January 25, 2012 | Frank Bonanno
Part of me wishes no one complained.
A Mizuna patron vented online because her illegally parked car was towed (she didn’t use the complimentary valet). A steak tartare was too rare; a soft shell crab too difficult to de-shell, the vichyssoise too cold. At Luca, a client raged against the cloth napkins that didn’t work for throwing her gum away; at Green Russell I was confronted by a woman who could not believe her bare feet weren’t allowed on the table. One diner at Bones complained because she could see the underwear of another. I need to know that someone made the bathroom smell foul (“like, really bad man”). The bar stools are too close together; the bar stools are too far apart (those were from two separate food critics). The patio at the Osteria was too sunny in July.
Now, these aren’t the comments that weigh heavily on me because they aren’t indicative of lagging professionalism or waning commitment. What they really are is funny to dissect at the end of a long shift. Other complaints are more problematic.
When is it ok to remark on the heat or air? Do we cool down the entire dining room to accommodate the bearded guy in the alpaca sweater, or do we heat it up for the lady in the strapless gown just two tables away? Should a deuce be upset that we can’t place them on a four-top Friday night at 7pm? Is it valid to complain that you had to wait a half an hour, when you’re including the fifteen minutes you arrived before your reservation? Is it right to ask one group to stop having fun because another thinks they’re laughing too loudly? Should a bigger person insist on a larger portion size? What if you don’t like the décor in the bathroom?
My own pet peeve in a restaurant is waiting too long for cool water or cocktails–yet I know any one of my restaurants might be guilty of that oversight on any given night. I strive, though–we strive–to be better than that, and I will never know I haven’t succeeded unless my clients come to expect excellence. You must insist upon it; you must remind us when we fall short; you should remind us when we excel.
So please complain, because the part of me that wishes no one would is very very small (and a little too idyllic). I want and need to hear if I’ve made you unhappy, if my team has let you down. I have to ask you, though: consider why you’re dissatisfied. Is it something we can and should control? Were we lacking expediency, food quality, professionalism? Then it is your right to tell us and our right to know. So please complain—but compliment, too. Let us know how we’re doing so that we all head home happy at the end of the evening.
Here are some tips on how that might look:
The best time to let us know how we’re doing is in the moment. If your steak is overcooked, your fish too fishy, the plate too cold or the drink too warm: send it back. If the entrée’s over-seasoned, an expected ingredient missing, an unexpected ingredient included: send it back. If you simply don’t like the item you thought you’d love: send it back. We are, trust me, happy to replace it. Cooks just want you to love their food. Why else cook? Try: “This isn’t what I was expecting; could I please have something else?” Follow up with “thank you”. And please, please, for the love of God—when the server inquires after your experience be honest. “Everything’s fine” means just that. We’re not mystics.
If a server gives a bad performance, mention it to the manager or the hostess or even the valet on the way out the door. Every night is theater; we’ll want to give a better show next time.
I’d also like to discuss the e-plaint. You got all the way home, and some aspect or other of your restaurant experience just didn’t sit well. Before your fingers of fury hit the keyboard, consider: what are you hoping to achieve by shooting off an email? Seriously: Are you trying to prevent us from making future mistakes? Do you hope to be offered a complimentary replacement experience? Do you want someone reprimanded for dishonorable behavior? If any of those questions suits your aim, then it’s best to set the sarcasm or snarky words aside. State the case and be proactive enough to offer a potential solution. Details help—sadly, I’ve had lots of free meal requests over the years based the complaints of diners who have never stepped foot in my restaurants. I don’t want to be suspicious, it’s just that (no pun intended) I’ve been burned a time or two.
Finally, I think there should be a rule. For every complaint committed to writing, the critic should have to write two complimentary letters, expressed just as eloquently and sent to alternate, deserving businesses. Don’t be that guy–the db with the arched eyebrows. Be a good guy. Be a good human being. Sometimes being a good human being takes practice, but damn it sure feels good, and here’s the thing–
We need to know when we hit the mark, too. It is, after all, what we’re here for.