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The meal is on the house

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I've never asked not to pay for my lunch in any restaurant. And yet two restaurants the same evening refused to let me pay for my meal while on vacation. How did this happen?

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.



  • #1
  • Comment by Javier
As a supplier of restaurants I could not agree more. My friends who are restaurateurs and chefs absolutely want to know if their food or service fails to meet expectations. And, they would not only pay for your meal that evening, but in most cases would invite you to return at their expense to have a more pleasing dining experience at their restaurant. Please let the management know if they did not serve you well, but do it in a polite, specific way so that the restaurant can improve what they are doing for all of their customers.
  • #2
  • Comment by Zhu Zhu
Thank you. The post and the comment are both interesting. I didn't know that. How would you do it if you are a poor college student? There have been quite a few times that I found either the service or the food lacking. Being a poor student, I find myself incapable of throwing away food unless it's totally burnt or moldy. I found your site via StumbleUpon.
  • #3
  • Answered by fx
Zhu Zhu, this was not a technique to get a free dinner but a legitimate complaint for a real problem with the restaurant. Sure, you could carry a box of dead flies and place one in your soup and ask for a refund, but that would be a dishonest and utterly immoral way of scamming the restaurant owner out of regular income. It's a hard industry to make a buck in and I really don't think it would be fair to ask for a free lunch when the restaurant delivered on its promises.
  • #4
  • Comment by Geoff Ball
Well with those two cases it shows you that they had at least one person who cared in that restaurant.

I can remember this one evening some friends and I stopping in at a local restaurant and just wanting to have a desert and a coffee. I ordered a piece of chocolate cake.

Well the food took forever.

When I tasted it, onion.
Strong old onion.
In fact there was even a bit of onion on it.
(Who ever had cut the cake had used a dirty knife that had been used to prep onions).  

I showed it eventually to the waiter and he offered 10% off my dessert.  I paid, I left, and never went back.
I never understood the 10%.

I agree with you that I'd rather have a good meal then a poor free meal.
  • FX's answer→ Sometimes I experience extreme, kitchen-nighmarish service in a restaurant and I just look around the room if there is anything worth buying at the forced sale that will happen within a couple months. Many times, the place does indeed go bankrupt within the year.

  • #6
  • Comment by Sganarelle
Hi Franšois,
I just read over Zhu Zhu's post and your response, but I think you've misunderstood him.
I don't think he meant to suggest that you were looking for opportunities to get free stuff by complaining about the food or service.
Simply, younger and poorer looking clients are often not taken seriously by restaurant staff, even though the sophistication of their palette may be out of proportion with the thickness of their wallet. The moment you look too young, too poor, you take the cheapest "menu" or decide not to order any drinks, you often lose all credibility. In such situations, you'll generally eat everything they offer unless, as Zhu Zhu says, it's outright moldy... not eating anything would just amount to feeling even more ripped off.
When I was doing my masters in France, I once went to a restaurant in Rouen which took itself quite seriously, but in which all the dishes were served with these little cubes of boiled vegetables, exactly like you would get out of a frozen package of Green Giant. The wait staff had a bit of a mocking attitude throughout the meal, and at the end, seeing that my wife and I weren't terribly thrilled with the whole experience, they made a provocative remark, inviting us to explain what it was we hadn't liked. When we told them that, aside from their "air moqueur", we couldn't understand why the chef would serve vegetables so easily mistaken for frozen Green Giant, we were virtually laughed out of the restaurant. They replied in such a fashion as to make it clear that it was we who had no discernment, and not they who had neither creativity nor scruples.
I'm certain that if we had "looked the part" we would have been treated more hospitably and, had we still made the remark about the vegetables, been told that they would let the chef know, even if it was a lie. But because we didn't look the part, they felt authorised to openly humiliate us. I think Zhu Zhu is referring to this sort of experience. I think his question is in fact, "if you're clearly young and not overly wealthy, how can you get restaurant staff to take you seriously?".
So, in light of that, any thoughts?
Looking forward to seeing your latest videos. Best wishes,

  • FX's answer→ Yes indeed, some people have a hard time accepting the idea that the clients of their "luxury" restaurant might be of the same age as they are. If you are old and gray they will be obsequious, but if you are not they'll treat you like shit. Same thing with some of the low minds who sometimes work in five star hotels.

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