An angry exchange between a diner and a waiter. Cartoon-style image created with the assistance of DALL-E-2.

What could possibly go wrong? Oops!

By Robin Garr

One cold day last winter, I joined a group of friends at a popular local breakfast spot. I pulled up a chair, said down, reached for a menu, and … oops! hey now, what’s this? I’m stuck to the chair!

Sure enough, I was literally glued in place. It took an actual effort to pull up and break loose from my mooringswith an audible pop. On closer inspection, the problem became clear: A previous occupant had left a small pool of pancake syrup pooled on the seat.

Silly me for failing to look before I sat down, but still: GRRR!

I took it on myself to pull the chair over to a corner. I draped a napkin over the pool and informed a server. She nodded, showed no particular interest, and didn’t offer to have the cleaning bill for my khakis deducted from my tab.

Lesson learned: Look carefully at the chair before you sit down. But it wasn’t really the sticky chair that torqued my cheeks. It was the server’s ho-hum reaction. Let’s be honest: Amid all our pleasure in delicious restaurant meals, memorable dining settings and perfect service, we have to face reality: Not every dining-out experience sparks joy.

A couple of months ago, in an article about the little annoyances that get in the way of the full enjoyment of your restaurant meal, I promised to circle back with some thoughts and stories about restaurant issues that get more serious.

“I could devote a full column to food-related annoyances,” I wrote. That prompted quite a few of you to get in touch with stories about experiences that went well beyond mere annoyances and actually made you question whether it would be wise to return to that eatery ever again. Wooee! If some of those restaurant walls could talk!

Let’s share a few of the best stories – and by “best,” I mean “most horrifying” – today. A couple of caveats: I’ll omit the names of the restaurants involved, recognizing that even the best places can have an occasional really bad day. And I won’t name my friends who told the stories, freeing them to bring full candor to the table.

It don’t get no worse than this …

Years ago, a friend went to a local restaurant with a business associate. “We ordered the same appetizer. I go home and have a nice relaxing weekend. Then Sunday night happened. Abdominal pain. The next day pain and swelling of my abdomen. By Saturday morning the pain was so strong I took a ambulance ride to my first emergency room visit. I spent six weeks in the hospital, was unable to eat for two months and lost over 60 pounds.. My fellow diner and I were infected with two microbes. My gut never fully recovered.”

My response: Food poisoning is one of the worst things that can happen in a restaurant setting. And in my friend’s case the source appeared obvious. But food poisoning is actually very rare, and it’s usually impossible to prove a direct, actionable connection between your restaurant dish and your indigestion. Should you seek legal relief if you believe you were poisoned? That’s up to you, but chances. are you’ll have a lot of pain and little gain.

Nobody goes there any more because …

Another friend told of a long-ago visit to what had been a favorite restaurant.
“Late afternoon and they were not busy. We ordered our regular meals.
My starter came out with mold on some of it. I asked for it fixed. The next also had mold. Our entrees came out. Raw and cold in the center. We sent it back, and the following three times, it came out the same way. We left and haven’t returned in fifteen years but did nostalgically mention giving it another shot recently.”

I fully understand my friends’ reluctance to go back. If it were me, even years later I’d do a lot of due diligence and crowd-sourcing before trying it again.

At your service … Not!

The restaurant was practically empty at when another friend came in for an early dinner at 5:30 p.m. “The server was the most pretentious server I’ve ever had. She treated us as if she didn’t think we were good enough to be there. Her body language reeked of superiority. She rolled her eyes at questions about the menu. When we ordered ‘black coffee, no cream or sugar,’ she conspicuously rolled her eyes again and said, ‘Black coffee means no cream or sugar.” Her snide, arrogant, impatient approach to us was reflected in a 2% tip with a written explanation.”

I’m usually an advocate for generous tipping, and until the U.S. somehow finds its way toward a more European system of living wages for professional servers, I’ll remain so. But in this case, I approve of my friend’s response.

A dessert ... with shrimp! Photo-style image created with the assistance of DALL-E-2.
A dessert … with shrimp! Photo-style image created with the assistance of DALL-E-2.


This unexpected incident at an out-of-town restaurant ended well, but it’s probably funnier in the re-telling than it was at the time: “My dad ordered a dessert quesadilla, but it somehow got confused with a seafood quesadilla. His order came out covered in chocolate, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. He took a bite assuming it was a dessert, but when he tasted the shrimp, cheese, cilantro, and onion inside he let out a yelp of disgust, confusion, and disappointment that I’ve never heard a human being make before or since.”

The good news: “They replaced it and comped it and everyone laughed.” And that’s the kind of happy ending we wish all these stories could have.

See ourselves as others see us

Finally, as we enjoy telling scare stories about bad restaurant experiences, consider this advice from a server friend: “My absolute worst experience as a guest doesn’t even come close to my many bad experiences as a server. No matter what, the serving side will always have it worse than the patron side.”