Table Talk

How To Properly Return Food In A Restaurant

“How is everything?” the waiter asks you three bites into your over-cooked pork chop. You choose courtesy over honesty, muster a phony smile and continue eating. You’re disappointed in your meal and the staff thinks you’re happy.

Sending food back in a restaurant is considered gauche but it’s not nearly as obnoxious to waitstaff as people think.  Most servers are more irritated by passive-agressive guests who hide their dissatisfaction than those who are forthcoming about it.

Knowing how to properly send food back in a restaurant is a gentle tango. Here are some guidelines that will help make the transaction go more smoothly:

Avoid using language that lays blame on the kitchen or the server:

“Is this supposed to be burnt like this?”

“I wanted it Medium. This is totally raw.”

“I thought you said the sauce was going to be on the side?”

Avoid making broad statements or speaking in hyperbole:

“This is waaaaaay too salty!”

“This is so spicy it’s LITERALLY burning my mouth.”

“Would you eat this??”

Never suggest to the server that he try your food or that the chef taste it to confirm what you perceive to be wrong. We are professionals, you are not. Offering us your half-eaten food is a sure-fire way to send the negotiation into a tailspin.

Try to communicate to the server in simple language what is wrong and what you’d like instead.  Be as specific as possible. Ideally, phrase your concerns in question form.  Making statements can sound presumptuous and will likely be misinterpreted.  Don’t forget that the server is the only advocate for your needs in the kitchen, so it’s unwise to sour this relationship if you want results.

Here are a few examples of more productive ways of returning food:

“I’m sorry but this dish isn’t what I expected.   Would it be possible to order something else?”

“Do you think they could cook this a little longer?  The middle is too rare for me.”

“Would it take long to make another salad? I’m sorry… this one has too much dressing for my taste.” 

No one who works in a restaurant ever wants you to be disappointed with your food.  It makes our lives much easier when you’re satisfied.  As servers, though, we have no control over the quality of what comes out of the kitchen.  Miscommunications will sometimes result in your food coming out incorrectly, but don’t make assumptions.  If something is wrong with your food, the staff can’t correct it unless you speak up.  It’s inconvenient, we know, but at the end of the day it’s just food and it’s not the end of the world if something is wrong with it.

Table Talk

First Impressions

The first interaction with your server can set the tone for the entire experience. Many servers can develop prejudices about you based on your behavior at the outset that will portend negative consequences for service throughout your meal. Try to set a collaborative tone—a friendly vibe requires minimal effort and will pay you back in spades with more attentive service.

Here is an example of a common interaction at the beginning of the meal that can be problematic and how best to fix it:

Server: “Good evening. May I start you with a cocktail from the bar or do you have any questions about the wine list?”

Guest: “We haven’t really had a chance to look.”

Though it may be delivered with the most innocent intentions, “We haven’t even looked” translates to your waiter as “We’re on our own schedule, so don’t waste your time.” Even if you consciously intend to delay the proceedings, dismissing your server in this way could unintentionally send the message that you devalue his services or cast him as the enemy of your good time. Establishing an adversarial relationship will likely lead the server to disengage from your table even more. If the server feels like he is wasting his time because you repeatedly brush him off, he will act accordingly. If someone made you feel unwanted, would you keep trying to please them? Don’t make the mistake of sending out the message to the server that the best way to please you is by leaving you alone. At some critical point, you will need something and it will be too late.

Try one of these approaches instead–they should still communicate unpreparedness but with more optimism that you will cooperate soon:

Server: “Good evening. May I start you with a cocktail from the bar or do you have any questions about the wine list?”

Guest: “I think we’ll probably need your help. But would you mind giving us a few minutes to look over the menus?”


Guest: “This drink list looks great. I think we’re going to need more time to study it. We should be ready soon.”

You don’t need to patronize your server, but taking a more cooperative tone helps establish solidarity. Be yourself, but make them feel like you’re in it together. A little extra sensitivity will go a long way toward improving your first impression. Remember: your server carries a lot of baggage from coping with unruly guests every night and you carry a lot of baggage to the table from dealing with incompetent waiters all the time. But can’t we all just get along?