How to complain - and when to tip

20:37, Aug 16 2011

We in New Zealand are not overwhelmingly good at complaining in restaurants and cafes. Or rather, we're very good at complaining after the fact, but just not at the time. You could attribute it to our laid-back nature. Or you could just say we are a bunch of fearfully non-confrontational passive aggressives.

A few posts ago, I described a poached egg nightmare at a café in Napier – food that was simply not up to scratch, inedible, delivered far too slowly, which my hung-over self responded to by dropping the plate on the counter to attract the attention of the blissfully ignorant wait staff.

I have a bit of a theory about any type of service. It’s okay if it’s a tad "brusque" if it's extremely competent; similarly it’s okay if it’s a bit hopeless if it's delivered in a charming fashion. Ideally, service should be both charming and competent. What is not okay is when the service is neither charming NOR competent.

The worst service I have ever experienced in a restaurant was at a Chinese restaurant in Christchurch in the mid-90s – me, my partner, my parents and a family friend. We were seated, appropriately, at a table for six. We were then told “you’re gonna have to move”, and shifted to a gigantic 20-person table with a Lazy Susan by our scruffy, gum-chewing, ferociously adolescent waiter. He snorted, repeatedly. As we shouted to each other across the vast expanse of table, he thrust menus at us – when my Mum got a drinks menu rather than a food menu, and asked for it to be swapped over, she was told “all right, all right, keep your hair on”. He then proceeded to deliver the wrong drinks order.

At this point I decided enough was enough. Reasonably politely, I asked our waiter, “Excuse me, do you think we could have another waiter?” Disbelieving, he replied “do you mind if I ask why?”

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The gasket blew. “I would have thought that was perfectly bloody obvious!” The situation was swiftly taken in hand by the maitre'd, who comped our entrees and saw to it that the offending waiter spent the rest of the evening out of harm’s way, washing dishes.

(NB: when later recalling this incident, my partner would do so with the weary disclaimer “of all Jeremy’s confrontations in restaurants, that was probably the most justified…”)

Anyway, the point is that you do not have to tolerate rude, incompetent service. But you do need to take some steps to help stamp it out, rather than just accepting it and fuming about it later. If you, if you're serving someone, mess something up – be apologetic. And do what you can to make it right! Equally, if you, as a diner, are on the receiving end of a mess-up – be reasonable. And give your host a chance to make it right.

In a lot of ways, it's a pity we don’t have a more tipping-friendly service culture – nothing improves restaurant service like the promise of a tidy top-up to wait staff wages. There is, of course, no reason why you can’t tip in this country – if you get really great service, then you totally should tip.

That said, I do think the US tipping culture has got out of hand, leading to ridiculous, Larry David-like complications. I am particularly unimpressed by the compulsory service charge applied in some eateries – why should you tip as a matter of course, regardless of whether or not you receive decent service? And then, if it is actually good, you're supposed to tip on top of that? I don’t think so.

I do think that to receive good service, you need to know how to be a good customer. You need to sort of know what you want, but also be receptive to suggestions as to what you might enjoy. If there are any problems, you need to be able to deal with any issues in a reasonable way and be receptive to attempts to make right. Eating out is about more than just not having to cook yourself, feeding your face, and then not having to do the dishes. It should be enjoyable. It should be an experience.

If things are good, tell your waiter. If they are bad, likewise. If the food is great, by all means tell the chef. Any good chef will love being told you have enjoyed his food. If it is not, I would probably mention it to the wait staff rather than the chef – sharp knives, hot elements, fiery temperaments; yeah, nah.

And of course the best endorsement you can give is to tell people if you've had a great meal and great service. It’s how I’ve heard about 90 per cent of the places that have become my regulars.

So – what’s your worst restaurant service horror story? Or, if you're on the other side of the equation, our worst horror customer? And do you tip? And if so, how much?

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