Cheeseburger Gothic

Bad restaurant meal: to bitch or not to bitch?

Posted August 15, 2015 by John Birmingham

So I had a terrible sandwich yesterday. A Reuben sandwich, to make it worse. I'm very particular on the subject of Reuben sandwiches, having had my first at the Carnegie Deli in New York. Murph was with me. He can testify as to the nuclear powered awesomeness of that sandwich.

The pride of New York.

Yesterday's Reuben? Not so much. Whereas the Carnegie Deli's Reuben had arrived with something like a metric shit-ton of filling between two thin pieces of bread, yesterday's abomination reversed the equation; a thin sliver of meat, cheese and pickles between mattress thick slabs of burned rye. I suppose I should have taken a picture, but I wanted it in my photo stream no more than I wanted it in my tummy.

As I was paying my bill, cursing the spawn of this restaurant owner unto the seventh generation, the waitress asked that question.

"Did you enjoy your meal, sir?"

One would have thought that the gross tonnages of burned bread I had left behind on the plate might indicate that no, I had not enjoyed my fucking meal. But she had to ask, I suppose.

I shrugged and walked out. I don't always do that. Sometimes, if the food has been especially abysmal I will not just tell them why I did not enjoy the meal, I will ask to talk to the manager so that he or she might be appraised of their terrible, terrible failure. And sometimes, of course, if I'm working, if I am writing a review, I just smile and say nothing and proceed with all dispatch to contact whichever legal firm is handling defamation queries for the publication covering my tab.

I'm still not sure I did the right thing yesterday. Perhaps I should have spoken to them. But really, would it have made a damn bit of difference? I know what they were doing. They were plating up a meal with a price-to-table of about six dollars, including labour, and they were charging fifteen bucks for it. I doubt they were about to re-engineer their business model on the basis of any criticism from me.

And yet…

And yet I feel bad for having said nothing. I think it's the food reviewer in me coming out. I know that others will suffer through that appalling Reuben sandwich and I feel bad for having done exactly nothing to spare them.

I would be curious to hear what you think, because I know all of you have been in the same situation, even though you are not paid reviewers.

43 Responses to ‘Bad restaurant meal: to bitch or not to bitch?’

w from brisbane swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 15, 2015
Ideally you would politely complain. However, if you complain before your food service has been completed, then you are being very foolhardy. If you eat the meal then complain, that seems to somewhat invalidate your complaint. Anecdotally, for some reason, most people who actually complain in restaurants tend to be a bit silly and wrong.

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damian is gonna tell you...

Posted August 15, 2015
People will try to accommodate complainers, so I must acknowledge that it generally works for them. And after all you can't fix issues you don't know about.

I'm not a complainer, and I find being around people who complain a lot rather wearing. I expect it is one of those "to do or to ask" questions, and probably comes down to whether you learned to walk before you learned to talk or vice versa (I walked first). And while it's not practical to try to do everything for oneself, there's a perspective difference. Someone else is doing this thing for me because I don't have the time to do it for myself (perhaps including the time to learn how to do it well). I don't necessarily hold them to as high a standard as I would hold myself to, much less a higher one, it generally wouldn't even occur to me to do so. But a truly disappointing effort should, rightly, entail some feedback.

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted August 15, 2015
Man, I am the exact opposite on questions of quality. At least above a base level of difficulty in prep. If I'm paying I expect the dish to be competently handled. If I'm paying anything more than minimal dollar I expect something more than minimal competence. And look, mostly you get it, otherwise cafes and restaurants would go out of business. When you don't, something has gone wrong. Wrong enough if repeated to send that business under.

damian mutters...

Posted August 15, 2015
Oh totally, I just don't expect something as good as I would make myself. If I did that, there'd be maybe 2 places in Brisbane and they both charge a ridiculous markup.

Abe Frellman ducks in to say...

Posted August 15, 2015
Note to self- let Damian cook me a meal sometime.

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insomniac mutters...

Posted August 15, 2015
I'm inclined not to complain, but also never go back, ever.Most of the time it's ms insomniac's meal that has the issue. Not so much a poor imitation of a cracker dish, but just fucking up in some other way, is still putting cheese in when it has been removed by request, and similar. She will complain often but not always.

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Neil has opinions thus...

Posted August 15, 2015
I rarely complain, in fact just once, I wrote an email to a restaurant with the details of the condescending sommelier & my interaction with her. Never got a reply. I just don't return when I get crap service or food.

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Kev reckons...

Posted August 15, 2015
While the sandwich in question clearly sounds awful, the one in the photo looks pretty bizarre to me. The bread to filling ratio should clearly be above a certain level in order for it to be called a sandwich and not a plate of food with a bread garnish. But this is probably a pet hate and I digress. As for complaining, its more in my nature to internalise the negative experience than express it even though I know this is not the healthy approach. At least with food establishments I have the option of expressing dissatisfaction through not tipping. On the other hand, its a long time since I went anywhere that would dare charge anything like $15 for a sandwich (if ever). I'd expect it to be some kind of supernatural or near-death experience for that price - and if it wasn't I'd probably Instagram and Twitter the shit out of it.

puma has opinions thus...

Posted August 16, 2015

I think the type in the photo is stupid. I don't get them. I want a little of everything in each bite. With the big stack, you're forced to eat the meat by itself. If I wanted that, I'd order a steak. The cheese isn't melted either.

Haven't read through all the comments yet, but haven't you heard of Yelp ? It's a good forum for writing reviews and the decent owners will respond to your review. Check it out if you haven't yet.

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Abe Frellman mumbles...

Posted August 15, 2015
Members of my family have allergies so I go to a lot of trouble to say "No egg/dairy" etc. I don't always say it's an allergy thing, but I do get the shits if the dish comes with the egg-laden mayo/aoli etc I specifically asked to be removed. My pet peeve is when they say "You didn't tell me it was due to an allergy" - at which point I have been known to say, "So you heard me, you just couldn't be arsed noting it down?"

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Murphy_of_Missouri puts forth...

Posted August 15, 2015
What you should have shown them was the, "fruit," you claimed to be consuming while in NYC. Of course, it was lightly drizzled onto a metric ton of NYC Cheesecake, so I understand why you didn't chose to show that bit of food porn.

As for the sandwiches at Carnegie Deli, perhaps it is unfair to judge all others against them. Cindy and I, having lived all of our lives submerged in America's gluttony of super sized food portions, were just as astonished as you were by the offerings at that establishment. We have never seen deli sandiwches so artfully constructed, or of such scale, before or since.

That said, a shit meal is a shit meal and management should be informed as such. If they can't get their shit together about the shit meal, the shit service, and the fecal quality of cost versus what is on your plate, then they deserve to go out of business. While you might not be able to overtly write a bad review, passing it along via the Old Rounders Club method by word of mouth, encrypted with our organization's triple redundant quantum cypher, should suffice as an adequate balm for your rage.

In the meantime, have a drink. It is Bulleit Bourbon on this end.






Abe Frellman swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 15, 2015
It's a bit early for bourbon, although I did have some Collier and McKeel last night.

Murphy_of_Missouri asserts...

Posted August 15, 2015
Tis well past noon here. Drink up!

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Ewen has opinions thus...

Posted August 15, 2015
It's not like you would have thrown a tantrum and threatened to tear down democracy is you don't win the election. Feedback where it's due, I think kitchens that are having a laugh at their customers need a reminder that not all of us are fooled. Annoys me when a half eaten meal fails to trigger alarm bells back in the kitchen.

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted August 15, 2015
I'd find it hard to believe my plate didn't set off alarms.

NBlob has opinions thus...

Posted August 15, 2015
It's unlikely that he who prepared the meal scraped your plate.

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Barnesm would have you know...

Posted August 15, 2015
I think is is important for people such as yourself to complain , JB as you have the experience to distinguish what the meal should be. Others that go to that restaurant my now consider a Rubin sandwich one that is "a thin sliver of meat, cheese and pickles between mattress thick slabs of burned rye", who wouldn't know any better.
Also you could probably articulate the complaint in a much more engaging fashion that is more likely to improve the situation.
I find if I have a meal and it is disappointing but done to a minimum standard at the price I tend to spend then I simply won't return since there are many other places around where I live and work that cater to my taste and budget. If they have clearly stuffed up the order then I certainly speak up.
But complaining about the meal itself for what i think is some short coming I am always worried that I am doing the equivalent of complaining that the gazpacho soup is cold.

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted August 15, 2015
I'm ashamed to admit I have opened with, "I write for the Good Food Guide and luckily for you I'm not working tonight". It gets their attention.

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macbisho swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 15, 2015
This is why sites like Yelp and urbanspoon exist...
I use Yelp, because it feeds into Siri, and I think it's a fair deal - I pay you, you give me good food. I'll tell people. Give me bad food and I'll tell people too.
Just had brunch at a local celebrity swimmers place and I was not impressed.
Yelp review was fair. But clear on what I did and didn't like.

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Murphy_of_Missouri is gonna tell you...

Posted August 15, 2015
I do have to ask.
Do you compare the average hamburger to the one with fois gras you had in NYC?
If so, you'd be a very hard man to please.

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted August 15, 2015
No. A basic burger can be a thing of joy.

dweeze has opinions thus...

Posted August 15, 2015
Yeh, and fois gras can taste like fatty duck liver.

Sudragon puts forth...

Posted August 15, 2015
To reignite the recent debate... beetroot or not beetroot? bacon? pineapple?

insomniac would have you know...

Posted August 15, 2015
Beetroot and bacon fine, pineapple no. On second thoughts, bacon is mandatory.

damian reckons...

Posted August 16, 2015
For a "basic burger" you might start with "none of the above"... just a bun, a burger and some sort of relish. Everything else is, ultimately, optional (or a substitute for relish).

Guru Bob mutters...

Posted August 17, 2015
That sounds so very very dull...

damian would have you know...

Posted August 17, 2015
Depends on the quality and composition of the bun, burger and relish.

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w from brisbane mumbles...

Posted August 15, 2015
Sometimes a substandard meal is because the head chef didn't turn up, or due to an unpredicted supplier problem. It's hard to make a food joint impervious to those setbacks. Locals in the trade say that people have become a much more unreasonably and rather ignorantly demanding. They call it the Masterchef effect. JB, your $15 Reuben does sound pretty unacceptable.

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NBlob reckons...

Posted August 15, 2015
I worked front & back of house for many a moon. Receptiveness to feedback is as variable as waitstaff quality. Some venues value feedback, some feign interest & some couldn't give a sh!t. You can tell the latter as they are usually shut after 6 months.

NBlob would have you know...

Posted August 15, 2015
The t!ts & teeth on the floor may care a great deal about your dud Reuben experience, but you may as well bitch to the rubbish bin, for all the effect you'll have on next week's offering.

NBlob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 17, 2015
In a remarkable coincidence SWMBO & I had a very average meal last night. The Marlborough NZ Pinot Gris was good, the arancini fair (although surprisingly crab-less despite the menu assuring us otherwise) everything else was very sub-average. 40 minutes+ between order & service, only 2 other tables & 1 pizza takeaway order. 2 working back of house, 1 front of house. No I didn't bitch. Nor did we tip. We just won't go back.

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TheWah reckons...

Posted August 15, 2015
I never complain - but I never return. I've never seen it as my job to make their restaurant better. If it's not up to standards I am willing to pay for I go elsewhere.

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yankeedog puts forth...

Posted August 15, 2015
Yes, I'll probably comment on bad food/service at a restaurant. There's a way to (relatively) politely do it, though. Rip-snorting to everyone from the busboy to the manager isn't going to win points-you'll eventually just get laughed at. If something isn't right, I usually ask for someone in charge and let them know-it's their job to ride herd over the crew. And the person that asked you 'How was everything?' probably isn't the one who had a lot to do with the making.

A lot of things can go wrong-the place could be packed and everyone's rushed, someone uses the wrong ingredients accidentally, first day on the job for somebody, etc. Things happen. I've been on the bad end of that situation in my line of work WAY too many times over the years to want to go ballistic. Depending on the place and the problem, I might give a second chance. If it isn't up to snuff, then it's time to find another place.


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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mumbles...

Posted August 16, 2015
I hold with those who favor bitching, but politely. Without feedback nothing will improve - and we all must play our part in the never ending quest to improve the international restaurant universe.

Timing is important.

I have been told multiple times by trusted inside sources that, at least here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, it is common for those involved in food preparation to tamper with your selection in ways you cannot detect if they are upset with or angry at you. I cannot imagine why that would not be true anywhere else.

So, when I get a bad meal in a restaurant that isn't familiar to me and where the staff doesn't know me, I suffer it as an act of Fate. I won't complain until I'm leaving, and will say something to the effect of"

"The service was excellent, but the [fill in the blank] was terrible" followed by a quick description of why and then "please let the chef know."

And then I never return.

If this happens in a place where I am known and where I am loved (to know me is to love me) the above-described process is relaxed. Most owners take pride in the service they provide and want to please their customers some of whom, like me, are the source of significant regular income. They want to know if something happened that might cause that custom to go elsewhere; they want the opportunity to get it right.

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Quokka mutters...

Posted August 16, 2015
I thought you knew better than to eat at Cafe Sit Russ.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted August 16, 2015
Wasn't them. They've lost their lease!

Quokka would have you know...

Posted August 16, 2015
Praise be, there is a god.

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OTR mumbles...

Posted August 16, 2015
Carnegie Deli? Pfft!, JB, Pfft! Next time try one Katz's, in the lower east side. Worth the ensuing heart attack, it is. Also, take someone else with you, coz unless you're a 16 yo male, there's but nowt chance of you getting to the half way mark. Trust me on that. Free tip: do not - repeat, do not - wash it down with the recommended celery seltzer. Basically, what you have there is carbonated communism. Just, no.

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted August 16, 2015
Flatulence. Did the sandwich produce stinky gas?"Please inform the chef that this, this so-called Reuben...", a frowning JB waves airily at his plate, "this overly breaded and paltry attempt produced nary a hiccup of arse emission let alone the full and truly wondrous fart bomb which one usually associates with a proper Reuben. Good day!"

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Surtac is gonna tell you...

Posted August 17, 2015
Just saw this, but it's remarkably well-timed for me.

I'm off to the US tomorrow (for Worldcon in Spokane) but will be spending most of next week in NYC. A good quality Reuben sandwich is on my list of primary culinary targets in the Big Apple and I now have the Carnegie Deli to add to my list (Katz' is already on it).

But to the subject at hand, I would have complained as I left and never gone back, while also warning everyone I know of the travesty involved.

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Guru Bob ducks in to say...

Posted August 17, 2015
A good reuben sandwich is a thing of beauty - I recommend the first place on this list for a truly excellent sandwich...

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/lifestyle/melbourne/best-of-melbourne-we-review-reuben-sandwiches-that-will-rock-your-world/story-fnpbvxki-1227081377201

Lulu asserts...

Posted August 17, 2015
Ooh, thanks for that. I'm always keen to find good reubens in Melbourne.
One of my favourites was at an lunchtime cafe in officeland in North Sydney last year. Not thick, but a right amount of everything & nicely toasted (wrapped in foil, which prevented burning). I went back next time I was in Sydney, but it had closed, unfortunately.

Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted August 18, 2015
Shouldn't you be off finding the best Ruben Sandwich in Arimidale Gurubob?

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