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The art of complaining, in three acts

The other night GC and I were out for dinner at one of those buffet-style places, when I discovered a human hair woven through my peas and cheese.

Suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore. I signaled the waitress and told her about the hair.

The waitress was suitably horrified and apologetic, and set about to remedy the situation as best she could. First she took my plate – with the offending hair – back to the kitchen, presumably to inspect it more closely and identify the source. Next, she located the suspect dish, and had it removed from the buffet table. Then she came back and apologized to me some more and said the cooks (who always wear hairnets) were distraught and horrified and wanted her to convey their deepest apologies. She told me that there would be no charge for the meal.

A little while later the owner came to our table and explained that the hair was longer than either of the cooks’ hair, but sometimes, in a buffet, a customer can inadvertently leave a stray hair in a dish. He said he was very sorry and hoped we would keep coming to his restaurant.

GC and I were equally gracious, assuring the owner and the waitress that we understood it was an isolated incident and we wouldn’t hold it against the restaurant. At the end of the evening, they said there was no charge at all – both our meals were on the house. We thanked them and left a generous tip on the table.

While happy with the outcome, GC was surprised that I had alerted the waitress to the hair in the first place. He said there are basically two types of people in the world – those who complain and send food back, and those who don’t. And in all the time he’s known me, I’ve been in the second group.

But of course there’s a third group: those who prefer not to complain, but who will, under extreme circumstances, do so. I told him I only complain if the transgression is sufficient to kill my appetite, as it was in this case.


I remember years ago I was out for lunch with work colleagues at an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet on Wellington Street. While gathering food at the buffet table, I lifted a chrome lid and saw a big fat cockroach scuttle across the tablecloth.

I lost my appetite, and wondered whether to alert my colleagues, who were all preparing to chow down, and whether to say something to the wait staff. I didn’t. But that night I wrote a letter to the restaurant. A real letter, with a stamp and everything. (This was in the early 90s. Pre-email.)

The owner phoned me when he received it, apologized profusely, and begged me to come back, with a guest, for a lovely meal on the house. He said the whole street had cockroaches, and all the restaurants had been sprayed earlier in the week, but the unfortunate thing about spraying is that any cockroaches who survive are disorientated and disrupted, so you’re more likely to see them in the immediate aftermath.

I thanked him, and said I would visit with a guest, but I never did.


The only other time I complained in a restaurant was at Mexicali Rosa’s on Bank Street in the 1990s. Donna Smith and I were sharing a jug of sangria and a lot of laughs one lovely afternoon. I just happened to have a small bottle of plastic house flies in my pocket. They belonged to my son, whose favourite store at the time was Bill’s Joke Shop. What happened next was completely unplanned. There was only an inch or so of sangria left in the jug, so I tossed in a plastic fly and called the waiter over.

“Waiter,” I said, “There’s a fly in our sangria!”

He apologized and brought us a fresh jug of sangria, on the house. Donna and I laughed ourselves silly. The thing is, we knew the guy and we really weren’t trying to scam a free jug of sangria – we were just joking around. We had every intention of paying for both jugs before we left.

I wish I could remember the waiter’s name. Bob, maybe. He ended up winning $100,000 in Lottario a while later, and moved to Mexico for a few years, because you could live like a king in Mexico with that kind of money.

Anyway. I digress. Donna and I knocked back most of our second jug of sangria, and then I tossed another fly into the jug.

“Waiter,” I said, “There’s a fly in our sangria!”

Donna and I were just about peeing ourselves laughing, because something like that is hilarious after two jugs of sangria. But Bob was not amused. He was mad. MAD.

Anyway, those are my three experiences of complaining in restaurants. How about you? Under what circumstances, if any, do you complain in restaurants?

20 comments to The art of complaining, in three acts

  • Merle

    I don’t mind a hair in my salad too much nor a fly in my drink but, if I receive a plate of french fries that aren’t piping hot, be prepared for a battle!

  • Manon

    The only time I complained was when I found a caterpillar curled up in the basil leaves of my Thai Basil chicken. I had the same reaction as you, it took my appetite away — I don’t mind caterpillars, but I really don’t fancy them stir-fried in my food. The server called the owner of the restaurant, who apologized profusely. When we got the bill, only my husband and my daughter’s meals were charged. Most of the time, I don’t bother complaining, because that means waiting for a replacement dish to be cooked and I don’t want to wait X amount of time to finally eat.

  • I was indulging in some late-night gelato and cappuccino with my spouse and mother one night as we enjoyed the warm air of Dubrovnik. I chose a black forest gelato, and we sat outside on the swings, sampling and luxuriating. I took a spoonful which included a nice big chunk of cherry- only, to my surprise, it was crunchy. Ever cautious, I spit it out, only to find it was a cockroach, frozen solid and pretending to be a cherry. (I’m queasy just relating this tale) I took the insect into the cafe, where they did their best to convince me that it must have flown (!) on to my gelato immediately before I ate it. Never mind the fact that it was frozen…

    That was it for me and gelato that night.

  • Megabytes

    Not quite the same, but I went to a Chinese restaurant in Kingston and ordered hot & sour soup as an appetizer. I didn’t like it, and the waiter took it back to the kitchen when he cleared the table to make way for the main course. The chef came out with the bowl of soup and told me it was good and that I should eat it. He added extra garnishes to “improve the taste” and left it on the table, even though I said I didn’t want it. That bowl of soup sat on the table through the whole meal, even after the dessert dishes and tea were cleared. I felt like a bad kid being told to eat my dinner! Very annoying…

  • I can’t eat peppers. I mean, I won’t die, but I will be uncomfortable if I do. If I ask for a dish without peppers (which I will only do if it’s a sandwich or something) and it comes with peppers, back it goes. If I don’t ask (and just assume it won’t have peppers) and it comes with peppers, I figure that’s my own fault. (If the server goes to the kitchen, removes the peppers, and brings the same meal back, I don’t go back to that restaurant.)

    Otherwise, I will only complain if something is really wrong – like the seriously overcooked ribs I got served once.

  • I worked for a popluar restaurant chain throughout university. When I dine out, I rarely complain because I know what (a few) staff members could/would do to food that was sent back for not being cold, not tasty etc. Bugs & hair in food is disgusting. I am going to be cooking at home a lot more now…(Shudder)

  • Deb

    I very seldom complain…but, I have never had any of the things in my meal that the rest of you have had. If it is cool, or over(under)cooked, I just pick away at it anyway. It probably comes from working in restaurants during my school years. Another thing that I don’t do, that I have had happen to me, is whistle, to get my server’s attention.

  • I’m like Deb I just pick away at stuff. If I see a cockroach I generally lose MY appetite but I don’t want to ruin things for my companions so I do not mention it.

    When I was in school I was a server in a German restuarant (God I hated that job!) I was new there so I worked a lot of lunch/afternoons which were full of business men trying to impress the women they were having affairs with – the restaurant was full of “grottos and fireplaces” we lit with cans of sterno – lots of champagne and expensive lunchtime meals. Well this guy comes in and orders FOR his girlfriend and asks for Weiner Spitzel. I asked him do you mean “Weiner Schnitzel or Weiner Tafelspitz”. He was so flustered that I asked for clarification he yelled at me and said I SAID WEINER Tafelspitz didn’t I???”

    I put in the order got them their drinks and appetizers and while I was opening the champagne I overheard him describing the breaded veal dish they’d be enjoying. He’d ordered boiled brisket covered in dill pickles. I didn’t correct the chef and quite happily brought the chef out to explain that weiner meant viennese, it wasn’t a dish while the girlfriend and I rolled our eyes behind his back.

    Man I can hold a grudge 20 years…I still wish I’d spit in his rum and coke.

  • Deb

    Mud, you are a riot…and the main reason that I don’t complain. I heard stories of restaurant staff doing really gross things to food that had been sent back.

  • I know I’ve complained about stuff, but the only situation I can recall is returning chicken because it was undercooked.

    Mudmama – that is an awesome revenge.

    – RG>

  • If I were handing out awards, Susan and her frozen gelato cockroach would have to win. Ugh.

    Merle, if I ever serve you french fries, I’ll keep that in mind. (Have a good safe trip if I don’t talk to you before you go.)

    Manon, I’d have complained about the caterpillar too. I’m going to be inspecting my food more carefully from now on.

    Megabytes, that’s hilarious. I guess the chef had a tendency to take things personally.

    Colette, you mean the spice peppers? Or green/red/yellow peppers? Or hot peppers?

    Laura, I hate to ask, but what would they do?

    XUP, I actually thought of you while I was writing this post, because I’ve seen you send food back lots of times. With mixed, and sometimes troubling, results…

    Deb, I dated someone once who literally yelled “Garcon!” across the restaurant to get the waiter’s attention, and thought he was being all cultured when he did it.

    Mudmama, I think it’s hilarious that you’re still pissed at this guy.

    RG, I’d have to send back the undercooked chicken too.

    So it sounds like we’re a pretty tolerant bunch, on the whole, except for XUP. 😉

  • Zoom, you don’t want to know. Trust.

  • Arden

    Generally I don’t complain, unless it’s really bad. I would complained if it was undercooked, though I don’t usually complain if it’s overcooked. I’m not sure I’ve ever found anything gross in my food, maybe hair once or twice. More than anything, I’ve complained about pop, though mum has always done way more complaining about it than I ever have. I really don’t like to send things back because of the occasional vengeful restaurant staff. If I do send stuff back, I try to be as friendly and nice about it as possible in hopes that maybe they won’t decide to do something nasty.

  • At the end of the summer, a woman my friend and I worked with for the summer took us out for dinner. She took us out to the Canal Ritz, so a fairly upscale meal. It was lovely – we all ordered our food, chatting and then our food arrived.

    I was about to dig in when I saw a fly in the sauce on top of my pasta. It wasn’t all mixed in, but it was definitely in my pasta sauce. It totally disgusted me, and the woman taking us out for dinner totally understood, called the waitress over and we pointed it out to her.

    She looked at me, apologized then asked “So, did it just fly in there?” She made no motion to do anything for me. I said I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. There was a pause. My dinner date stepped in and pointed out they should fix this by giving me a new plate. Then the waitress took it away, and my dinner dates shared their food until mine (finally) came.

    It was on the top – should I have even complained? The waitress made me feel so stupid. But it was very gross.

  • I’ve had issues with green peppers, red peppers, and jalepeno peppers. That’s pretty much when I just started avoiding all kinds of peppers. I have had peri-peri hot sauce, which is fine. It’s kind of odd, I have to admit.

  • Bonnie

    the waiter at Mexicali’s was probably Ben…he served me a “few” jugs of Sangria when I lived in the area.

  • Laura, okay, you’re probably right. But now my imagination is working on it, and that’s not a good thing either…

    Arden, isn’t that interesting that so many people don’t complain out of a fear of retaliation? I wonder how common it is that kitchen staff would actually DO something?

    La Canadienne, I would have complained about a fly too. And I might even have complained to the manager about the waitress’s attitude towards me and my perfectly legitimate complaint. (It’s always harder when you’re with other people though, because you don’t want to make them uncomfortable…)

    Colette, my doctor would say “that’s just one of the little things that make you you.”

    Bonnie, no, it wasn’t Ben. (Ben’s back there now, by the way – he was lured out of retirement.) It was a really big guy. About 350 pounds. Ring any bells?

  • Lo

    I will ‘complain’ if warranted. Especially if it is a nicer restaurant but it’s always in a nice and understanding way as I used to wait tables so I know. It’s not what you say but how you say it. That being said, I am very fussy now about where I will go to eat for many of the reasons mentioned here. I want what I pay for or I might as well eat at home. I don’t frequent any of the lower end roadhouses or anything (except I love a good pub). I would rather go out less often and to a higher end place that I know really well. My list is short but sweet. But my gosh, some of the horror stories I have read here would turn me off dining out for a very LONG time:)

  • Zhu

    I find the staff reacted very well at the first and second instances. They were probably right, the hair must have been a customer’s… that said, you were right to complain!

    I can never complain. I’m just not good at it.

    I had some really bad experiences in a few restaurants in Ottawa and really wasn’t sure what to say, where to start and what to do. Mexicali Rosa, the one on the market for instance. I never ever went back there after a less than pleasant meal and no apologies from the staff.

    All in all, I tend to avoid altogether places where I find the service suck. Maybe I should complain at least once, because after all if no one says anything, it can never be corrected.