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If you are not satisfied by what you eat in a restaurant, the easy thing to do is to shut up and never come back. That's what I do most of the times. But the decent thing to do, however hard, is to let the restaurateur know of the problem. You need to be nice, fair and precise, but also very firm.
One night I was in Arles in the South of France, and went to a small place known for its a´oli, a regional specialty of boiled vegetables and fish served with a garlic mayonnaise. The place was simple and I expected a simple execution of this classic dish. The dish looked appealing enough but the fish was a real rubber sponge. I called the elderly waitress, a lovely local lady, and asked kindly if I could pay. She looked at the almost untouched dish and asked 'Was there any problem with the food?'. I replied that 'Well, it didn't suit us very well, but that's all right, we'll pay and go, don't worry.' The lady looked at the dish and asked again 'But what was the problem, pray tell?'. She wanted to know, she deserved to know. 'Well, you could chew the fish for half an hour and spit it out exactly as it came in, the vegetables taste like if they have been boiled in dishwashing water for 3 days, the aioli was made yesterday and revived with additional oil, and the wine tastes like a mixture of vinegar, sugar and water. I am really sorry.'. She gave the dish a sad look, grumbled something about the regular cook being sick today and came back with a check for 5 Euros for the drinks. I insisted on paying for the meal but she wouldn't have it.Later the same evening, we decided to go for a higher class restaurant and moved back to our hotel, whose restaurant had the highest Gault Millau rating in the city. We were not in luck that evening. Where the service was nice but the food terrible in the other place, now we had the opposite situation. There was only 4 other people at a table so they took us in. There were 3 waiters working the room with only 6 guests. It took them 12 minutes to bring the menu, a further 24 minutes to bring the drinks and a good 36 minutes for the first course to come. I know this because I had taken a call just before entering the restaurant and the log told me the exact time of our arrival. Perhaps it sounds a bit too strict but when you are looking at an empty restaurant with 3 waiters and have nothing to do, you look at your cellphone and cannot help wondering how long it's been since you ordered the drinks.
When I kindly asked if they could bring the drinks the waiter would grin 'Yes, yes', then when he thought he was safely behind a column he made faces to his colleague, pointing at us. The column was not as thick as he expected I guess because we saw him as clear as day. Not wanting to cause wave a second time the same evening, we ate, paid and left.
The next day as we were checking out, the hotel owner came to greet us. 'Did you enjoy your meal at the restaurant yesterday?' he asked. I guess he must have been worried by the numbers since the place was apparently not overly popular. 'Well, actually not really. The food was all right but the service was even more rude than in Paris.' I answered, explaining the time we waited, numbers of guests and staff present and their attitude. He did not have much problem figuring out what had gone wrong. 'They are not in this morning, but believe me, they'll get the trashing of their life when they arrive. Please allow me to deduct the price of the meal from your hotel bill.'
This is how, without asking nor even wanting it, I was offered dinner twice the same evening in a foreign town.
I would much rather have had a good meal and pay for it than being offered a horrible pittance free of charge. But these things happen. Bad service, bad food, chef on leave. Some people have a neurotic, exagerated sense of self-importance and will nitpick and make a row over just everything in every shop or restaurant. They are always on the prowl for opportunities to complain. You don't want to be like them. But when there is a real problem with the food you are served, by telling the man in charge you will do yourself and him a favor. At best he will replace the dish or not charge for it. At worst you won't be coming back, but that's what you would be doing anyway if you had chosen not to say anything.
A sensible restaurateur understands that if there is a service or kitchen problem in his restaurant, most clients will not come back and not say anything. The client who tells him about the problem helps him save the patronage of dozens of his 'silent' clients.