It's never nice when a kitchen coughs up a plate of bad fish, but that's what happened to Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema and a guest on Friday night in the dining room at an unnamed but "expensive" Upper West Side restaurant. (From the looks of it, the offensive entrée was pan-fried skate with Meyer lemon supremes, capers, and roasted fingerlings, so it could be any number of the 353 restaurants serving that in the neighborhood.) "I've never sent a dish back in a restaurant before," Sietsema notes, somewhat counterintuitively. "Since it's my job to complain weeks later in print." But his companion was famished, so a waiter was summoned swiftly and replaced the dank skate with a fresh wing, then a manager apologized generically, and eventually the bill arrived. No credit had been issued, however, and nothing was comped, and Sietsema started to fume.
It's incumbent upon a management to put things right for wronged customers, he argues in a strategic rant that sets out a four-point plan to that end. Mistakes should be addressed with alacrity, he writes, and proprietors should offer a bonus round of drinks on the house whenever things get sour. But that's not all, Sietsema writes: Restaurant owners should comp the entire check or at least deduct the cost of the offensive item. Finally, if the restaurant wants its customers to "leave happy and return," they should "present a certificate promising a free meal in the future."
So first, whoa. It seems like the incident at Sietsema's mystery UWS restaurant was handled in a standard way, but was not comping the table an error? If a brand-new skate wing grenobloise is delivered to the table with a halfhearted apology and the customer eats the replacement, isn't the problem sufficiently solved? After all, the same thing happened to food writer Andrea Strong last summer at the NoMad, in a dining room staffed chockablock with hospitality masters, no less: After her $80 chicken was delivered partially raw, the kitchen fixed the mistake, then charged full price.
Restaurant customers literally pay to get what they want, that's the business, and it's also why any restaurant server will hear a range of complaints during the course of his or her shift. But a restaurant that comps every dish sent back by dissatisfied customers will eventually go out of business. That's why the overall economic health and profitability of any restaurant hinges, for the most part, on the good will of front-of-house managers, in exchange for the kitchen's misfires.
At the same time, restaurants are hierarchical and filled with lots of moving parts. There's always someone else to blame whenever anything goes wrong in the front-of-house, and it's much worse in the kitchen: Busy cooks may be distracted by heat, stress, unrequited love, or chafing, all of which occlude the ability to make a good call. Some (not very good) restaurant owners even tell servers to not apologize whenever a customer reports a funny-flavored entrée, all the more so because this is a precipitously litigious age of stomach bugs and rat bites.
Whether you're looking to get an item taken off the bill or not, there is one and really only one best possible strategy to make sure the restaurant hears your concerns. When something goes wrong, don't bug your waiter; look for the manager first. It shows you're serious, your complaint is less likely to get garbled, and you're much likelier to get better service. If you are unhappy with the way the problem is handled, don't go back.