How to Send a Dish Back Without Making Your Waiter Hate You

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Can I send a dish back just because I didn't like it? How do we split the check without causing a fight in the group chat? In Code of Conduct, our restaurant etiquette column, we explore the dos, don'ts, and IDKs of being a good diner.

Kate Fenoglio, Bon Appétit’s production manager, was having a perfectly good meal until she found herself face to face with something alarming: an oyster squirming in its shell. “My waitress screamed when she saw it,” says Kate, who was informed by the kitchen that a pesky little crab was animating the bivalve. Shaken by this sight, she sent it back.

Of course, a dish moving when you expect it to be staying still is an extreme dining experience—and one that without question warrants sending it back and asking for a redo. But there are plenty more common, less black-and-white dining situations that may leave you wondering whether or not it’s acceptable to flag down a waiter. Whether your meal was undercooked, oversalted, kind of cold, or flat-out meh, there are lots of reasons you might want to send a dish back.

It’s fair to want to get your money’s worth, especially since dining out feels like an investment these days. But if you, like me, consider yourself nonconfrontational to a fault, sending food back can be a scary prospect. For guidance we interviewed a restaurant owner, a chef, and a host, who all agreed that there are right and wrong times to send food back. Even for the shyest among us, there are times when you can send a dish back graciously—and without becoming known as That Customer. Here’s what to know.

It just doesn’t taste very good

You ordered the lobster risotto. Your friend recommended it, and when is lobster ever the wrong choice? Alas, when you dig in, it’s mealy and sort of chewy—not luxuriously creamy. You paid a good $42 for this, and you’re starting to sweat whether or not to tell your nice waiter; after all, she re-upped the free bread without you even asking.

“Some people might be embarrassed to let the restaurant know what they don't like about [a dish],” says chef Ian Graye of Pietramala in Philadelphia (one of Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants of 2023). But Graye says it’s actually constructive feedback for the kitchen. If a diner told one of Pietramala’s staff that a dish was a smidge too salty for their liking, the kitchen would remake it with their preferences in mind—and that information might come in handy as cooks work to fine-tune dishes for the next set of diners.

Be as specific as possible when raising your dissatisfaction: Don’t just say “I didn’t like it” and expect the waiter to employ some special sixth sense. The more context you give, the more helpful it’ll be for the kitchen, and the better chance there is that you’ll be satisfied with how they remake it. If you still don’t like the dish on second try? Well, it’s probably time to tough it out.

There was an unlisted allergen in the dish

It can be daunting to speak up at a big dinner with friends to alert staff that you have an allergy—but it’s important to leave nothing to the imagination when it comes to your health concerns. “Be loud about it and make it known when you sit down,” says Mia Corbett, a host at Locanda Vini e Olii, an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Risk-taking is fun when it comes to dating or overcoming your fear of heights, not when it comes to your allergies.

As a matter of food safety, Jenn Saesue, owner of popular New York Thai spot Fish Cheeks, will “100 percent” take back and remake a dish if it contains an ingredient that a diner is allergic to. Ideally, Graye adds, this scenario should never come to fruition if proper safeguards are in place. A waiter should always ask if there are allergies at the table before taking an order, and a diner should explain their allergies regardless. “It’s a two-way street,” Graye says.

If you don’t state outright that you’re extremely allergic to stone fruits, you can’t expect the kitchen to proactively pick out the peaches from that special summer salad you ordered. And there are situations where you as a diner need to make smart choices on where you eat. It’s probably not reasonable to expect a seafood restaurant to honor your shellfish allergy, or a pasta restaurant to accommodate your aversion to gluten.

It came out cold…but you’re pretty sure it was supposed to be hot

Unless you ordered gazpacho or chilled borscht, you generally shouldn’t have to settle for cold soup—chili should not be chilly. If your instinct tells you the dish you ordered was meant to be hotter than you received it, gently ask your waiter if that’s the case. If your hunch was on point, Graye says, the dish should be entirely remade, not just heated up in the oven or microwave. “There's pretty much no way to reheat a dish if you care about the integrity of the dish,” he adds—it just won’t taste the same as if it were made fresh. In short, don’t resign yourself to lukewarm soup or cold spaghetti for fear of being unreasonable—but do expect to wait a beat for the chef to remake it.

If your seafood stew is too hot, however, you should probably just wait for it to cool down.

You find a strand of hair in your lunch

Whether it’s Sweetgreen or a fine dining hot spot you waited months to get into, you should be able to enjoy your salad free of someone else’s DNA. “Having good hygiene is the responsibility of chefs,” Graye says. The same goes for an errant piece of plastic, a shell where it wasn’t meant to be, or a pebble in your mussels. When it comes to unexpected inedible bits and pieces showing up in your food, it’s always acceptable to ask for a new dish.

Bear in mind, while hair in your food can be an ick, don’t dock the restaurant immediately for being “gross” or “dirty.” Chefs have hair, hairnets are fallible, and a strand can inevitably make its way onto a plate—we’re all human.

You order your dish a certain way—over easy eggs or medium-rare meat—and that’s not what you get

If a waiter asks how you’d like something cooked, and it arrives differently, sending it back is fair game. “They’re opening themself up to getting that food sent back” if they don’t heed your preferences, Graye says. “Maybe try a little bit first,” Corbett adds. “See if it surprises you in a good way.”

But if a waiter or chef explains to you that a dish is conceived with a specific preparation in mind, such as duck breast cooked on the rarer side or a salad dressed ahead rather than served with dressing on the side, there’s often a good reason. “That's how the chef intends for it to be consumed,” Corbett says. Not all restaurants are amenable to modifications, and if that’s made clear when you order, you can’t expect the kitchen team to acquiesce readily.

You ordered your dish a certain way but then decide after the fact that you would’ve preferred it cooked differently

You ordered your eggs fried but after a few sips of the mimosa—stronger than usual, by the way—you start dreaming of a soft scramble with Parmesan over the top. For the love of brunch, don’t send a dish back just because you had a change of heart. Sure, in the name of good hospitality, both Gray and Saesue concede that they’d follow the customer’s lead and swap the order. But while a kind waiter and patient kitchen team might humor your indecision, “You ordered what you ordered and you got what you ordered—technically you should be paying for that,” says Graye. And don’t assume you’ll get a dish taken off the bill if you ordered it, received it, and then changed your mind.

You didn’t know the dish would have cilantro in it, and you’re one of those people with the soapy cilantro gene

If you’re afflicted with the soapy cilantro gene, I’m so sorry. Now that that’s out of the way: It’s your right to send a dish back if it wasn’t noted on the menu that it would contain the herb. At Pietramala, when a seasonal smoked eggplant dish contained cilantro but didn’t make note of it on the menu, a handful of customers sent it back. “It [was] really our fault that we didn't mention that because that is something that afflicts some people,” Graye says.

But as with any allergy or strong aversion, it’s ultimately your job as a diner to voice your needs before you order. Just like a restaurant might not list garlic in linguine with clams, it’s not realistic—or fair—to expect every restaurant you visit to list cilantro in a dish where it only plays a supporting role.

You’re already full when your entrée arrives

Have you heard of doggy bags? Don’t expect to have a dish nixed from the bill just because you got too full on the bread course—it happens to the best of us, but it’s really not a restaurant’s fault. Don’t even mention it to your waiter!

What you can and should do is ask to have your leftovers packed up. “If you ordered it, the assumption is you're going to pay for it,” Corbett says. While Graye winces at the thought of his farro risotto dish or blistered carrots taken to-go and consumed several hours later, he’d rather that than waste the food altogether. You already paid for your duck, so reheat it in the oven and eat it for dinner tomorrow. Or for breakfast—once you’re home, you can do whatever you want.

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit

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