Sending back food at a restaurant

“What’s the point of saying anything? We just won’t come back.”

I’ve eaten at restaurants a lot over the years, and I’ve also worked at a few. By restaurants I mean everything from fast food, takeout, and food trucks to sit-down dining. One mistake I often make is not letting the staff know when the meal disappoints me enough to make me not want to come back anytime soon. I know from working in restaurants how much they need this feedback, and yet I don’t deliver it. Which not only denies them the chance to improve, but me one more place to enjoy eating out.

Sending back food at a restaurant

Giving restaurants constructive feedback

Once upon a time, I went to a really good restaurant that serves a dish I love. I took my first bite, all set to savor that unique flavor, and it tasted like a particularly good TV dinner I get for about a quarter of the price of this meal. I politely told the waiter the kitchen had left something out of the sauce – it just didn’t have its usual flavor. He took it back, and I was right – the chef even told him to tell me that was a “good catch.” They added the missing ingredient back in, and I enjoyed my meal. If I hadn’t spoken up, that would have been a really disappointing experience – and I wouldn’t have come back, and they wouldn’t have known why.

You are absolutely entitled to a meal that’s made from decent ingredients, meets the description in the menu, and tastes good to you. I have even worked at restaurants that would replace your meal just because it unexpectedly didn’t suit your taste buds. Good restaurants want to hear when they’re doing something wrong. It’s how they improve. Those who don’t care enough to do something to fix the problem really should be avoided.

If you’re shy about speaking up, or if you’ve been told it’s rude to do so, here are some tips for sending back food in a constructive manner.

  • The person who brings you your food most likely did not cook it, so don’t treat them as if they’re to blame. Servers, who work for tips, are motivated to see that you’re happy and will advocate for you in the kitchen, especially if you’re polite and understanding (pleasing you is how they get good tips). Give them the benefit of the doubt. If they don’t take care of it, ask to speak to a manager.
  • Explain very clearly what’s wrong with the food and what you want done about it. Try to identify what’s missing, what’s not fresh, etc. They may offer to cook another meal for you, or cook a different meal at the same cost, or give you a freebie like dessert. Very few chain restaurants will offer to take the cost of the item off your bill (not sure about fast food – I’ve never tried it there) because somehow that looks bad to the corporate office, but some will “comp” the meal if you argue your case for it. Decide in advance what you think is fair and why, and be prepared to accept something else if they just won’t give you what you want.
  • Complain early! If you eat most of the meal to see if it ever gets better, your complaint won’t seem valid. There are actually people who do this scam routinely to get free food – they eat most of their meal, then insist it was inevitable and must be taken off the bill. If you do this twice in the same restaurant, expect to be asked not to return. Seriously. It’s the same as shoplifting, and they have a legal right to refuse service to you.
  • A server or manager may politely try to explain to you that you’re mistaken, and they may be correct. You may have misread the menu, or it may be that weird flavor you’re tasting is an unfamiliar ingredient rather than something that’s spoiled. Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong. They should still offer to fix something else for you at no charge, however, if you really find the meal inedible.
  • If the explanations they’re offering don’t add up, or you get the feeling they’re trying to silence your valid complaint, you should ask to speak to someone higher up. If there is no one higher up, ask for the number of their corporate office – this lets them know you’re serious and not buying their excuses.
  • If the staff person you’re dealing with doesn’t understand your language well enough to understand your complaint, please don’t insult them about it – it’s rude and it doesn’t help you get what you want. It was management’s choice to hire someone who wouldn’t be able to communicate well with the bulk of their customers – this person is just trying to make a living, like you. Just politely ask to speak to a manager.
  • Give good feedback when it’s warranted. Far more people will speak up when something disappoints them than when it pleases them. It’s actually very helpful if you let people know they’ve done a good job. And don’t just tell the waiter “You’re doing a great job” – tell the manager so they realize that person is valuable. It’s also helpful to let the manager know if a particular cook or chef is excelling.


A lovely thing about the internet is that it gives us a way to let a lot of people know in short order to avoid companies that don’t do right by us. Yelp is a fantastic place to post reviews – positive and negative – about the places you eat. Yelp does a very good job of screening out bogus compliments from owners and their pals, and also bogus complaints from competitors. What’s left is honest feedback from customers, and even though we won’t all agree on every point, at least it’s something to look at other than the restaurant’s marketing material. The internet has taken word-of-mouth chatter about companies to a whole new level.

The other great thing about Yelp is that any restaurant who cares about its customers will read their Yelp reviews. If you couldn’t bring yourself to tell a manager what went wrong at a restaurant meal, that manager may read your review on Yelp and learn from it. I’ve even seen them respond with apologies and/or special offers to entice you to give them another chance.


  1. tilly says

    The next article please: How to deal with the restaurant when they dismiss all your awesomely polite attempts.

    And a nice form letter would be great!!

    Thanks. I enjoy reading.

  2. SnappyLiving says

    LOL, I kinda figured if they dismissed everything, the last resort was to just “never come back.” Unfortunately.

  3. says

    This is excellent advice. I am one of those who feels bad to say anything and just will not come back. But you are right, asking politely can change it from a bad experience to a good (or at least decent) one.

  4. Gabbie says

    OK, last comment for a while, I promise. A few days ago, I had a customer complain that the fillings in her Turkish bread were cold. The bread itself was toasted, but the fillings were cold. (I opened it up myself; they were semi-frozen.) We made her a fresh one, comped her a drink… and it turned out that the display fridge we keep the Turkish breads in, which had just been fixed, had previously been running so inefficiently that the thermostat had been set to -30C just to operate at the coldness required of a fridge. Easy fixed, turn up the thermostat. I hate to think how many customers had just walked off annoyed over their frozen fillings before that lady, or how many might have done after her had she not said something.

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