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When eating out, a lot can go wrong:

  • Sometimes you order food and there's this thing you really don't like, and you order a dish without it and it's still there.
  • Or that thing you really don't like wasn't on the menu, to begin with, so you didn't ask staff to leave it out.
  • Or the food is under- or overdone.
  • Or you find a hair on your plate, a fly in your soup, an onion peel on your pizza, etcetera.

In such cases, I'd like to let people know that I'm not happy with the food, and send my plate back to the kitchen for them to fix. What is the proper etiquette for sending food back to the kitchen when dining in a restaurant?

  • 2
    Aren't people in the NL just understand a direct message about the issue? – Eugen Martynov May 3 at 8:49
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    @EugenMartynov Perhaps. I'm wondering what the correct etiquette is, so whether such a direct message would be considered 'proper' or not ;-) – Tinkeringbell May 3 at 8:52
  • What have you tried in the past? Is there a reason you think simply explaining what is wrong wouldn't work? – DaveG May 4 at 18:47
  • @DaveG I must admit that I never have had to try and do this, but the subject came up with my friends when some other restaurant guest threw a tantrum at the end of dinner, demanding an item be taken off of the bill because there was something wrong with it (after eating it all). We all agreed that was wrong, but none of us knew the exact etiquette for doing it right and I thought it would make a nice question for IPS :) – Tinkeringbell May 5 at 7:55
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Disclaimer: I live in the United States and am not overly familiar with Dutch culture, but my research into this topic did not yield any reason to believe that the etiquette is different in The Netherlands than it is in the US.

How to send it back

In a recent survey, restaurant staff including chefs and waiters said that the best way to send food back is

  • Be Honest If you changed your mind or decided to try a dish you knew you might not like, be up-front with your server about that. Don’t say, “This dish is no good.” Say, “I think I ordered the wrong thing.”
  • Be Specific Why exactly didn’t you like it? Was it poorly executed? A line like, “I don’t like this because it’s too acidic and spicy,” may help the restaurant describe the dish better in the future.
  • Be Confident No one wants to make a guest unhappy (even if said guest should have noticed the menu called out the fish sauce in the salad). Send it back without apology—and then tip well.
  • Be Mindful If you send back more than one dish, maybe the problem is you.

I've seen two general classes of people sending back food. The first class are the people experiencing situations similar to the ones you have mentioned. In these situations, the restaurant has done something incorrectly (didn't prepare the meal to your order, unsanitary conditions, etc...). It's been my experience that restaurant staff are more than happy to correct mistakes they have made. The other class of people are those who tend to complain a lot. They will send back food for any number of reasons that are out of the restaurant's control (it was too hot when they got it, they tried it and didn't like it, they didn't order it the way they wanted, etc...). From what I've witnessed, the restaurant staff will still take the food back, but they often will do so reluctantly (rolling their eyes, making comments under their breaths, etc...).

The most important steps

Based on my experiences, the most important one of the steps from the survey is for you to be specific about why you are sending the food back so that it is clear that your issue is one of the first kind. The second most important is to be mindful. I would go a step further than the survey results and say that you shouldn't just be mindful of how many dishes you send back, but more importantly be mindful of how you treat the waiter when you send the dish back. I've seen several people be curt or even downright rude to the waiter when they sent the food back, which is not a good thing. It's important to keep in mind that the waiter is likely not at fault for whatever went wrong, but even if they are, it's not an excuse to be rude.

As one final note, I typically give a larger than normal tip if something goes wrong with my meal to accommodate for the added hassle that is placed on the waiter.

Note: Tipping etiquette varies by country. In some countries it is expected that restaurant patrons tip and in other countries tipping is seen as an insult. You should take this into consideration when applying this answer to situations in other countries than the ones specified in the post.

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I'm Dutch, and I've frequently eaten at restaurants with a highly allergic person, so maybe I can provide some of my experience.

In nearly all cases calling over a waiter and plainly explaining the issue with the food (in this case containing an allergen) is met with an apologetic reaction from the waiter and suggestions on how to solve the situation, be that taking the dish back, preparing something new, etc. This is especially so in the case that the dish was specifically requested without the allergen.

Being accomodating in this way to a reasonable issue with a dish is simply a question of good service. In this case I would say it's also appropriate to leave a slightly higher tip than you would usually do.

Some restaurants do try to bill you afterwards for the dish, which you should be mindful of. In the case that it was not the customer's fault, that is not okay.

There has only been 1 case where the waiter/restaurant refused to take the dish back after it turned out it contained an allergen which was not listed on the menu. The waiter became quite accusative and argumentative, even returning to the table later (unsolicited) to argue his point. Needless to say this was extremely bad service, but this turned out to be quite a bad restaurant anyway so I suspect they were already losing money. Hence the reaction. But as I've said this has only ever happened once.

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In the United States, when I or a dinner partner have had to send something back, we've just called over the waiter and directly explained the problem. For example if the food isn't warm or meat underdone asking them to cook it or microwave it a bit. I've never had the waiter get angry, although in one case we didn't get satisfaction (we stopped using that restaurant).

I dont know if this would apply to Netherlands but I can't imagine any other way to indicate the problem other than calmly telling the waiter.

It is useful to think of a restaurant meal like any other purchase. If you bought clothing or electronics that was defective, you would tell the vendor and get a replacement. The same is true with a meal you purchased.

In the comments, the OP mentioned that this question originated because she saw a restaurant patron eat a meal and then say that there was a problem and demand the item be removed from the bill. That's clearly a violation of protocol. If there's a problem with the food, immediately inform the waiter. Waiting until after the meal smells like trying to get a free meal.

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I can't speak for the correct etiquette in the Netherlands, but I can offer some general advice:

Eating at a restaurant is like entering into an unwritten or implied contract between you and the owners. The terms of this contract are that you receive food which you find both acceptable (in terms of cleanliness and presentation) and palatable (in terms of taste). In return, you give the owners the amount of money they specify on the bill.

If the restaurant fails to live up to their end of the contract, by providing food that does not meet your criteria, you are within your rights to demand a replacement. The restaurant is not obligated to do so (they can ask you to leave) but they generally won't ask you to pay for uneaten food. In most cases they won't even try, because restaurants rely on word-of-mouth, and if they get a reputation for serving bad food, it can cost them a lot more in the long run.

When sending food back, recognize your rights, and be polite but firm. There is no need to act guilty, or to make the restaurant staff feel guilty. Keep it simple, as in this advice from a restaurant owner:

When the server comes to the table, simply say it flat out: 'I ordered my eggs over-easy, but these eggs are over-hard,' or 'I ordered my steak medium-rare, but it's well done,'" he says. If you do this, "the server's response should be a genuine apology and an assurance that he or she will rectify this immediately and alert the kitchen manager of the mistake."

If your dish came with a really big blunder — an allergen made it onto your plate, or you found a foreign object, such as a hair or a nail in your food — you should take it a step further and complain, says Simpson. "Ask to speak to the manager," he advises. Then, you should "explain [what happened] and that you wanted to bring it to his or her attention.

What if the meal simply does not taste good? Hopefully, this will never happen, but if it does, again, be clear and firmly state that you do not want the food.

I can only recall one time I had to send something back, a dish of clams that tasted were so bitter and odd that I couldn't even eat them. I don't think they were spoiled, but I do think they were improperly cooked. I told the waiter:

I'm sorry, I don't mean to complain but this is not very good. Could I exchange it for something else?

The waiter apologized profusely and suggested some alternatives. The restaurant replaced my meal without any fuss, and ended up not charging me for either dish, as a way of apologizing for their error.

Side note: In places where tipping is the custom (such as in the US), even if the restaurant does not charge you for a meal, or gives you a discount, it is appropriate to calculate the tip based on what would have been the full price.

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