While the majority of the restaurant staff you encounter will probably not spit or pee in your food if you send it back, it's a common concern that enters the conversation the moment someone decides to send their plate back to the kitchen. We asked food-service professionals how they prefer customers to handle this awkward situation. Here's what they said.
When you order a meal and what you receive isn't what you expected, you can either suffer through it or send it back. Either way, the situation isn't ideal because eating something you don't really want is, well, bad, and sending it back can lead to an awkward confrontation.
This often happens because 1) you're afraid of upsetting the waiter and paranoid about getting something extra when your meal returns (read: saliva, or worse); or 2) you come across as a jerk with a false sense of self-importance, in which case you may truly be at risk of some sort of retaliation. In general, if there's a problem you do have the right to say something and, in many cases, should. The goal is to do so politely so nobody leaves the table with hurt feelings, and that requires a specific solution.
After watching my dad send back a hamburger for being undercooked and wondering how the waiter felt about how he made his request, I decided it was time to learn. Fortunately the food service citizens of the internet came to my aid to offer their two cents. Here's what I learned.
Who's At Fault Can Vary
Sydney notes that respect is key, but situations will vary and you should keep in mind that you may be the one who actually made the mistake:
Explain the problem and ask for a solution. If the mistake was your fault (not reading the menu or misreading the menu), apologise and ask for a new dish. If it's the waiter's or kitchen's fault, be nice. It helps to say something like: "I know this isn't your fault, but this is undercooked."
I've waited tables for a few years and most of the send-backs are because people can't read the menu. There were some legitimate complaints about bad food, but they were few and far between. I consider myself a pretty good waiter because I always double-check the food before I take it out. If the kitchen messed up and used the wrong cheese or something else that is noticeable, I tell them to fix it before letting the customer know.
If the waiter can't or won't fix the problem, ask for a manager. Any restaurant that cares about its customers will try to make things right, including comping your food. But if you're being ridiculous or rude (or both) you might get nothing. It all depends on the type of restaurant. High-end places will bend over backward for you, but smaller places like the bar/restaurant where I worked will tell you to get out if you're out of line.
Along with most things in life, showing respect for your fellow humans will get you what you want.
Just last night I ordered a couple of pizzas for some friends and expected to get a takeout special but was charged much more. It turned out I ordered the wrong kind of pizza because I'd forgotten the specifics of the deal. Having read Sydney's advice just an hour earlier, I made sure not to assume the man who took my order was wrong. I instead asked if the takeout deal had ended and he explained it was for a different kind of pizza. I apologized for my mistake and asked if I could switch. He had no problem changing my order even though I'd already paid. Everything worked out very well!
Be Specific About What You Want
Scott notes that not all waiters are perfect, and when they forget to ask for clarification it leads to problems they'll have to deal with later:
As a former waiter but now just a lowly patron, some waitstaff makes it difficult on themselves when they don't care enough to pay attention or ask for clarification. If the kitchen messes up, that's one thing, but if the waitstaff does not take the necessary steps to make sure that everyone receives what they order, it makes it "tense" to have to say something. The waitstaff are on the front lines of the success of someone's business - including their own.
One way you can help everybody is to be very specific about what you want and ask any questions before the order is taken to the kitchen. If you communicate sufficiently, your chances of a problem will be far smaller.
Just Be Nice
The rest of the advice I received all discussed the importance of respect, kindness, and understanding. As Sydney said earlier: "with most things in life, showing respect for your fellow humans will get you what you want." While these tips should help reduce your chances of a running into a problem when sending your food back, if your intentions are good and you're a nice person you shouldn't have to worry too much at all.
Illustrations by Leremy (Shutterstock).