Ask The Salty Waitress: What Should I Do If My Food Just Doesn't Taste Good?

Dear Salty,

I am, by all accounts, a good restaurant diner. I'm not picky, I tip well, I'm not too demanding of my servers. But recently I had dinner at this moderately pricey restaurant with my spouse—and it was one of the worst meals I've ever had. It wasn't the service, it wasn't the speed, it wasn't that there was a fly in my soup. There wasn't even something with the dish that was wrong (it wasn't oversalted, the pork wasn't underdone). It just... didn't taste good. That's it. I didn't like the flavors. It says less about the execution of the dish than the creative choices of the chef. So when my server asked how our meal was, I didn't even have the heart to tell her the food wasn't tasty. I just reflexively nodded my head, and we got stuck with a $100 bill.

So, Salty Waitress: Should I complain about a dish if it doesn't plain taste good? Can I ask for a refund?


Unsure in Utica

Dear Unsure, I'm not the world's most trusting person—three ex-husbands can testify to that—but I'm going to take you at your word and assume you are as fuss-free a customer as you've said you are. Here's your lollipop.

It really does suck to pay for food you didn't like, especially when it's pricey. But taste is subjective. So it's possible the chef thinks her Tuna Ketchup Surprise is the cat's meow, even though you and table 45 and table 63 all know it tastes like sad baby food. I can't guarantee you would have been given a refund, but here's how you can handle the situation next time food just doesn't taste good:

First, speak up right away. You might think you should wait until the end of the meal when the server will see your barely-touched plate and ask about it, but by that time, it's too late for the restaurant to fix the situation. Say something as soon as the server hits you with that initial "How is everything tasting?" question. If they don't come over right away, try to make eye contact until they spot you.

Second, be specific in your criticism. If something's burnt or lukewarm or whatever, say so. But even if it's just bad-tasting, can you explain why? It'll help the server explain what happened to the kitchen and—best case scenario—eventually improve the dish or get it axed from the menu. Remember, the server just brought your food; she didn't cook it, so be gentle: "Hey, I usually like tuna, but I didn't expect the Tuna-Ketchup-Surprise to be so sweet." (Gag.) If you can't pin down the source of the ick, a line like "This dish just isn't what I expected, sorry" might suffice.

If you do this early enough in the meal, hopefully your server will offer to get you another dish you'd like better. That's always my tactic; I'll remove the offending plate and ask if there's something else you'd rather have. So third, be prepared with something else from the menu— "Thanks for the offer. I think the hamburger—medium-rare—sounds great."

If this swap happens, you should obviously only be charged for the burger. But if you ate 75 percent of the Tuna Surprise and didn't complain until the end of the meal, you might be S.O.L., Unsure. The server—or the manager making refund decisions—will likely assume that since you ate most of it, it couldn't have been that bad. Hopefully they'll still pass your comments along to the kitchen, though. I try to do this politely—takes a lot of effort, I tell you—so as not to offend the kitchen, but they should know which dishes customers like and which they don't. After all, we're all here to serve food that doesn't suck.

As long as you're not being ridiculously picky or critical about your feedback, Unsure, you're in the right. You deserve to be served a dinner you like, not sad baby food.

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