When a Restaurant Screws You


The offending piece of fish (click on image to enlarge)

Even the best restaurants make mistakes. Common ones include spilling a glass of water in the lap of a customer, who, of course, has no dry set of clothes; delaying the appearance of a dish by an unconscionable length of time, say one hour after the previous course was taken away; or allowing something aesthetically gross to happen, the most common of which in New York might be a roach running across your table. All these have happened to me, but none seemed as bad as what occurred yesterday in an Upper West Side restaurant, and an expensive one, too.

The meal had proceeded normally, the drinks brought, the appetizers delivered and consumed. But then the entrees arrived. Mine, a lush burger with homemade mayonnaise, was fine, though a tad overdone. But when my companion received her sauteed fish, she took a bite and a frown immediately appeared on her face. A quick sniff from my side of the table told me why: Her fish was “high.” It was bad, it was spoiled – so much so that the smell of ammonia wafted across the table.

First and foremost this is a quality control problem. Someone should have detected the smell earlier, hopefully before the fish was fired in the kitchen. Well, I’ve never sent a dish back in a restaurant before, since it’s my job to complain weeks later in print. However, my fellow diner was really hungry. So I motioned for the waiter, held up the fish, and he, with an apology, returned it to the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later, he reappeared with a fresh entree.

At some point the restaurant manager came over, too, looked at the table and smiled, made a comment that could not be discerned in the hubbub of the room, and then turned heel and departed. It’s probably not necessary to mention that my dining companion was upset.

The check duly appeared after we’d finished up, and I was somewhat surprised to see all charges in place. No discounts had been granted, even for the offending entrée. It left me wondering, what is the responsibility of a restaurant to its customers in this situation?

First of all, there are two issues to consider. One is that the consumer has been abused, and didn’t get full value for the meal. Even though the bad dish was made good, our meal had been delayed, and my companion had actually tasted a rotten piece of fish. The bad fish became the focus of our meal, which was effectively ruined. Talk about a mood killer.

Second, the restaurant has an overriding concern, as well. That would be to retain us as customers; to respond so well, that a bad situation turns to good. After all, though we may have been just a pair of random diners, and not free-spending ones, either, every diner has friends, so that bad word of mouth has a ripple effect. Hell, we may have even been Chowhounds or Yelpers, and then the effect is drastically multiplied.

So this is what a restaurant must do if this sort of disaster occurs, and they almost inevitably do:

1. Remedy the mistake immediately and as rapidly as possible (which the restaurant in this case did).

2. Immediately present a free pair of drinks, with further apologies.

3. Either remove the offending entrée from the tab, or, better yet, comp the entire check.

4. If you want to be really sure the guests leave happy and return, present a certificate promising a free meal in the future.

While these remedies, especially #4, may seem extreme, a restaurant’s objective goes way beyond the immediate diners who were abused. While you, as restaurateur, may be focusing on how much it costs to provide the replacement entree, the very longevity of your place may be at stake, and it pays to sacrifice a few covers for the benefit of patronage in the future.

Check out some of my other rants.

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