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When is it Acceptable to Send Food Back in Restaurants?

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by Michaelie Clark (subscribe)
Pun-loving freelance writer based in Victoria.
Published April 7th 2012
When it comes to dining out, many of us are consumed by etiquette. Some people find themselves impeded by the childhood rule of eating what they're given (or they won't get dessert), some are willing to take up the food fight if they haven't received what they ordered, while others are quite prepared to send their waiter to and fro until their plate meets the fickle whims of their palate. When do you think it's acceptable to send food back to the kitchen in a restaurant? Consider the scenarios below and let us know.

Etiquette of Sending Food Back in Restaurants
Image credit: Andreas Praefcke


"Waiter, there's an alphabet in my soup!"
Finding a foreign object in your dinner is usually unpleasant. We say 'usually' because although there's the possibility of discovering a two-carat diamond in your risotto or black truffles in your standard scrambled eggs, it's more common to fork up a rubber band, an unidentifiable piece of plastic, or a human hair.

A real-life story:
Customer: There's a hair in my tagliatelle. Can I please send this back?
Waitperson: (Peers at tagliatelle). Oh, no, that's just some string from the basil.
Customer: So can I get one without string?
Waitperson: Certainly.

Would you just eat around the offending object? Would you be more likely to put up with the offending object if you knew it to be string rather than hair? Would you send it back? Or would you leave and go somewhere else?

"My mutton is dressed as lamb."
It all sounds so great on the menu, and then it arrives and you find that the fresh prawns are rubbery little shrimp, the seared tuna has been charcoaled or that the 'tropical side salad' is in actual fact a piece of wilted lettuce and a ring of tinned pineapple. Do you put it down to a lesson learned and make the most of it, or do you send it on back? You're unlikely to find this kind of fare coming with a high price tag, but does that change the principle?

"My salmon is dressed as bacon."
What happens if you order one thing and get something completely different? Sometimes, it can be an error in delivery. Sometimes it can be something more annoying.

Another real-life story:
Customer: I'll have the salmon stack with hollandaise.
Waitperson: (Serves dish).
Customer: This salmon appears to be… bacon.
Waitperson: Oh yeah, we ran out of salmon. Is bacon OK?

Obviously, it is not. Or is it? What if you receive something you are quite happy with, but which is different from what you ordered? Would you bother to let the waitperson know? What if you distinctly order steak cooked in a particular way and have your request ignored? Or if you ask for no lemon and still get it?

"I'll have what she's having."
This is where things get a little bit trickier. If you receive your order perfectly prepared, with nary a thing out of place, but find yourself overtaken by sudden food envy for what your dining partner has ordered, would you expect the restaurant to change your meal, at their loss, just to please you? What if your meal arrives exactly as it should, but you decide, after sampling, that you just don't like it? Would you likewise return it for something else and anticipate only the second meal appearing on the bill?

A lot of people would find this last scenario to be unreasonable. Indeed, if you were at the local pub, you'd probably have two chances of getting your new-dish wish (the chances being Buckley's, and none). But what if you're at an expensive fine-dining establishment? There are quite a few that will gladly take a one-off loss in order to retain a certain standard of excellence, and to ensure their patrons are entirely happy with their experience. While some waiters may ask if everything is to your liking purely for the sake of it, others are trained to act upon it if you're unhappy with the meal, no matter the reason. After all, you'll definitely go back and spend a mint again if you know the staff at the restaurant will go to great lengths to please you.

When do you think it's acceptable to send food back in restaurants? Would you rather put up with something you don't like than complain to the staff? Does the quality of the restaurant affect your expectations? Leave a comment with your food for thought.
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When the food is unpalatable or not what was ordered. eg. I returned a prawn/pasta dish once which must have had salt spilt all over it in the kitchen and on another occasion, oysters (in Gladstone, known for it's fresh seafood) which had obviously been frozen!
by carme (score: 0|4) 1877 days ago
Easy! When you don't get what you want, the way you want, when you want!
by paulg (score: 0|8) 1807 days ago
Never ever send your food back to the Kitchen. I won't make you sick by telling you what some chef's will do to your food. Best response is don't eat unsatisfactory food and refuse to pay.
by ian.m (score: 0|4) 1871 days ago
Unfortunately the restaurants have you over a barrel because you can't see what they do to the food when you send it back. If I do complain and I am suspicious about the result, I head to websites such as Urbanspoon to review the restaurant. I once left half my meal on the plate at a pub because it was tasteless, and the chef came out to see what was wrong with it. He offered to give me anything else on the menu to replace it. Needless to say we continued to return to that pub for years. The good ones will be around for a long time. The bad ones go out of business.
by suzys (score: 0|7) 1875 days ago
When I go out for brunch, I always emphasise to the waiter that I like my eggs runny to the point of raw as I hate the taste of eggs when they are fully cooked. They always nod & tell me they will be runny. I can't tell you how many times they have come out in an "un-runny" state. I have usually eaten them anyway but not enjoyed a meal I was paying for, however I sent my last plate back after specifically saying I wanted runny & receiving near hard eggs. My return order came out exactly as I had originally asked because they paid more attention to my actual order after I had sent it back. I will always be doing this from now on as the waiter has told me they will be cooked to my liking so I should be able to expect to get what I asked for and enjoy the meal I am paying for.
by karen109 (score: 1|11) 1875 days ago
If the food does not meet standards it should always be returned, I recently went to a Ferny Hills Thai restaurant only to be told by the waiter he hopes he does not forget us as we were in a quieter part of the establishment, I said well... don't forget us.... he of course forgot us, in addition this waiter spent most of the night chatting to a female patron with his back turned to her male partner... I could have sworn I was in an episode of Faulty Towers, the food was good but the rest of the experience was appalling with the exception of the beautiful girls company I was in.
by vauxhall2360 (score: 0|6) 1877 days ago
I recently ate at an award winning restaurant on the Mornington Peninsula (Port Phillip Estate) The building was awesome but my steak, which I ordered rare came very well done. The waiter obviously knew it to be wrong as she disappeared until the meal was over - never checking if everything was acceptable. I waited until my companion was mostly finished with his meal but did in the end eat the item as I didn't want to make my partner wait or to make a scene. We won't be returning as it was pretty poor service as well as the food being overpriced and very average. Luckily the views of the vineyard and building made up for the food and service.
by debra55 (score: 0|2) 1876 days ago
I ordered a chicken soup in a restaurant in the Dandenongs. It came out with "pink" meat in it, when I checked with the waitress if this was pig, she said "it's chicken soup, why would it be pig", I then asked her to check with the chef, as I'm highly allergic to pig and there was not pig mentioned in it on the menu. Sure enough, they used bacon to flavour it, when I asked her if I could change it, she refused and said that was what I had ordered, I ended up asking for her superior, as I would not have ordered it if it had been mentioned on the menu, they eventually changed it. Another restaurant in Castlemaine brought me the wrong meal (incorrectly written down by the waitress). When it came out, I mentioned that it was wrong, as it had ham in it and I'm allergic to pig, she refused to acknowledge she had written down the wrong item, so it sat in front of me untouched, as I couldn't get anyone elses attention. As everyone else had finished their meal and we were about to leave, the manager came by and noticed my meal was untouched, when asked why and I told her, she apologised and offered me another meal, I mentioned that everyone else had finished, so we had to leave as we had tickets to a show, she apologised again, but would not delete the item from our bill! Will never eat there again.
by jan.d (score: 2|104) 1874 days ago
Though I have had quite a few bad experiences, I have always just paid and never said anything. I once took my family to a restaurant where the food (which had already been paid for) was so bad it was dangerous. Home made burger and bun was soaked in blood! All the meals were part frozen/raw. Waited until no one was looking and left the restaurant before all the food was even served. Did not complain, but added venue to my list of places to avoid for the rest of my life.
by sincl (score: 0|3) 1873 days ago
I think this is a really ridiculous topic, considering the worlds food shortages and the energy and resources that go into your dish are made in vain once you turn your nose up at it. The real question is how to reduce the problem in the first place, not to encourage even more picky eaters.
by madel8 (score: 0|2) 1876 days ago
I would certainly sent back if there is something in the food that shouldn't be and correct or if it hasn't been cooked properly.
I have also been in situations where I have complained and the owner has refused to change my order to a fresh one and still expected that I pay for the spoiled and sent back order, needless to say I haven't been back since and I refused to pay.
I have to say there has to be a reasonable excuse to sent it back, otherwise specially in this economic climate, if everyone found an excuse we'll all be bankrupt! Fair is fair, if you're given something nice and out of a whim you change your mind it isn't the restaurants' fault buy another meal. In any other case if we say nothing how is management supposed to know how to improve or if they need to change something or someone?
by medi_ (score: 1|34) 1517 days ago

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