can’t really take food back just because you don’t like it,” says Martin, deadpan. And don’t get her started on people who finish their entire meal and then kick up a fuss to avoid payment: “I can’t stress enough how ridiculous this is.”

When I ask her about my salty meal, Martin says I should absolutely have sent the dish back, especially considering I’d had it many times without issue. She adds that in such a situation, if she offered a replacement, she would advise asking for a different dish, as any dressings or sauces in my original order would be from a daily batch and the same problem would be likely to recur.

The bar manager

Also hailing from Scotland, the hospitality veteran Dave Hinnrichs has done every food service job you can think of, as well as some you probably can’t. He believes valid reasons for complaint include food not being cooked properly, dishes not matching their menu description, and yes, over-seasoning to the point of discomfort. As a punter, he’s comfortable raising issues about food, but always in a “courteous and professional manner”.

tapas plates
Dave Hinnrichs had one couple ‘demand a refund’ after demolishing an entire tapas meal. Photograph: Martin Poole/Getty Images

Like Martin, one of Hinnrichs’ biggest workplace grievances is people who demolish a plate and then gripe about its taste or quality. “I had one couple recently who, after eating their whole meal – four or five tapas dishes – decided to critique everything and then demand a refund.”

Diners who slam a venue on social media or Tripadvisor without commenting in person are another pain point. He says staff would always prefer a chance to remedy any problems. Other interviewees confirmed this as a frustrating, and increasing, problem.

The food writers

The food writer Nicholas Jordan is “hugely averse” to sending food back, generally believing if something isn’t to his taste, it’s a matter of subjectivity rather than a mistake or poor cooking. He believes context is everything and doesn’t want to be prescriptive about rules, beyond off food or the presence of foreign objects. “You know, like a human tooth, a piece of Lego, a snow globe or something.”

“We read food reviews that say this is 16/20, we read Instagram posts that say this croissant is good but the one at that other bakery is shit,” Jordan says. “When we visit a new restaurant, our friends ask, ‘Is it good?’ and at those restaurants if we find something isn’t to our taste, we just think it’s shit. Maybe if there was more nuance and understanding of subjectivity, we’d all understand our own tastes better.”

A smartphone taking a snap of a table of tea and pastries
‘Context is everything’: Nicholas Jordan thinks Instagram is warping our ‘understanding of subjectivity’ in food. Photograph: Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

He empathises with venues trying to navigate this divisive culture, with chefs often rushing to change dishes because of online critiques, only to encounter a whole new set of complaints: “Some people complain the scrambled eggs are too runny, so the recipe is changed. Fans of runny scrambled eggs end up suffering.”

The MasterChef judge and food writer Melissa Leong tells me she would support sending back an aggressively salty dish but stresses the need for courtesy and deference. “Seasoning is subjective and I know people think something is saltier in a restaurant because nobody puts that much salt, butter and oil in food at home. But if it’s … unpleasant, there is a polite way to explain what’s going on and most venues will be happy to do something about it.”

In the end, I chose to quietly mention the saltiness of my meal to the manager. I resolved that it must have been a mistake, but a mistake that should be addressed lest new customers leave unhappy.

The manager thanked me for the heads up and we all got on with our lives.