It’s happening again. My friend and frequent dining companion Allan is sending his meal back. This time, it‘s nothing serious, an easy fix, a thick cod fillet still cold in the middle; a few minutes in the pan will solve things. He’s right to send it back — cold cod is creepy. He‘s often right in his complaints, and only occasionally just persnickety and petulant. If everyone was as honest and careful about the food they eat in restaurants, they’d probably send food back almost as frequently as Allan does.
They don‘t, of course. But should they?
Sending food back in restaurants is, at best, a delicate and nervy transaction — one involving etiquette and maturity as much as consumer rights. Most people prefer the more passive-aggressive approach — not returning to a particular restaurant, and telling all our friends not to go there either. Even when the waiters and chef are good-tempered and don’t take the return personally, sending back imperfect food doesn‘t always lead to a diner’s increased gratification. Oh, you might end up with a better steak or softer eggs, but too often the greater dining experience goes south in the process. Who wants to sit plateless while everyone else is eating? Or sit plateless while everyone else is not eating and letting their food get cold so everyone can eat at the same time?
Personally, I‘m hesitant to send things back. Unlike Allan, I care too much about how I appear and don’t want to come across as overly fussy or a problem customer. As a critic, I don‘t want to call attention to myself, although how a restaurant handles these exchanges can be revealing. When there’s a glaring mistake, I feel honor bound to enter the process and report back.
My deepest fear is probably invoking chef rage — I‘ve worked in a dozen restaurants, and in a handful of them customers were somehow punished for sending food back, even when the problem was easily solved: They were made to wait and wait, or their undercooked steaks were put back on the grill only to have all their juices forced out under a hard-pressed spatula. I’ve seen pink prime ribs sent back for ”more fire“ but which instead were simply flipped — the undersides had turned brown against the hot plate. When these were returned for yet more cooking, they fell prey to the smashing spatula.
Allan has no idea he‘s in a small minority of those willing to send things back. ”If Mastro sells over 400 dinners a night,“ I queried him, ”how many steaks do you suppose are sent back?“
Allan thought for a moment. ”Oh, 25 or so, I’d think.“
Nope. Mastro‘s executive chef, Taylor Boudreaux, claims the return rate on steaks (almost all for more cooking) is around 1 percent — four or five steaks a night, which seems to me a surprisingly low percentage, given that how a steak is cooked is still a somewhat subjective call. One person’s rare can be another‘s medium. Boudreaux also claims that overcooked steaks are far more uncommon than undercooked ones — more than two in a night and ”a flag goes up.“ Either the broiler is getting lax or waiters aren’t monitoring their tables accurately. If customers are slow eating their salads, for example, the cooked steaks are held in the kitchen, and the delay can skew their temperature. Also, says Boudreaux, Mastro‘s no-comping policy keeps returns down. ”We don’t send out the free desserts or take things off the bill every time there‘s a complaint. All that just sets up a bad habit.“
Perhaps so. Gina, the assistant manager at Taylor’s Steakhouse in La Cañada, says that on a busy night, when 200 dinners go out, there will be three or four requests for more fire and sometimes an additional two or three overcooked steaks — about double the percentage at Mastro‘s. However, when a steak at Taylor’s is overcooked, the customer is given two options: another steak, which takes time and interrupts the flow of the meal; or the overdone steak will be comped.
Of course, a distinction must be made between customers who send food back because it is not what they want and those who want to avoid paying. Xiomara Ardolina of Xiomara and the new Cafe Atlantic in Pasadena says, ”When they just don‘t want to pay, they wait until after they’ve eaten their meal to complain.“
Allan is happy to pay. He just wants what he‘s ordered, and wants it to be good. He doesn’t care if waiters wince to see him coming — although, to tell the truth, in the good restaurants he frequents, I‘ve never seen them do so. In fact, in those places where he’s a regular, the staff cheerfully takes his perfectionism as a challenge and see his return visits as proof of a job well done. Who knows — or cares — what they mutter behind his back?#