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'We must fight our natural instinct not to whinge': how to complain (politely) in restaurants

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 18/02/2019 Tomé Morrissy-Swan

Getty © Getty Getty It may be a crude stereotype, but there's definitely some truth to it: Britons hate complaining in restaurants. A survey reported that over a third of those questioned would never flag up an issue with staff, no matter how tough the steak or how corked the wine. 

"Partly, it's because of an innate politeness, a desire not to make a scene," says Telegraph restaurant critic William Sitwell. "But also, when you're out spending money, you want it to be all bells and roses, you don't want things to go wrong and ruin the evening by whinging." While the days of being chucked out of restaurants by volatile chefs like Marco Pierre White are long gone, many people are still, it seems, a little reticent to speak their minds. 

Instead, diners are increasingly choosing the passive-aggressive option – a smiley "it was a lovely meal, thanks" before a one-star review pops up on TripAdvisor the next day. "It's pathetic, and pretty tragic if you ask me," decries Sitwell. "We British might fight against our natural instinct not to whinge, but when there is a problem we must steel ourselves and complain."

© Getty Fred Sirieix, presenter of the BBC's My Million Pound Menu, the second series of which comes to an end on Tuesday, has seen a change in British attitudes towards complaining. Perhaps not as brazen as our American counterparts, we're beginning to cotton on that speaking our minds is perfectly acceptable, even welcome. 

"The British are actually getting much better at it, because they do complain quite a lot. I see it at my restaurant, Galvin at Windows, every day," he explains. 

Sirieix says chefs and restaurant managers welcome feedback, it's what helps them improve. "Obviously we're not happy when people complain, but if somebody isn't telling you, you don't know about it. You have a chance to make it right, to show and prove to people what you're made of." 

The French-born Londoner makes a distinction between complaining and commenting, however. A comment, he explains, is a matter of personal preference, but doesn't imply something wrong with the food, service or ambiance. Wine might be slightly the wrong temperature for someone's taste; service might be too intrusive, or not intrusive enough. A complaint arises from a more obvious mistake – something's raw or overcooked, or the wine is off, for example. 

Woman ordering food at the restaurant © Getty Woman ordering food at the restaurant So, when, and how, should you complain? "I think if you're given a table next to the bins it's perfectly OK to ask if there's another one, though you have to be willing to go somewhere else if there isn't," says Telegraph restaurant critic Keith Miller. 

Sitwell agrees. "If there's something seriously wrong I would raise it. If you want medium rare and it's medium, absolutely say you ordered it medium rare. Also, don't be scared of sommeliers. People worry about sending back wine, but if you don't like it, or it's corked, take that risk and talk to them." 

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That worry may stem from one thing: a perceived lack of knowledge. There's nothing more embarrassing than bringing something to the waiter's attention – an off-tasting wine, perhaps, or a raw piece of meat or veg – only to be told that's just how it's supposed to be. "Never worry you haven't got knowledge," advises Sitwell. "If you think your broccoli is overcooked, or your spaghetti a little too soft, or the jus or gravy just to tepid, always ask, engage, have that discussion." 

Everyone I spoke to agrees on when to complain – as early as possible. There's no point waiting until the end of your pint of beer to mention how dirty the glass is; or eat all your fillet steak before suggesting it was cooked wrong. Or worse still, having it out online (where some chefs have been known to reply in less than polite terms). 

© Getty "The best time to deal with a complaint is at the time," explains Telegraph columnist and Michelin-starred chef-owner of The Sportsman Stephen Harris. "If the food is cold, it can be replaced. If the table has a draft, we can solve it." Posting online the next day won't get you anywhere. 

"Always be polite and clear to the server, even if you think it's their fault," says Miller. Sitwell agrees: "If you're polite, with a legitimate complaint, the best restaurants will bend over backwards to apologise, send you a glass of champagne. Complaints are how they learn and improve." If you don't want to cause a scene, on a date for example, say you're going to the toilet and quietly speak to a manager. 

Sirieix understandably agrees that kindness is key. "Put yourself in the shoes of whoever's in front of you. It may not be something they've done on purpose. Approach with kindness, state your position, what happened, what you'd like, and see how they react. Even the best football defences concede goals every now and then." 

Senior elegant woman making an order to waitress while sitting in cafe with her son © Getty Senior elegant woman making an order to waitress while sitting in cafe with her son Sirieix mentions a recent experience where the service was particularly lax. Despite plenty of staff, he was completely ignored. "I walked straight to the reception, explained to the manager what was going on, that I wanted to be looked after. Within two minutes I was back at the table, and the whole thing had changed, it was an incredible difference. Everything was incredible from that moment on." 

Ultimately, chefs and waiters are there to make customers happy. Any complaint or comment expressed politely and fairly should be received in a similar fashion. "Don't hold back, be brave and steel yourself," says Sitwell. "Customer service has developed a lot in this country, people are trained to be understanding. A good restaurant will be thankful for a genuine complaint, so they can improve and make sure it doesn't happen again." 

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