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The Kempt Guide to Sending Back Food in a Restaurant

  • Jason Wire

Here we are: the height of feasting season.

That means your focus for the next month is fitting in as many dinners as humanly possible. But be forewarned: increased feasting frequency means busier kitchens and a higher chance of culinary errors—namely in the form of undercooked eggs, overcooked steaks and rogue hairs.

In seasons past, you may have let these sorts of things slide. But this year, you’re winning the holidays. And that means exercising your God-given right to eat dinner the way it was intended to be—even when it means sending it back. It’s an essential move, but not without risk: it can irritate your server, create tension among your dining companions and seriously diminish your dining-out cred. Unless you do it correctly.

Herewith, a five-point plan to knowing when and how to give your chef a mulligan.

Think Before You Speak Keep this in mind: before you tell someone they don’t know how to do their job, make sure you know what the hell you’re talking about. If you requested steak Oscar, don’t send it back because you didn’t know Oscar means topping it with asparagus, crab and béarnaise. (And if for any reason you would send that back, the problem may have deeper roots.)

On a related note: communicate—they say it’s key. If you don’t know what sweetbreads are or have a deathly allergy to parsley, speak up before you order.

Survey Your Surroundings Sometimes, sending your food back may not be an option no matter how egregious the error. As usual, context is everything. If you’re at a business dinner, the focus should be on business—not the tenderness of your ribs. If you’re out to eat with your mother-in-law, worry about brownie points, not actual brownies.

And if you’re somewhere with TVs on the walls, order another pitcher. Soon those wings will seem like the crowning achievement of buffalo wingsmanship.

Say It Like You Mean It The most crucial component of our five-point plan: commit. Do not sigh at your overcooked benedict, complain to your dining mates and furtively smile when your server returns to check on you—especially if someone else is picking up the tab. Do not hint at why your bouillabaisse is inedible (“It’s a little too salty...”) and hope your server knows what you really mean (“This tastes like the Dead Sea”).

Damage Control So you’ve done it. Nice job. You were gentle yet firm, and you won a small victory in the age-old battle for medium-goddamn-rare. Yet no matter how smoothly you did it, the sudden disappearance of your meal will likely have created a little tension amongst your peers.

To fix this: order another round to liven the mood. Change the subject by jumping into that long story about when you defended an entire Nepalese village against telemarketers. In general: pretend like nothing ever happened, and—this is important—make sure everyone else starts eating.

The Follow-Through By now, you should be the proud re-recipient of an exquisitely flambéed, medium-medium-rare, low-sodium with extra spicy mayo pressed duck. If they got it right: bravo. Enjoy. Just be sure to leave a good tip (go 20, 25%) to ensure you’re not blacklisted.

On the other hand, if somehow they failed you twice: well... you’re going to have to suck it up. We’re big supporters of second chances—not third. Your incredible charm cannot overcome the fact that you just returned two 24-ounce rib eyes.

You don’t want to look like this guy.

— J.W.