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Monday, May 20, 2013

Diner’s Rights

From the Vault Dept.: This piece goes back 17 years but, like so much well-considered wisdom, really hasn’t dated. It’s from Metroland.


HERE’S AN AWFUL TALE: a friend recently visited an area restaurant for a sushi dinner, and noticed a cockroach ambling across the wall. Then another. Then a couple more. She complained to a server, who offered no solution; the manager eventually took ten percent off the bill. And he saw one of the bugs she was complaining about. Was she owed more than a slight discount?

There’s a huge gray area defining your rights in a restaurant. Obviously, you’re paying for more than just food. Because the experience still rankled my friend, I recommended that she call the county health department – it’s in the blue pages of the phone book, and (if it’s a big county) you should dial the environmental health division. If it’s a small county, a state district office will manage the inspections. Your complaint will be investigated.

Any restaurant owes you a clean dining facility. From my own back-of-the-house experience, I know the effort it takes to keep your kitchen and storage facilities clean and bug-free, and as a diner I keep a one bug limit. A single roach I report to the management. More than that, and I’m out of there. But I’m being generous. According to the Albany County Health Department, you shouldn’t see even one roach.

Ten percent discount? Forget it. I wouldn’t pay a dime for food in a buggy place. Wise restaurateurs will nod agreement. Customer goodwill is an elusive commodity, and bugs don’t buy it. But there are too many in the business simply to try to coin money, to whom a patron is a hungry mouth and a credit card. Given the range of eateries, how do you know when you’re getting your money’s worth? What are you owed as a diner?

Obviously, there are such variables as how long it takes to be seated, how long before your order is taken and when your food finally arrives. Our microwave mentality has created a nation of impatient eaters, so a good restaurant may deserve more slack than an antsy customer is cutting.

When Zero Mostel believed he was being ignored in a restaurant, he selected a slice of bread from the basket and buttered it. Up to his elbow. There are less drastic means of signaling attention. I’ve left the table, gone to the entryway, and asked to start over again. I’ve also simply left, and warned those waiting at the door of the danger within.

There’s no excuse for rude service, one of the unhappy truths of working the floor. But always start with a friendly approach to a grumpy server. Simply murmuring, “Having a bad day?” has made me new friends. If the morale of the floor staff is really bad, though, then management has to answer for it. I’m always wary of cute recitations that go beyond the “Hi, my name is Tiffany” realm. Management probably regards such staff as mindless robots.

You’re essentially renting space for a couple of hours, so the space should be nice. Bug free, of course, but with a cheery ambiance, too. If the wall is spattered with egg yolk (I saw this once), tip off the boss as you leave. Quickly.

You’re also renting an intangible, which is the sense of security a good restaurant provides. You should feel that everything is under control. If servers are sprinting by, if the maître d’ is unusually bellicose, if fire trucks are pulling up outside, you feel uncomfortable. You’re entitled to a healthy, peaceful surrounding, so it should be appropriately free of smoke, noisy children and drunken revelers. Don’t suffer silently. Let the management know how you feel. If you let them get away with it, they’ll do it again.

The foregoing stresses good communication between you and the restaurant. Make sure you hold up that part of the bargain. It’s easy to get pissed off, steam quietly through dinner, and stiff your server on the way out, as you vow never to return. But what has that accomplished? Given the chance, good management will try to make it up to you.

And a word about tipping. Yes, you can punish your server by tipping less than the customary 15 or 20 percent. It’s not fair to do so, however, without explaining your reason. And you’d better be sure your server is at fault, because that’s who you’re hurting. There’s a much lower minimum wage scale in effect at restaurants and a mandatory tax declaration formula that floor staff has to follow.

Finally, you’re entitled to good food. If what’s served doesn’t live up to your expectations, say so. Give the chef a chance to correct it. And don’t forget to praise a really good dish. Ideally, you’re learning something every time you sample an unfamiliar dish, and good restaurants are proud of their ability to expand a customer’s horizons. Make sure it’s a two-way street.

Metroland Magazine, 16 May 1996

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