“The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.” –George Costanza, “The Marine Biologist” Seinfeld, Season 5 Episode 14, February, 1994
President Donald Trump’s visit to Louisville last week got me thinking about how to properly, politely and successfully send a dish back in a restaurant with minimal disruption to your or your companions’ meals. (“Send It Back! Send It Back!”)
It can be tricky. A lot depends on what, exactly, is wrong with your food, whether it’s a side dish or a main protein, and whether or not you’re sharing it with others. No matter what the situation, it’s best to attempt the return just as quickly as possible.
Most professional servers perform what’s known as a “check back” after the food is delivered to a table. You know: “How is everything?” Bad servers check back too quickly, before you’ve had a chance to taste everything. Really bad ones never check back. In any case, there’s no shame in flagging down your server if there’s an issue. Do make an attempt to look for the person who took your order before resorting to another staff member, but go ahead and beckon someone else fairly quickly if your server is MIA.
If you’ve been served something you didn’t order at all: this should be an easy fix. In restaurant kitchens, this quick correction is called “on the fly”. If the server rang your order in correctly, but the kitchen prepared the wrong thing, the server will walk run to the kitchen and tell the cooks they need the proper dish “on the fly!” while muttering to themselves about how impossibly daft the cooks are. On the other hand, if the server rang your order in wrong, they’ll likely key in the new dish from the dining room, typing on the fly to appear in red on the cooks’ copy of the ticket, but will stay clear of the kitchen while it’s being prepared, so as not to have to listen to the cooks muttering to themselves about how impossibly daft servers are.
In many restaurants, you’ll get to keep the incorrect dish to enjoy while you’re waiting. In others, they’ll whisk it away and feed it to the staff in the kitchen, who will fall on it like a pack of hungry coyotes. In either case, it shouldn’t appear on your bill at the end of the meal.
If you’ve been served something that’s not warm enough (i.e., tepid soup) or too warm (a salad someone mistakenly parked under a heat lamp), let the server know. A warm, wilted salad will have to be rebuilt from scratch, so it may be a few minutes. A lukewarm soup will, alas, probably be reheated quickly in a microwave, unless you’re eating in a restaurant too fancy to use one. In the case of a microwave re-warming, let’s hope they have the decency to decant the re-heated soup into a new bowl so you don’t burn your hands. You shouldn’t expect a re-plated or warmed-up dish to be removed from your check.
If your meal or part of your meal was incorrectly prepared, give the server a chance to get it corrected and invite your companions to continue their meal while you wait. If an item’s overdone (or burnt!) the kitchen will have to start over; if it’s underdone, they may put it back on the range or back on the grill. This can happen in any restaurant, so please be patient for a reasonable amount of time (say, 7-10 minutes) as long as there aren’t other egregious errors happening with your dining experience. Again, you shouldn’t expect this item to be free (although you may be offered a free dessert or beverage as a thanks for your patience).
If you simply don’t like the taste of what you ordered, that’s mostly on you, as long as the menu or server description was basically accurate. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask for a replacement, just that you should expect to pay for both dishes.
Finally, please don’t eat half of something before you let the server know you need a replacement. It looks like I’ve eaten half of a presidential term I didn’t order, and I wish I knew how to send it back – but I think Nancy Pelosi’s out back having a cig.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.