When restaurant meals go wrong – what can you do?

Complaining in a restaurant

Going out for a meal is one of my favourite things to do, either to meet friends, to celebrate or when I’m too lazy to restock my cupboards. But what happens when the restaurant serves up disappointment?

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch in a restaurant near my office. I placed my order and took a seat. A while later, the waitress came up to tell me her colleague had actually sold all the orders of that meal and I would need to pick an alternative. It was a simple mistake and I didn’t mind at all – but she insisted on giving me a free drink and dessert. That gesture made my lunch break.

But a straw poll of my colleagues revealed the restaurant horrors that left a bad taste in their mouths. One went out with a group of her friends where the restaurant got orders wrong, forgot some people completely, and there was more than half an hour between the first and last people getting their meals.

Another booked a table, only to turn up and be told there would be a half hour wait, as there was a surge of people coming in and the staff had given their table away.

Dishing up disappointment

If you’ve visited a restaurant where the food on the menu isn’t as described, they haven’t kept your booking, or the service resembles something out of Fawlty Towers it can be tricky to know what your rights are. If just one meal is bad, can you refuse to pay for the whole meal? Can you ask for a service charge to be removed? Our video shows you what not to do:

Your restaurant rights

When you book a table in a restaurant, you are effectively entering into a contract with the provider of the service. That may sound a little formal, but it means you have the right to expect food of satisfactory quality and ‘as described’ on the menu.

So if, like the hapless couple in the video, you’ve ordered a beef ragu only to be served something that resembles spaghetti bolognese out of a tin, you have grounds to complain. But not to put the waiter’s face in it, as our rather hot-headed actor did. You might find yourself in trouble if you do that.

Be sure to digest our guides on how to get money off your restaurant bill for poor quality food before you go out to eat this weekend.

Have you ever been caught up in a restaurant nightmare that was difficult to resolve? Did you know your rights?

richard says:
9 June 2013

Some years ago – My friends and I went to a local restaurant for a meal – The meal resulted with all of us going down with some form of food poisoning – If it had been just one ot two of us the incident would have been forgotten – but it was everybody – so the incident was reported. There was an inspection – The restaurant was closed – never to open again. We didn’t get compensation though.

Sludgeguts says:
9 June 2013

Service charge – why is this not outlawed?
Why is it legal for an establishment to include a charge on their bill simply because they mention it in the nano-font on the menu?
This is a mockery. You are being forced to pay for bad service.
When my friends and I go out for a meal, we like to reward good service, our regular haunts remember us & we feel they go the extra mile.
The price of a meal is there to cover all the establishment’s costs – running costs, staff costs, food costs…
If I refuse to pay the service charge when I order – does this mean I am expected to fetch my own meal from the kitchen?
If I come across somewhere that hides the service charge in the small print, I make a big deal about it – low lighting & my needing glasses to read = disability discrimination? I also make sure it is the first thing I say about the place when I review it on trip advisor & the many other review websites.
In essence, being forced to pay for service means they can serve you how the heck they like.

I likewise find service charges very annoying. I much prefer the system in France where it’s always “service compris” with no expectation of a tip for standard service. Unlike the US, Europe has a culture (and also laws) whereby the price you see is the price you pay. However, although this applies to the tax element of the price, it doesn’t seem to apply always to service charges.

However, there is one advantage to the consumer of service charges: they are not subject to VAT. In order to escape VAT, they have to be optional which means that even if the restaurant adds the service charge automatically, you can ask for it to be removed. This has an obvious benefit for both the restaurant and the consumer.

I often eat out with my VAT-registered business footing the bill. Because restaurants don’t have to itemise the amount of VAT for bills below £100, the service charge makes it very awkward to calculate the amount of VAT for our quarterly VAT return.

Wages for restaurant staff were always low and they rely on tips to make up their money. If there is a service charge added to the bill, it will go to the restaurant who may not share it between the staff. So the waiting staff lose out.

One thing that I find extremely annoying is waiters/waitresses collecting plates before everyone at the table has finished their meal, or even having the nerve to ask those who are still eating whether they have finished. This has the unpleasant impact on those who haven’t finished that they feel rushed and unable to enjoy the remainder of meal. This is compounded when some at the table have had to wait longer than others to receive their meal. The problem occurs less at more upmarket restaurants where staff tend to be better trained.

Another irritating practice is for restaurants to show beer on the menu with the typical market price for a pint but they neglect to show the quantity. When the beer is brought to the table, it is often a tiny bottle such as 275ml (less than half a pint). Upmarket restaurants tend to be the worst for this, often with some anti-beer snobbery such as claiming it’s a down-market drink – not true as it’s good enough for the Duke of Edinburgh even at banquets. Indian restaurants tend to be the most honest in this respect.

The sort of beer that is sold in restaurants IS a down-market drink.

QP says:
9 June 2013

I hate service charges. The restaurant should pay staff properly and the price you pay should cover this, the food, the building and the profit margin. Any special service can be tipped but not automatically when staff do nothing special to make an experience. As for adding tip then credit card empty space for further double tipping, I also ‘Trip Advisor’ this and actually feel it should be illegal or at least an automatic free meal!

The problem I find with many restaurants – particularly the pub type – is mediocre food, mostly from a meal wholesaler, and overpriced drinks, especially wine. We can cook a better meal at home.When you do find a home cooking venue that takes a pride in their food they are worth treasuring. Eating out should be a treat, not just to consume food. It is a shame we don’t have the tradition of family-run restaurants that they seem to on the Continent (but declining?).

The term restaurant has been debased by its use to describe fast food outlets.

Though I agree that eating out in a proper restaurant should be a treat, there is certainly a need for places that serve reasonable food at affordable prices.

wavechange, I don’t mean “expensive” by “a treat”. Just that the food should be enjoyable and a bit special. A good cream tea with home made scones and jam is as much a treat as fresh crab salad. We have a favourite eatery in Dartmouth; the cheeseboard lunch was 4 decent pieces of local cheese, home made chutney and bread, salad, potato salad, fresh fig, in a very unpretentious venue. Roll on August.

I don’t think we are disagreeing, Malcolm. Many of us have our favourite places to eat, but it can be difficult finding reasonable food when touring and visiting unfamiliar places.

I had a bit of a moral dilemma with restaurant complaints this weekend and I’d be interested to know what people think.

On Saturday I went for lunch at a Mexican restaurant. When my ‘beef’ burrito arrived it turned out to be pulled pork. Actually quite delicious, and I love pulled pork (hadn’t spotted it on the menu at the time – I think it was in a different section). I’m a bit shy about complaining, and I really like this restaurant so didn’t want to upset them. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t say anything.

But after I’d left I thought perhaps I’d made the wrong decision – although it didn’t matter to me, I know that there are other people who have to be careful about what meat they eat for religious reasons or ethical reasons. So my question is – should I have said something, even though it wasn’t a problem for me personally?

I’d love to know your thoughts, and whether you’d have said something in this situation!

As you enjoyed it I think I would have just commented on the mistake rather than complained, so they didn’t get it wrong again.

I agree. I would have mentioned the mistake to them in the hope of being offered a free drink or something, but would not have complained.

Thank you both! That’s certainly what I’ll do in future. I think perhaps I just got caught up in a worry about ‘complaining’ when – as Malcolm R says – it could just be a comment rather than a complaint.

As you enjoyed the food that was served there was no genuine reason to complain. However, you should mention to the maitre dee as you leave the restaurant that the wrong dish was served so that he can pass on the message to the kitchen enabling the staff to be more careful in future.

When you were served the pulled pork, it was obvious you were served the wrong dish. If you did not bring it to the attention of the staff at that point you have nothing to complain about. After you have eaten the evidence is not the time to complain.