The Morning Advertiser has recently published the results of a YouGov survey showing that 39% of people were uncomfortable about sending food back in pubs and restaurants. If anything, I’d say that’s a surprisingly low figure, as it’s a subject that is potentially far more of a minefield than returning unsatisfactory beer to the bar.
Looking at the figures in more detail, the first two reasons, of getting the wrong meal and the food being undercooked, are fairly clear-cut, and you should have a strong case. Indeed you have to wonder who the 8% of people are who wouldn’t send the wrong meal back. But, after that, it becomes more problematical. The range of potential faults in food is much greater than that in beer, and very often it becomes a matter of subjective judgment.
I freely admit to being a distinctly fussy and eccentric eater, but in general I simply try to avoid ordering dishes where there may be an issue, as I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable about returning a meal just because it wasn’t cooked to my liking. How fatty or gristly would a steak need to be before you deemed it unacceptable? And what would be your expectations of getting a better one? There have also been several occasions where a dish, while maybe not objectionable in its own right, turned out to be something very different from what the menu had led me to believe.
Plus there is the question of what happens to a meal if you send it back. With beer, it’s simply a case of replacing it with another one, but if your food is undercooked, are they going to cook it a bit more, and if they did would that overall be a satisfactory cooking process anyway? Or are they going to start again from scratch, which will cost them money, and cost you time? That may not be a good solution if you have something else to do later.
If a pub can’t provide you with an acceptable replacement beer, then it’s not really a major problem if you have to forgo a drink. But if there’s nowhere else suitable to eat nearby then you may be forced to go hungry, hence why people may often decide that struggling through unappetising food is the less bad option. And there’s always the suspicion that the kitchen staff may feel affronted by seeing their carefully-prepared dish sent back and end up spitting in it – or worse. The whole business of returning food is always likely to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Looking back, I can think of a few occasions where I’ve returned dishes because they were grossly undercooked, although with at least one of those it seemed to be taken with ill grace. And there was the notorious ploughman’s incident in Tewkesbury. “This is ham, I asked for cheese.” Then, when it came back, “Er, isn’t a ploughman’s meant to include bread?” There were also a few others which, with hindsight, I really should have sent back.
So it’s hardly surprising that, overall, many diners tend to stick to dishes where the scope for making a mess of them is limited. And it has to be said that independently-run pubs, while they can serve up some excellent food, also seem to have a knack for putting their own spin on dishes and coming up with some truly bizarre and unappealing interpretations. In McDonald’s at least you know what you’re getting, and what it’s supposed to be like.