Dining and drinking out can be an expensive experience and you, as a customer, are entitled to an enjoyable one. But being entitled to something doesn’t mean you get to be a jerk about it. Sending food or drinks back from whence they came for no real reason is the saddest sort of flex, and there are few things more off-putting than someone who tries to build themselves up by being rude to waitstaff, bartenders, or anyone else in the service industry.
There are circumstances, however, where returning or exchanging food and beverages is a perfectly legit move and, provided you do so politely, something your friendly waitstaff will be more than willing to accommodate.
Foreign objects are fair game
The most clear-cut and indisputable reason for sending food back is safety. According to Eric Wood, owner and chef at Ranch Pizza, one should definitely alert the staff to anything that could cause physical harm (even if that “harm” is just being really queasy).
“I usually don’t send food back if it has a hair in it, which is probably the most common foreign object, but I’m too nice, and it’s totally reasonable to send back food [if there’s a hair]. It’s bound to happen in even the cleanest of kitchens, and probably wouldn’t ever cause harm to anyone, but can still be very off-putting.
People have the right to let the establishment know of such a problem, in case there are some cleanliness issues that need to be addressed. Something like glass, steel wool, a twist tie — I’d let the server know, because that can cause some damage. If I was the one who cooked that plate, I’d completely understand. Also, if you have an allergy that you’ve made clear, but the kitchen misses or forgets [about it], that’s completely acceptable [to send it back].
If the food is under- or overcooked, it depends. I’ll only send something back if it would pose a health risk, like undercooked chicken. Not “slightly-pink-near-the-bone-on-a-thigh” undercooked, but more like like, “ice-cold-center-of-a-breast” undercooked.”
For wine, bits of cork are the most obvious culprit, but there are other, less visible flaws that warrant sending back a glass or bottle. According to Ian Ferrier of Enoteca Nostrana, “there are some appropriate moments to send it back. The most obvious flaws are a corked bottle — infected by a bacteria called TCA; it’ll smell like moldy wet cardboard—or an oxidized bottle — the cork has failed and the wine has reacted with the oxygen outside. This is different from intentionally oxidized wines, such as sherry, Vin Jaune, etc.”
Personal preference is not a legitimate reason
Just because you don’t like something, doesn’t mean it’s bad, or even that it was made incorrectly. “Be an adult, and own your decisions,” explains Wood. Not everything is going to be made to your taste, and you’re bound to run into things on a menu that don’t agree with your palate.
“If one of my customers had a complaint of this nature, I’d most likely comply and give them a refund, or make the food again, just to be nice, but I would never do this as a customer. I can understand the rare situation where some major mistake happens in the kitchen, like they unknowingly dropped a bowl of salt in your soup, maybe then [I’d send it back].”
The same goes for wine and cocktails. According Ferrier, it’s “generally not acceptable to send wine back that you’ve asked about, and you agree is as described. Ask yourself: Do you actually dislike this wine? Did you sit with it and try to see what it has to offer? Did you try it with food? Some wine isn’t good by itself. Some wine is unfamiliar [at first], but you might grow to like it as it opens. If you’re ordering a bottle of wine, it’s a little rigid.
Restaurants understand [that] with a wine they open by the glass, there may be some loss and [they] price appropriately. If you don’t like a glass of wine, it’s OK to ask for something else. When they open a bottle it’s a little different, because the restaurant is expecting the sale to be much more like retail. You asked to have the wine. It’s yours. It’s sold.” But if the wine you’re drinking tastes nothing like the wine you ordered, you have a legit case to send it back.
“The other appropriate moment to send a bottle back is when it is significantly different from what the staff described it as — i.e., they said it was an oxidative Jura wine and it’s actually a fresh wine. If you just don’t like the wine, it doesn’t work that way. The restaurant might take it back to make you feel better, but you shouldn’t send it back.”
Use your words, and consider you may not know what you’re talking about
A little (polite) communication can go a long way. Take advantage of the staff’s expertise, and keep in mind that your expectations may be informed by your knowledge of the subject, and that that knowledge may be limited.
“If [the wine] isn’t flawed, you should consider whether you asked about the wine at all,” explains Ferrier. “Not all wines are the same. Chardonnay has many faces, you can make a light wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, and you can make a red wine from Pinot Gris grapes. If you talked with the staff about a wine by the glass and it isn’t how they described it, send it back. If you didn’t ask, maybe ask the staff to tell you more about it and enjoy broadening your horizons.”
You should be similarly thoughtful when sending back cocktails or food. First of all, be aware of your surroundings. If you’re shelling out serious dough for a fancy steak dinner, you deserve to have that steak cooked exactly how you like it, but sending back the steak portion of your Denny’s steak and eggs is a bit much. You can order a martini at a dive bar, but you do so at your own peril.
“Are you sure you’re in a bar where they actually care about what they’re serving? Not all bars do, and that’s totally fine; but don’t go ordering a Sidecar in a shot-and-beer bar and then get pissed because it’s not up to your standards,” explains Daniel Casto, bar manager of Double Dragon.
“Peel your eyes off your phone, look around, and order in a way that corresponds to your surroundings. If you’re in a place that acts like they care, then they’ll be happy to do whatever it takes to get you something you like.”
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“Provided you’ve used your context clues to tell you that you’re in a bar that really cares about the quality of the drinks, any bartender in that bar ought to be concerned with you enjoying what you’ve ordered,” explains Casto, “Did you have a firm grasp on the drink you were ordering when you ordered it, and if you were taking a chance, did you actively engage with the bartender to try and make sure you were making a good choice? Or did you say something like ‘Whatever’s good!’ or ‘Whatever your favourite drink is!’
These statements are totally meaningless, and any good bartender will try to give you a hand by asking you things like, ‘Do you want something shaken and refreshing, or stirred and boozy? or, ‘Are there any spirits or flavours you particularly like or dislike?’ If you didn’t want to answer the questions, and still want a different drink, then frankly you can order a beer.”
Also, keep in mind that cocktails are all about balance, and asking for omissions or substitutions can throw the whole drink off. “We get a lot of people asking for margaritas without any sweetener,” says Darren Polak, a bartender who also works at Double Dragon.
“That’s just tequila and lime juice, and it’s going to be gross.” Insisting on a special drink order, then turning around and sending it back is unacceptable, especially if you were cautioned against it.
But what should you actually say?
“Just be polite,” says Wood. “’Excuse me. I’m sorry, but I found a small piece of plastic wrap in my sandwich and I’m worried there might be more—pause, and the server will usually offer to fix the situation, but if not—would I be able to get a fresh one made?’”
“If it were me,” says Casto, “I’d start by simply asking to order a different drink while my full (unliked) drink was still in front of me. Any good bartender will notice that you’ve barely touched your first, ask what’s up, and offer to swap the drinks out. No, you cannot keep the first drink. No, you cannot give it to your friend. Yes, you still have to tip for the first drink, and should probably tip a little extra for the extra service.
Also, do not, at any point in this conversation, assert that your drink was made incorrectly. Not every drink is meant for every palate, and you as a customer have no idea whether the drink is ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ This even applies to drinks you have ordered in the past. Management changes and tweaks specs, ingredient availability changes and products need to be swapped.”
Your server is not the enemy. According to Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager of Clyde Common and Pepé le Moko, service professionals “want you to be happy with what you’ve ordered, and you deserve to love what you’re paying for.
But know that the experience has been tainted by many, many others who have abused the system. So, please, just work with us to help you get what you want and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll get you something else. We’re not here to try to pull a fast one or rip you off. I promise.”