The benefit of sending back dishes

Before/ Hanna Raskin

When you dine out every night, you get pretty good at restaurant-going: Reviewers know how to quickly size up a menu, and how to determine who’s at fault when the nachos show up cold. But what critics rarely practice is sending food back, because it’s their job to observe what a kitchen does without being prompted to do better -- and also because a face-to-face conversation with the manager is tough to reconcile with anonymity.

Still, we’re always encouraging diners to pipe up when they’re unhappy with their food. Don’t post your gripes on Yelp, we counsel: Tell your server exactly what’s wrong. Ask for the manager if he or she doesn’t offer to remake or replace the dish.

I still think that’s sound advice, for the sake of both diners and restaurant workers. But a recent experience helped me better understand the challenges associated with complaining, and the benefits of not backing down.

About a month ago, a reader e-mailed me about a new Italian restaurant south of Myrtle Beach. (I don’t believe in picking on mom-and-pop restaurants that aren’t on anyone’s radar, so I’m not revealing the restaurant’s name.) In retrospect, the e-mail was a little too gushy to be genuine: I suspect it was sent by a friend of the owner. But I was initially so keen on recognizing a deserving red sauce joint that I made a point of dining at the restaurant when I was in the area.

Nothing was wrong with the Caesar salad, unless you count our server’s insistence that my dining companion and I share a single paltry serving. My orecchiette alla barese, though, was awful. The pasta was so overcooked that it had a pudding-like texture, and the gobs of oil strewn over the broccoli rabe and sausage just made the mess mushier. Figuring I was officially off-duty, my date and I debated whether I should alert the server.

Because the restaurant was mostly empty, before we could settle on a strategy, a manager overheard our discussion and came over to the table to confront us. I don’t remember her exact opening line, but I’d describe it as defensive at best. “It’s just really oily,” I told her when my overcooking claims didn’t seem to sway her. “Well, that’s a dish that’s made with oil,” she retorted.

Don’t worry about it, I said. Don’t remake it. Just take it away, please.

“Do you think they taste it?,” my date asked as the owner turned toward the kitchen.

“They should,” I said, remembering that when I worked in restaurants, rejected plates generally fell into one of two categories: They were either flawless or so wretched that they’d send the chef into a rage that wouldn’t subside for the duration of service.

My pasta was apparently the latter kind of return. The owner returned to the table, whisking away my date’s linguine with clams. She explained her husband had tried the pasta and was so furious with the responsible cook that he was remaking both dishes himself. He also sent over a little plate of salami and cheese in apology, which arrived as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” swelled on the stereo. (Maybe it was just a coincidence, but I like to picture the husband choosing the track just before he tied on his apron.) Then our server brought over a comped cocktail, stiffer than the one I’d been served at the start of the meal.

Even with the extra attention, the pastas weren’t worth the drive. But they were totally acceptable, and our experience – along with my empathy for diners who have the courage to send back imperfect dishes – was much improved. Keep it up, folks.