Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!
August 6, 2017 4:10 PM   Subscribe

The other night, I went to a restaurant and ordered a dish that was served inedibly salty. Well, when I say "inedibly," I speak figuratively, because we ate it. We didn't enjoy it, but we ate it. Which raised the question: when is it acceptable to send something back as a restaurant and ask for a replacement not because it's actually defective, but because it's just plain bad?

A bit more detail: the other night, my husband and I went to a pizza place that we've been to a bunch of times before, although not terribly recently. We ordered salads, and a pizza with anchovies. The salads were very good. But when the pizza came, it was so salty it was actually unpleasant -- like taking a big bite out of salt lick. (Not being a deer, I have never actually tasted a salt lick, but I imagine that if I did take a big bite out of a salt lick, it would have tasted like this.) I cook with anchovies at home a couple of times a week, so I know they're salty. But this was repulsively salty -- as I said, damn near inedible. You're supposed to rinse anchovies before you use them, especially if you're throwing them in whole, and these clearly weren't rinsed.

We ate it, but we weren't happy, and it occurred to me later that I probably should have sent it back and asked them to bring us something else. Of course, I know that you can always order something additional as long as you pay for it, and of course if the dish had come out raw or with a bug in it or something, you would be perfectly within your rights to decline to pay for it. (I'll just briefly mention here the time I went to a restaurant and found a used band-aid in my salad, and nope, I did not pay for it.) But I'm wondering whether I would have been in the right if I had called the manager over, politely said that the pizza was really not acceptable as served, as asked them to substitute something else at the same price.

To be clear, this wasn't just a matter of "I kinda wished I had ordered something different." This was a dish that should really not have been served at a restaurant, as if they had served pie and accidentally used salt instead of sugar in the filling.

I also wondered about this because of a different incident last week. I was out having drinks with a friend, and the guy next to us ordered a kir. They brought it to him, and after he took a sip, he called the bartender over and said, "I really don't care for this -- I'd like to get something different. I'm happy to pay for this, though." They took it away and brought him something else, but I don't know whether they charged him for the kir or not.

So I guess the question is basically: how bad does a restaurant dish have to be for someone to send it back and decline to pay for it, or at least make a major fuss with the management about being asked to pay for it?
posted by holborne to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think the classy thing to do is send it back and ask for something else but don't say anything about paying for it. They will probably take it off your bill if they don't want you to go online and start trashing them.
posted by bleep at 4:14 PM on August 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is something you notify the waiter and manager about and send back. They absolutely should not charge you.

Tell them because the kitchen needs to know, especially if the anchovies were overly salty. I just had some capers that were inedibly salty, but the other jar in the same case was fine. The kitchen needs to know! Tell them!
posted by jbenben at 4:15 PM on August 6, 2017 [24 favorites]

In your specific case it seems it would have been something you could possibly solve by taking some or all of the anchovies off the pizza. But, assuming that didn't fix it, yes, I would absolutely tell the waiter and send it back.
posted by so fucking future at 4:17 PM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is similar but not quite the same, about restaurant complaints.

This varies, and to me it varies a lot by how nice a place it is and how egregious the issue is and how much you care. So today, for example, I ordered a salad with a cooked lamb patty on it. They brought out everyone's food but mine and had clearly forgotten about my dish somehow (it was a busy brunch at a place I go to often). When they did bring out my meal, the patty that I had asked to be cooked medium-well was clearly just more-than-rare (I expect they'd rushed it out). The place was nice. It was not what I ordered. That said, I didn't mind what I got so I ate it and it was fine. On another day I might have sent it back and also felt totally justified with that and not expected to pay (or expected to get another dish, or something, only late).

With the kir example, I figure you're always welcome to send something back (and pay) if it just isn't to your liking. Then there's a grey area about your tastes versus what is just "not done". Or something where you think the place is making some sort of mistake (as in your anchovy pizza example) where I'd always send it back. I sent back a Thai Iced Coffee once because it was basically warm coffee poured over ice with some condensed milk in it (i.e. mostly warm) which was not what I had wanted but you could make an argument it was what I ordered. I've sent back risotto at a nice place saying "this is just rice, really." At a place that was more like a pizza burger joint, I might drop them a note on facebook or something ("Hey just so you know, the pizza I got today was super slaty, I think some people there aren't rinsing the anchovies...").

I had this discussion recently on a mailing list I am on and this is, surprisingly to me, a topic with a lot of strong opinions. I have friends who would NEVER send something back, and friends who would send back something they just didnt' really like even if it was what they ordered. People are all over the map on it.
posted by jessamyn at 4:20 PM on August 6, 2017

I think it's almost always ok to send something back, the question is just whether you expect to pay for it or not. My general guiding principle is that if it was my mistake (e.g. I ordered something that came out exactly as described and I just didn't like it), I should pay. If it was the restaurant's mistake, they should pay. In practice, I have seen restaurants pay in the former case quite often, but I don't think it is a reasonable thing to actually ask for. Based on your description, I'd say it's the restaurant's fault. Either they made it wrong, or their version of it is so far outside what people would expect that they need to make sure they give people a heads up, "hey, this is insanely salty!" Like I go to a place that has a dish that basically says "this is really, really spicy. Don't order it if you don't know what you're getting yourself into." If I ordered that and it ended up being too spicy for me, there's no way I'd feel ok asking them to eat the cost and bring me something else instead.

Honestly, my personal bar is very high for sending stuff back, because I tend to be too polite. I'll often eat stuff that I don't really like because I don't want to cause a hassle and I hate confrontation. My wife is much more liberal with returning stuff she doesn't like (but she never implies that she won't pay for it). But even I would return the pizza in this situation, based on your description.
posted by primethyme at 4:27 PM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah… I don't think you're going to get a lot of consensus around this issue. Personally though I'll send something back if it's not what I ordered or if I think there's obviously something wrong with it, and I care. I don't always care; I'll generally eat a medium-well burger even if I ordered medium-rare, because it's just not worth waiting for them to do me another one. But if something came out so salty that my companions and I just couldn't enjoy it? I'd send that back, especially if it was a group thing like a pizza where everyone would be waiting together and it probably wouldn't take long to re-make. Even though anchovies are supposed to be pretty salty, if you've got a table full of people saying "this is gross" then ask them to re-make it (or make you something else that's similar) and don't worry about it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:29 PM on August 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Back of the house opinion here:

You have more than one likely seen one episode of Hell's Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay before. His reactions are sort of over the top but spot on. Every cook is supposed to know that they aren't feeding you garbage. If you couldn't stand it and it wasn't called 'Salt Lick Soup' then it is unlikely that the exec wanted it to be unpalatable from the salt. No cook wants their food to be sent back, but every exec wants food sent back if it is not to their standards.

You aren't sending it back because you didn't like it. You sent it back because noone would have liked it.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:30 PM on August 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

You should have sent it back. Think of it from the point of view of the restaurant: they want you to return and to recommend their food to your friends. Obviously it depends on the restaurant, when I visited Edinburgh recently, we went to the Jamie Oliver restaurant there and the food was too salty and too spicy for what it claimed to be but I didn't complain or send it back because it was very obviously intentional. I just decided never to eat there again. But if you have reason to believe that the restaurant was honestly trying to make good food, sending the food back would have been helpful.
posted by mumimor at 4:37 PM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the restaurant would rather you send it back, get happy again, and order a couple extra drinks and maybe dessert.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:39 PM on August 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

I never sent things back or let the server know something was wrong until I worked in restaurants and realized that its a. not a big deal and b. something they really need to know.

Does your Coke taste funny? Let us know! Did someone forget to rinse the fish? Let us know!

Most places are going to be more than happy to fix it. Though, please let them fix it before you eat the whole thing so you can enjoy your meal.
posted by stormygrey at 4:53 PM on August 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would have them taste it and ask if it's supposed to be like that, but I don't know if that's weird. The anchovies could have been salt-packed and maybe they didn't rinse yours. Some people like them that way.
posted by rhizome at 5:23 PM on August 6, 2017

I sent something back for oversalting just the other day (I love salt, so if I find something too salty to eat, it's not edible.) They were sincerely grateful for the heads up.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:52 PM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Rinse them? Really? I never knew that. I've watched my anchovies, onions, and jalapeños pizza being built in more than one pizza place, and they go straight from the tin to the pie. I think that's totally normal for a pizza joint. And yeah, they're salty as hell, and sometimes I reel a little, but I've never thought, whoa, they built that wrong, too many anchovies.

If I'd ordered spaghetti alla puttanesca in a restaurant and it came back that salty, I would think of sending it back. But not a pizza in a pizza place.
posted by bricoleur at 7:19 PM on August 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Situations like that feel awkward to me. It's a fine line between their food sucks vs. they actually messed it up. If you are a regular and know what it's supposed to taste like, that's one thing, but bad food experiences usually aren't that. So typically what I'll do is privately and not face-to-face send an email or something letting them know. If it's just a truly bad experience and I never plan to go there again, I'll leave an honest review on Yelp. Sometimes the restaurant owners do see them and respond, but I figure I am warning everyone.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:08 PM on August 6, 2017

I have never sent anything back but I would have sent that back. If something is edible but blah I'll usually live with it but oversalting goes beyond that.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:08 AM on August 7, 2017

But I'm wondering whether I would have been in the right if I had called the manager over, politely said that the pizza was really not acceptable as served, as asked them to substitute something else at the same price.
Yes, though you could probably have just told your server and not involved the manager unless they pushed back. As far as the price goes, don't expect something else that is more expensive for the same price, but no, I would not expect to pay for something that I ordered and came out wrong. Recently on the blue, someone said there is a difference between a mistake and an incorrect method of doing things. Ask for a correction when you think it is a mistake. If you think the restaurant is just doing it wrong, avoid the dish or the restaurant.
posted by soelo at 7:53 AM on August 7, 2017

Just to clarify, this wasn't so much a pizza joint as a restaurant that served pizza, pasta, fancy-ish salads, etc. If it had been just sort of a corner pizza place, like "Original Famous Ray's" or something, of course I wouldn't have really thought twice about it; I just wouldn't have gone back. Also, we actually did poke off the anchovies; it was still waaaay too salty, presumably because the anchovies made the cheese salty.
posted by holborne at 9:12 AM on August 7, 2017

I was at Outback not too long ago and both me and my dad got steaks that were inediblely peppery. We both sent them back. We asked the kitchen to make them without the black peppe and only salt. The kitchen happily remade them. Mine came back overcooked. While I should have sent it back again, I was too hungry and just ate it. I did leave a message on FB that I appreciated the kitchen remaking it.

In your case, I would absolutely have sent the pizza back.
posted by kathrynm at 10:15 AM on August 9, 2017

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