Send back restaurant meals with ingredients you're mildly allergic to?
May 11, 2016 6:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm a sensitive flower and never sure how to handle getting served food that's going to mildly disagree with me (slightly disturbed sleep, digestion will feel "off" for next 48 hrs, voice becomes hoarse) when restaurant makes an honest mistake.

I went to a local family-run restaurant yesterday. Everyone was very nice and friendly and I asked for a dish with no butter or garlic and "just olive oil, salt and pepper" in the sauce. Meal came with grated parmesan over everything. So I just ate it (but sort of regret it).
I didn't say "no grated cheese" and I'm imagining they just automatically put it on everything. On the other hand, I was pretty clear in asking them "can you make it with just these three ingredients?" So, I hate to pay for it and not eat it, cause not really my fault, but hate to make them throw it out, cause it's not really their fault directly and they seemed decent.
Just curious how people might judge what actions to take here? Also, would your actions change depending on whether you thought the restaurant was acting in good faith / had just made an honest mistake (versus, say, poorly run places I've been to that don't seem to care and will just say something like "no, you said no EXTRA garlic")?
posted by Jon44 to Human Relations (49 answers total)
Your health is at stake. Be a little more careful about how you order and have no guilt about sending back something that isn't right. Don't be an asshole, but get food that won't make you ill.
posted by hollyholly at 6:17 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

If your dietary needs are that specific you need to be incredibly, boringly specific. The more upfront you are the less likely you'll need to send something back.

On the flip side If something is going to make you ill you need to be willing to not eat it.
posted by French Fry at 6:19 AM on May 11, 2016 [26 favorites]

The example you give sounds really easy to misunderstand. You said three ingredients in the sauce, but the cheese goes on top. "No butter or garlic" does not necessarily imply say, lactose intolerance, just preference, so they wouldn't necessarily extrapolate to no dairy.

If you ask for no garlic and they bring you garlic, then yes, of course you can send it back even if it was an honest mistake. But you can't fault them for not reading your mind. Be as specific as possible and if they then mess up feel free to refuse the meal.
posted by lydhre at 6:19 AM on May 11, 2016 [44 favorites]

Apologize, send it back, tip extravagantly.

In the future, as others point out, you need to tell them what you can't have, not what you're okay with having. There are lots and lots of ingredients out there, and very few restaurants give you exhaustive lists of what's in every dish.
posted by Etrigan at 6:23 AM on May 11, 2016 [31 favorites]

Disclaimer: I have severe food allergies (anaphalactic shock/hives/throat swelling)

I think the way you asked for the dish implied that it was a personal preference not a health issue. I would phrase your question differently: when asking about the food dish, let the waiter know that you have a food intolerance (that's what you have! it's a thing!) and that you cannot handle both alliums (ie garlic & onions) or dairy (including cheese) but one of the dishes looks simple enough that you would love to try without either.

Where an honest mistake has occurred, my judgement takes into account the restaurant, the busyness of the place, and how ill I will get. I have sent stuff back, and asked for a simple "just a basket of bread please, charge me as if for an appetizer" when they seriously seem to have issues complying with my request that I don't want to die. That's usually enough to make them realize 'oh shit they WERE serious'.

Where possible, I call restaurants in advance of my eating there (yes even take out places) and confirm which dishes contain ingredients that cause me a hospital trip, and which ones will only moderately inconvenience me. (ie stomach rumbling concerningly for a few hours). Being up front about things, and acknowledging that it's a pain for the restaurant to cater to your special snowflake needs ahead of time helps everyone. Protocols for allergies are SERIOUS! business, and restaurants should (and mostly do!)take cross contamination seriously.
posted by larthegreat at 6:25 AM on May 11, 2016 [14 favorites]

At most places, not every ingredient will be on the menu, and may not even be apparent at first sight (I'm looking at you, anchovies in Caesar Salad dressing), but if you have an allergy or intolerance, it is on you to make that clear. No dairy, or no seafood, or no gluten, or whatever. You don't have to eat it, and it's fine to re-order your meal if you aren't able to eat it, but you should expect to pay for it.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:27 AM on May 11, 2016 [6 favorites]

It's totally okay to send something back, but be polite about it, make sure you communicate it's not their fault, and tip extra-extra-well. Unless the server's really surly about it or something.

If they handle it well, come back and keep giving them your business! Not only do you know it's safe for you to go there, but if you become a regular they'll remember your preferences.

And, yeah, you need to be super-duper-excruciatingly specific, especially if you've only got a few ingredients you can eat. I would expect someone who was sensitive to cheese to specifically say "no cheese," especially in a restaurant with a cheese-heavy menu.

Don't worry about sending food back; it's a restaurant and it's part of the cost of doing business. Stuff gets sent back for lesser complaints all the time.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:28 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I send back food for way less than that. Please don't worry. An allergy is an allergy, and if you said it the first time, it should have come that way.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:41 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I will second that food comes with stuff not on the menu all the time (I'm looking at you, every unlisted crouton ever) (then there was the time that I said "no bread" and the Jimmy Johns guy thought I meant, bread cut out of the middle. I have to say lettuce wrapped.) It's annoying and tiring but you have got to be super specific, especially when it's something like pasta that's likely to come decorated.

Which is not to blame you. Stuff happens. But be as specific as you can and you're a lot more likely to end up with what you want and can eat. :)
posted by joycehealy at 6:46 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

On the other hand, I was pretty clear in asking them "can you make it with just these three ingredients?"

No, you were clear in saying you wanted a *sauce* of just those three ingredients. Parmesan cheese isn't either butter or garlic, and they didn't put it in the sauce.

As others have said, your needs are legitimate, but you need to be explicit about them.
posted by headnsouth at 6:48 AM on May 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

You can totally send back a dish based on a preference. A restaurant isn't the SATs. You don't have to guess right to get the meal you want.
posted by xingcat at 6:51 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Slightly overthinking it, just send it back. Don't try to figure out if 'the restaurant is acting in good faith' as that has absolutely no bearing on the situation. Just say 'hey my bad, can't have cheese.' They'll get over it.
posted by fixedgear at 6:56 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

and the Jimmy Johns guy thought I meant, bread cut out of the middle.

Sound ridiculous, but that's a thing at JJs. There are some sandwiches you have to specify "leave the bread in" if you don't want that done.
posted by hwyengr at 7:04 AM on May 11, 2016

In a situation like that, I scrape the cheese off and eat what I can of the untainted food because, like you, it won't send me to the hospital if I accidentally ingest some of it. Now, for the serious stuff, I politely send it back or avoid it all together by ordering the most naked thing on the menu. There are so many people who fake allergies because they want special treatment that it makes it harder for those of us who actually need the special treatment. Because of this, I only make requests when it is absolutely necessary, because I don't want someone who could actually die from eating the wrong thing to be ignored.

On a side note (because I love the side note), I've noticed that drinking lowers my immune response to certain foods so if I absolutely cannot avoid a trigger food, I have a drink with my meal. I would rather a chosen hangover than an involuntary allergic reaction.

Whatever you do, don't go to the busiest restaurant on a Friday or Saturday night and expect your special order to be tended to. Eat out during slow times only and tip well.
posted by myselfasme at 7:27 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know people with various degrees of different food intolerances, and I have a mild intolerance to broccoli and cauliflower. It's often happened that we just have a bit of a brain fart and forget to ask about one little detail about a dish, even if we ask about something beforehand ("oh, crap - listen, I know I already told you about broccoli, but I forgot to mention that also applies to cauliflower and brussels sprouts too, and I see that this has cauliflower in it"). It happens.

If you ask it of the waiter as a sort of "whoops, my bad, I forgot to mention this other detail, I'm really sorry, but..." they should be fine with you sending it back for further editing; or if it's too much hassle to remake it again with the added step (i.e., in your case, remaking it and leaving the cheese off instead), they may be able to work with you to suggest something else too.

Look at it this way - they sometimes may have to deal with people who send stuff back for much pickier reasons ("it's not the exact temperature I wanted") and are dicks about it ("you should have known I wanted this at 78 degrees, not 77, I want my meal comped!"), and compared to that, your request would be much more valid, and you're taking some share of the responsibility by admitting "I forgot to give you this detail, sorry". They should be fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:27 AM on May 11, 2016

The restaurant didn't make "an honest mistake" here, they followed your instructions, they simply didn't read your mind.

You're the one that made a mistake by not specifying your particular allergies clearly. So be nice, and apologetic, when you send it back, realizing that it's your fault and you're adding to their workload, and don't forget to tip well.
posted by Umami Dearest at 7:31 AM on May 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

I have a minor allergy. I send it back if I asked for "no cheese" and they put cheese on it. If the menu doesn't say it contains cheese but they put cheese on it, I explain I can't eat cheese and send it back. If it says cheese on the menu and I forget to specify or didn't notice it, then it's my fault and I just pick off the cheese.

In your case, I'd probably have sent it back. (I'd argue that cheese sprinkled on top becomes a component of the sauce.) Then again, if it was an expensive item such as a sirloin steak or salmon and I felt sympathetic for the small family-owned restaurant, I might just scrape off the sauce.
posted by slidell at 7:46 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

We ordered a delicious sounding dessert at a restaurant that named several ingredients that we like. When they brought it out, someone ruined an otherwise amazing-looking dessert by sprinkling copious amounts of shredded coconut all over it. I'm not allergic, but I absolutely fucking hate shredded coconut. If they had listed the coconut in the menu description then I would have simply asked them to omit it. The onus is on the restaurant to include things like that on the menu description, not for me to preemptively say "Now, make sure you don't put anything extra on this food item!" in the off chance they decide to add a previously unmentioned ingredient that has strong flavor/texture issues. I sent it back without feeling even slightly guilty about it.

I've never been to a restaurant that put parmesean on food prior to bringing it out; everywhere I've ever been brings the parmesean to the table and offers it separately. It would never occur to me to ask them to not put parmesean on food in the kitchen since that is not the norm I've experienced with eating out. I don't think it's weird to send it back.
posted by gatorae at 7:54 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

So I cook for a living.

1) They followed your instructions to the letter. You said what you wanted in the sauce and did not mention cheese. That's on you.

2) An effective technique I've seen for people with multiple food allergies is to print up little business cards that say "Hi! I have multiple food allergies. I CANNOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES have ABC. I CAN have XYZ."

3) Another effective technique is to ask your server what you can have. "I cannot have ABC. What on the menu would you suggest?"

4) Ordering off-menu is really annoying for the kitchen and, not saying this is your intention, smacks of entitlement. We have menus for a reason. Those of us who are professionals at what we do will take allergy modifications seriously, which means new cutting boards, utensils, towels, etc etc. This can throw off the flow in a busy kitchen. If you're going to order off-menu, please consider dining in off-peak hours. Not only is this good for the kitchen because it doesn't upset the usual workflow, it's better for you, because the harried and underpaid line cooks can take more time to be careful.

5) If something doesn't meet your specifications, send it back. If something misses your specifications through no fault of their own (e.g. the cheese thing here) send it back saying "I'm so sorry, I didn't think to mention I couldn't have cheese either, can you refire this please?"

6) In general terms, the only acceptable reason for sending something back to be remade is technical error, not idiosyncratic taste. If you order a steak medium rare and it comes out medium well (or vice versa) send it back. If you like your pasta mushy and they send it out properly al dente, that's on you not the restaurant.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:54 AM on May 11, 2016 [41 favorites]


7) Calling ahead can resolve many issues and allow the kitchen to be ready for you. In some cases the chef will even create something specifically for you--don't ask for this unless you are a solid regular (3-4x/month).
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:56 AM on May 11, 2016 [11 favorites]

everything feckless said
posted by greta simone at 8:01 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think this one was on you because you should have been more specific in your request - the restaurant can't read your mind. That said, IF you make a clear and specific request and the kitchen messes it up, I think it is perfectly fine to ask them to remake the dish, regardless of whether it's an allergy or just personal preference.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:02 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, please, I am begging, confine "I CANNOT HAVE" requests to actual food allergies only and not to preferences. I say this as someone with anaphylactic allergies.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:05 AM on May 11, 2016 [25 favorites]

I'm bothered by the frequent suggestions to tip well. That food that is now garbage comes out of the owner's wallet, not the server's. If you were not entirely clear and the restaurant acted in good faith to meet your needs, I say suck it up by asking for it to be wrapped to take home for someone that CAN eat it and order something else and pay for it all. If the restaurant ignored or misled you, that is a send-it-back moment.

Slight digression: Sending something back because it's so salty that it is inedible, OK. Sending something back because it sounded better than it tasted is a douche move because you are taking money away from the business based on your preference. It's not a pair of jeans that can be resold because they looked better on in the store.

Enlist the help of the server. I cannot have X, Y and Z. Help me order. THEN tip heavily when you leave full and healthy.
posted by archimago at 8:17 AM on May 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

Two things:

1) Write your constraints down, on a small/half sheet of paper, in large lettering. I've started penciling things down for specific restaurants when I go in ("no cheese" isn't necessary at a sushi restaurant, and the shorter the better), and I'm getting better at communicating each time.

2) It's said that some mild allergies get worse with each exposure, so avoiding allergens isn't just a matter of convenience.
posted by amtho at 8:35 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if at some point in the past someone else said: I just want X, Y and Z on my pasta, and then got snippy that it didn't come out with the usual parmesan. Some people expect servers to be mind readers. Being extra clear on the front end means less work and anxiety overall.

I completely understand the hesitancy to say you have an allergy when it's mild (both my husband and I have mild ones), but if it'll cause you problems, be specific and upfront. "I have a mild allergy/intolerance to A (or a sensitive stomach, whatever you're most comfortable with), can I please have a sauce with just X,Y, and Z?" That will usually prompt the server to check with you if there's anything else borderline or make a recommendation for a safe standard menu item (which is usually the safest way to go, especially if it's a busy time). They may still break out the special utensils (which makes me feel bad, because cross-contamination is really not a concern with mine), but I suspect most places would prefer that extra unnecessary step than having to redo the dish. I honestly only bring mine up if I'm already reacting to other stuff, because that's the only time it'll cause me some breathing issues, usually it's just some itchiness and hives and my allergen isn't commonly just thrown into a dish without noting it on the menu. It sounds like this happens to you often enough that you should be more proactive on the front end.

If you order something that unexpectedly has A, just politely let your server know: I'm so sorry, A wasn't listed on the menu, but I cannot have it. Is there a way to have it remade without A, or should I order something else. Especially if it was my fault (A was listed and I didn't notice), I'll tell them upfront that I insist on paying for it (and say that I have someone at home who would love to eat it in a typically vain attempt to get them to charge me for it) and the new meal. Heck, 9/10, if I don't make a big enough dent in my meal, the server will usually ask if anything was wrong. If I say"I thought I'd be adventurous but turns out this dish is just not my thing, definitely my own fault, no really, there's nothing wrong with the dish" they will comp the dish, or at least a round of drinks /dessert (I'm then sure to tip generously and reward with repeat service and good word of mouth).

Honest and clear communication will help you get what you want now and in the future (a good server is going to remember your preferences/needs if you dine with them more than once, and steer you away from dishes that aren't safe or you may not find appealing).
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:37 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

You tip well in these situations because you're making more work for the server, too, and they can often ill afford the additional attention because you're not their only table.
posted by uberchet at 8:38 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm bothered by the frequent suggestions to tip well. That food that is now garbage comes out of the owner's wallet, not the server's.

Yeah, but any decent restaurant has calculated that into the cost of business. Food getting sent back to the kitchen is not exactly rare.

The server is the one doing the actual work of communicating between you and the kitchen, and making sure you get the revised order asap, while managing several other tables at the same time. The server and cooks are the ones who have to do the extra work of re-doing an order. The server is the first person customers yell at when anything goes wrong, even when it's not their fault.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:42 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah honestly I hardly ever send stuff back. I'm up front with my servers with exactly what I cannot eat for health reasons and I've never really had a huge problem. But I mean I sit there and converse for a few minutes to make sure we're on the same page. Sending food back for other reasons like coconut when you didn't expect it is a bit extreme and rude to me. In that case I just brush it off and eat it anyway and know in the future that I probably won't like that restaurants desserts.
posted by FireFountain at 8:44 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Lifelong vegetarian here -- Nth that you need to learn to order properly. The rare time I've bollocksed up my order -- once I didn't notice a menu clearly stated that the grilled cheese had bacon in it, for example -- I've asked to have it boxed up to go to give to somebody, and ordered something else. It's not the restaurant's fault if I didn't read the menu properly or did not make myself clear.

On the other hand, I did send back a pizza I found one tiny piece of meat on -- the small-town teenage waiter was pissy about it and clearly thought I was nuts, but that made clear they weren't careful about "vegetarian" and the entire pizza was suspect, and I wasn't able to eat more after spotting the errant bit of flesh, and that was their fault for being sloppy and grossing me out by being sloppy.

I preface orders with "Sorry to be a pain, but, I'm vegetarian -- I eat eggs and dairy, but no meat or poultry or fish -- please let me know if I'm making any mistakes in my order! I'd like..." This has never failed me. I can't just say "vegetarian" thanks to the screw-ups who fantasize that fish is vegetarian, and (rather more understandably) not everybody is clear on vegetarian/vegan distinctions so "eggs and dairy ok" is needed. You need to be very specific, while being polite and concise.
posted by kmennie at 8:55 AM on May 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

fffm nailed it.

I worked as a server in middling to nice venues for years and man I would have loved for someone with restrictions or allergy issues to have a little business card because [good] staff, be it front of house or back of house, take allergy issues VERY seriously and do all they can to comply, up to and including saying "No, I'm sorry, that accommodation can not be made on that dish for reason X, Y, or Z." despite the fact that this often meant forgoing a decent tip and/or having to deal with an irate customer/table.

Again, that's not to say that we expect that, the business card route I mean, of folks but if you have a seriously sensitive stomach and/or a long list of restrictions then it is something you might want to consider as a tool in your toolbox in situations like this.

A small, funny, sad, yet slightly relevant, anecdote. One of my fellow servers once rushed into the kitchen, poked her head into the food window and loudly queried the kitchen/chefs about a food allergy question at one of her tables. The kitchen staff, as was the norm when allergy issues were announced/mentioned, comes to a standing stop to listen to the head chef field her question so that they have as much information as possible. She, once the chef acknowledges that he is available and listening to her and that she is good to go ahead with the question, says "I have a dairy allergy at Table X, is butter dairy?"


I mean, I'm not trying to poke fun here so much as I'm trying to say that doing all you can, as someone with a special need/request, might prevent the loss of fidelity in the message as it passes between you to the server, maybe even to the manager, to the kitchen staff and is turned into a, hopefully palatable and safe, dish for you by the latter. Clarity in all things is appreciated.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:02 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

"I can't have dairy. Please NO DAIRY. Thank you."

You explained it wrong.
posted by jbenben at 9:29 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree that you need to be more explicit when ordering. I'm vegan (and sensitive to dairy and shellfish). In addition to avoiding things that seem like they would be hard to veganize, I always explicitly say "no cheese" or "no fish sauce" regardless of whether or not it's listed on the menu because as other have noted, there are often unlisted ingredients. And sometimes ordering does take some time, with the back and forth of what dairy is or isn't, but I'd rather do that and eat than not.

I also usually try to check the menu ahead of time so I know what my options are and see if the restaurant is good with handling these sorts of accommodations. It makes eating out in groups a lot easier, though sometimes I do ask to move the venue (if it's a smaller group) if the options are super limited.
posted by kendrak at 9:29 AM on May 11, 2016

Everyone was very nice and friendly and I asked for a dish with no butter or garlic and "just olive oil, salt and pepper" in the sauce.

Yeah, I think you need to be a little more specific. You got the dish with no butter or garlic and there was just olive oil, salt, and pepper in the sauce. The parmesan wasn't in the sauce, and you never said that you didn't want cheese, so you got cheese.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:15 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I asked for a dish with no butter or garlic and "just olive oil, salt and pepper" in the sauce. Meal came with grated parmesan over everything. So I just ate it (but sort of regret it).

This is going to happen when you don't clarify what you actually need. Parmesan cheese is not butter. Not to mention, it's really hard to divine from your request what the actual problem is, which means it's really hard to think outside the box of what you just said to determine whether you might be allergic to other ingredients. (The butter thing... is she lactose intolerant? Parmesan has basically no lactose in it, so that should be fine.)

Going forward, if you LITERALLY cannot have *any* ingredients on your pasta but oil and pepper, say "Could I please have plain noodles with only olive oil and pepper instead of any sauce?" Or even ask for plain noodles and dress it yourself with olive oil and pepper that are on the table.

"Could you hold x and y random ingredients from the sauce so that the sauce is only oil and pepper" invites way too much interpretation as to what you meant and what ingredients can be in the dish they serve you.

Better yet, would it be possible to find another item on the menu that doesn't have anything you're allergic to? Or simply avoid going to Italian restaurants because there's likely to be cheese involved, and you clearly cannot ever have any type of cheese? My fiance is lactose intolerant and our usual M.O. is to choose restaurants and cuisines which will have lots of dairy-free options and are unlikely to come slathered in cheese that wasn't mentioned on the menu.
posted by Sara C. at 10:20 AM on May 11, 2016

Some of these replies are making me twitchy. You are not psychic. Menus should disclose major ingredients like "sprinkled generously with cheese" or "finished with horseradish mayo" (looking at you panera) or "soaked in alcohol" . Allergies or just general dislike are OK reasons to send back things that are presented to you with major ingredients left off the menu and you don't have to tip extra or feel guilty. It's their fault for leaving out important data. Are you really supposed to inform your server of every food dislike in case they decide to put lobster in your ice cream or peas in your mashed potatoes? No that would be ridiculous.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 11:09 AM on May 11, 2016

in case they decide to put lobster in your ice cream or peas in your mashed potatoes? No that would be ridiculous.

Comparing parmesan cheese on, what looks to be, a pasta dish to not disclosing lobster in an ice cream dish is what is ridiculous. Menus are not all-inclusive lists of ingredients, nor should they be. I've had guests ask to see the labels on things before and, where possible, I accommodated that, but to take that to the n-th level and show everything to everyone and/or list maltodextrin or MSG in every menu item that it shows up in is just painfully obtuse. To the point, I would not be surprised if my hamburger bun had sesame seeds on it, even if no sesame seeds were listed on said menu.

Some of these replies are making me twitchy. You are not psychic.

Twitchy? No one is saying the OP should be psychic, actually they are saying that making that same assumption of the server or kitchen staff is unrealistic and unhelpful for all parties involved.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:10 PM on May 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

5) If something doesn't meet your specifications, send it back. If something misses your specifications through no fault of their own (e.g. the cheese thing here) send it back saying "I'm so sorry, I didn't think to mention I couldn't have cheese either, can you refire this please?"

I recently went on a trip to Australia and every meal was an adventure for me and my food issues because, even though many restaurants there are very accommodating towards food allergies, often things just weren't even ON the menu so I didn't know I needed to adjust my order. I ended up sending food back at least three times while there, and the last time I had to do such a thing was in 2009!

Anyway, the best example from that trip was when I ordered a hamburger at a museum cafe: I asked for everything on the side (we seemed to pick a lot of places that liked putting surprise sauces on everything) so that I didn't have to trot out my usual "no X Y Z" thing because I was tired of possibly being annoying to waitstaff. The hamburger came with everything on the side -- except a slice of cheese, which was melted on the patty, which I couldn't have, and which I wasn't even expecting because HAMBURGER, not cheeseburger! My husband said I should've been specific about "no cheese," but I feel like an ingredient like that should've been on the menu and I sent it back without much guilt other than once again feeling like a burdensome customer. Husband had a point, though -- if I have to be careful about what I eat, I have to be fussy and specific when ordering or I'm going to be the annoying girl sending my food back.
posted by phatkitten at 12:19 PM on May 11, 2016

I have a severe allergy to shellfish. I am very clear about it at restaurants.

You made an honest mistake and can treat it as a learning experience. As others have said, you need to be explicit in the future. Tell your server what you cannot have. If you want a sauce with only three ingredients, say so, but also say, "i cannot eat X." Use the word "allergy." Personally, I also say, "severe," "dangerous," or "deadly" to get my point across.

Your health and well-being are important. Restaurants are used to working with people who have allergies. I would have sent the dish back apologetically and tipped well. Even though it was my mistake. Even though I felt badly. "I'm so sorry. I should have been clearer. But I can't eat this because ______"
posted by zarq at 12:46 PM on May 11, 2016

I have an autoimmune disease that is triggered by certain foods. Like you, I will not die, but any given flare-up could make it too painful to eat for days. This is a fairly new diagnosis and the list of foods I can't have is short but ubiquitous so I mess up sometimes.

I think it's my responsibility to manage this. I recently ordered pizza at a non-pizza place. I can't eat tomatoes but occasionally I torture myself and have a little bit of pizza because pizza. I knew it wasn't going to be the best slice of NY pizza, but it never occurred to me to ask if the pizza had some weird, crunchy, crispy cornmeal crust. But it did, and I couldn't eat it because of the crust. Maybe it's just me, but for me, I can't imagine asking the restaurant to eat the cost of that, even if they'd be willing to do it in the name of customer service. (If they asked if there was a problem and then offered I'd accept!) I could imagine a scenario where I'd explain to the server that I made a mistake and try to work something out, but I would never expect to be comped for the second meal. Either way I would tip well, going above and beyond if the server lifted one finger to fix my mistake.

Also, please, I am begging, confine "I CANNOT HAVE" requests to actual food allergies only and not to preferences.

I'd like to modify this to: actual medical conditions vs. personal preferences.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:26 PM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

You should have sent it back, and you should have been clear when you ordered the pasta what it is that you can't eat.

I'm a server at a restaurant, and it drives me batshit crazy when a guest is coy about their food allergies/intolerances/preferences. Not all ingredients are listed on the menu. Hell, I don't know some ingredients for the sauces and have to check, especially if an item is newer on the menu. If you can't have something, you need to spell it out for your server, so that they can tell the kitchen. Yes, you're perfectly entitled to send back your food if you can't eat it, but it's absolutely your fault that it came out with cheese.

I am a waitress. I'm not a mind reader. I'm pretty good at sussing out when someone isn't being super up front with me about food allergies, but I shouldn't have to do that and I wish adults would just communicate like adults.

I have no problem accommodating food allergies, and I will absolutely triple and double check things for someone with a severe allergy.

I had a table last week who apparently couldn't eat dairy. She didn't tell me that - she asked for the sauce for the fish on the side. She told me after she'd eaten her appetizer - that was brushed in butter, of course - that she couldn't eat dairy. Well, shit. Thanks for telling me! If she's said, "Oh, by the way, I'm lactose intolerant," I would have made a note to finish her appetizer with olive oil and not butter.

And to everyone saying that ingredients should be listed on the menu: No.

So yeah, send it back. People send back food all the time for various and several reasons and it's not a big deal. The only times sending back food raises an eyebrow is if a guest sends something back more than once, or does something else that screams that they are obviously scamming for a free meal. If a restaurant's margin is so thin that they can't afford a few comps for this kind of stuff, they shouldn't be in business. But if you don't want to have to send your food back, just be more clear.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:28 PM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is absolutely on you. I have severe food allergies, and love food and dining out. Everyone I know in the industry has told me to very upfront and clear about what I can't have, and to make sure that I'm telling them when I first talk to my server (or earlier if it's a pre-fixe). It's important to be polite and clear and definitive about what you can't have (and what you can - I often get a flurry of secondary clarifications). Every restaurant I have eaten at has been much nicer about me asking what I can have that fits my needs rather than me trying to dictate an off-menu item that I can.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 4:49 PM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

FWIW, here's some clarifications. I don't consider my requests "off-menu" as I went in restaurant an an off-time and asked owner if he'd mind making the menu meal with some modifications (out of vanity, I didn't use word "allergy" or "sensitivity") and he kindly said "we'll make anything you want."
(And Yelp reviews of restaurant said place was like this, which is why I thought to try it.)
On issue of "sauce"-- I can't even remember if I actually said that--may have just asked for a "dish" with simple ingredients. When I asked about no garlic and no butter, owner asked if "salt and pepper were OK?," which gave me sense he knew he was dealing with a picky eater--which is why I was surprised about the parmesan.
I find it hard to credit argument that "hey, cheese wasn't in the sauce, which is EXACTLY what you requested". That's just silly--trying eating pasta without the sprinkled cheese getting into the sauce soon enough. But I might buy the argument that this is some sort of culinary value chef had that I didn't think of--e.g., cheese adds a different flavor when on top versus when sauce is actually made with it.
posted by Jon44 at 4:46 AM on May 12, 2016

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. Me, if I ask for "modifications", I have stepped into the world of "off-menu".
posted by Mister Bijou at 5:52 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't consider my requests "off-menu" as I went in restaurant an an off-time and asked owner if he'd mind making the menu meal with some modifications

That's what ordering off-menu is. One mod to a dish, ok--e.g. "hold the pickles." Once you're asking for a dish that isn't on the menu, you're off the menu. And because you didn't use the word allergy, they didn't double check to see if certain things were okay. When cooks and servers hear 'allergy' our ears prick up and that's when we'll say "Is this ok? That comes on this thing, can you eat that?"
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:58 AM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm also thinking, and maybe feckless or other culinary pros can shed some light on it, but I know when I was working in a restaurant, last second presentation things like garnish and fresh grated cheese were done by the servers when they pick their orders up on the line rather than done by the chef, and if you didn't mention "allergy" or "intolerance" to the chef, they may not have communicated that to the server.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:12 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depends on the restaurant: sometimes servers are not allowed to do anything to the plates except carry them, sometimes they finish a bit of garnish, sometimes they do tableside service. Also depends on how busy it is.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:43 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

last second presentation things like garnish and fresh grated cheese were done by the servers when they pick their orders up on the line rather than done by the chef

That position is called, or was in the places I worked, expo (short for expediter) and could be either a talented server dedicated to that task for the night because they didn't piss off the kitchen with their mannerisms/behavior or a kitchen staff that was, I kid I kid, being punished by being placed in closer proximity to the servers or a manager even. And yes, it all depends on the restaurant, their staffing, their priorities, their business model, and how busy things are and was that busy level expected.

Regardless, yes, a good kitchen/chef will trump that person almost any day of the week and, at least as the niceness/competence of a place increases, the head chef will monitor any plate that is being prepared specially (doubly so for an allergy) until it goes out the kitchen door. In more chain -type places, think applebees or TGIF or whatever, this monitoring is usually done by a salaried manager as the most 'competent' person there.

But yes, this could have been where things broke down, insofar as anyone thinks (or doesn't) that things necessarily broke down at all.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:05 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Many, many people in this thread who actually work in restaurants have told you why you were wrong, and yet you're still arguing about it.

I think my least favorite customers are those who bring drama to a basic business transaction. Just let it go, dude.

And everyone: You can send back food at pretty much any restaurant. That's how it works. Just don't be a dick about it.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 8:33 PM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

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