Tuesday, 10 November 2009

How to complain...

I was recently treated to a meal at a very posh restaurant with my favourite restaurant reviewer... One of the dishes wasn't very nice. Actually, the combination of flavours meant that it was inedible.
"Did Madam like her food?" asked the waiter, clearing away my uneaten dish.
"No Madam didn't" I said.
They still billed for it though.
The reviewer in question doesn't complain, she can't really, it would ruin her anonymity, a precious thing if you are doing a fair review. If you are instantly recognisable as a restaurant critic, you are evidently going to be treated better than the general public; your review therefore has less authority.
I see things from both sides of the fence; I sometimes review restaurants and I also run a restaurant of sorts. So I always give feedback. How are they going to improve if they don't know you don't like it? I once reviewed a restaurant whose entire 'special' menu was misconceived...I found myself explaining how they could improve it rather than going home, sharpening my mouse and ripping them apart. As I said, I'm split between two worlds.
But how do you complain in a home restaurant? There you are, in somebody's home, surrounded by their personal possessions, meeting their family/partners/kids and although you are paying for the food, it seems impolite to complain. Do you raise objections about the food when you go to a dinner party at your friend's house? Unlikely.
The food critic A.A. Gill once did just that; he describes in 'Table Talk' how he sent back a dish at a dinner party:
"I said that I didn't think I could eat the stew. There was a silence you could have spread on toast....
Then the hostess said: "It is a bit disgusting isn't it? I've got some eggs..."
He said he hasn't been invited to a dinner party since.
But a home restaurant is different: to begin with people wouldn’t start a supperclub if they thought they couldn’t cook. Yet people who can’t cook frequently host dinner parties. But, at a supperclub, you are paying...
I'd prefer it if people told me to my face, politely if possible, or sent me an email giving feedback. If it's really bad, they can ask for a refund (not all at once please!)
But as a guest you must be fair and take everything into account: the fact that it's a fixed menu, that you are generally getting a good deal for your money and that, whereas one dish may be disappointing or not to your taste, the rest of it may well be delicious or at least adequate. You are also not only paying for the food, you are paying for the event, the theme (if there is one), the entertainment (if provided), the opportunity to socialise and to share intimately, if only for an evening, someone's home and life.
It dismays me is when dissatisfied guests, rather than giving you feedback, just post anonymously on the Internet about how much they disliked you, your home and your food.
Is it British to be afraid to confront and complain constructively? Or is the thrill of putting you in your place in public more exciting than any fair attempt at improving what you do?
Chatting to another home restaurant hostess recently, a very good one in my opinion, she told me about a guest, who blogged that their enjoyment was spoiled because of the stress exhibited by the hosts and the 'skanky' bathroom.
This judgement was based on one evening when there was a problem with their grill and hence delays in the food. Of course, having come across this review, the supper club hostess was very upset ...
In the middle of hosting the first Harry Notter night, I got the news via Google alert that a 'friend' (not anymore mate) had posted a vicious piece on me. I felt like I'd been punched in the solar plexus and found it a struggle to continue with the evening. I'm now very careful about reading reviews.
Another guest wrote months later on a site how much he hated my restaurant and my cooking, describing the 12 tapas courses and cocktail for £25 as a rip-off. On the actual evening, he said nothing. Nada. Not a peep. Not even an email afterwards. Dismayed, I wrote to him, apologising for any shortcomings and offering his money back. He used this as another opportunity to have a pop at me.
You can't please all of the people all of the time...
I guess we will all have to develop a thicker skin.
But, just like me, many supper club hosts are new to this, the relentless pressure that any of your guests could be a blogger and that you are being judged.
There are times, due to fatigue or stress, when I snap at guests, for instance, last week ... I normally make an announcement 'feel free to come into the kitchen after the main course' (1) but I didn't have time.
Invited in by my parents (who were unaware of this rule) a girl came into the kitchen and tried to chat to me. I'd had two hours sleep and my brain, still having to coordinate several dishes, just couldn't cope with any more activity. (Cooking, never considered intellectual, uses an enormous amount of brain power as well as physical energy). In the end I just said
'I'm sorry, I'm just too busy'.
She probably felt rudely rebuffed and for that I apologise. But while I love the idea of blurring the  boundary between kitchen and dining room, would you expect to chat to the head chef in the middle of service in a normal restaurant? You'd get short shrift if you attempted that...

It also seems unfair to judge a home restaurant or any restaurant on just one visit. My esteemed colleague, food blogger Bellaphon, only reviews after two visits, especially if the first was not so good.

I'm all for openness and democracy; in the kitchen and on the Internet. It's in equal measures wonderful that everybody is writing about their lives and what they are eating and also terrible. People now have carte blanche to exorcise every bit of stifled anger and resentment, exhibit their prejudices and grievances in public. It is so much easier to be nasty when you are anonymous. People write things on the internet they would never have the courage to say to someone.

So, harking back to what that blogger said about stress...as a diner, do you prefer to feel like everything is coming out smoothly? Or do you want to know about how it is behind the scenes? Is the feeling of knife edge riskiness part of the appeal of an underground restaurant? Or a hindrance to your enjoyment?
And supperclub hosts, how will you feel when one of your guests, on a forum or on a blog post, complains about your voice, your taste in decor, your standards of hygiene or your food?

(1) One of the lessons I have learnt from doing this for almost a year now. Once the main course is out, you can relax, the pace slows down, you can act human again.


  1. I agree with every word. It's sly and cowardly of bloggers to criticise after the event without first giving the restaurateur the chance to put things right!

  2. It's really shocking how cowardly someone would be to post an anonymous comment rather than come to you about it. And I'm all for constructive criticism, but there's a way to discuss such things - politely and with compassion.
    I love that you have a supper club and I would love to come next time I'm in London - its sounds like a blast.

  3. you are right, it is unfair of people to say horrible things about you on the internet. when i go to a restaurant, if i dont like it, i make sure the maitre'd or the manager knows. if they give you that look that they dont care, then perhaps one can go back home and write a negative review. but unfair to write mean things on the internet. even if i had a supperclub in my own home i would want feedback. i do think telling a host/ess at a dinner party that their food is awful is a tad insensitive.

  4. Ugh. The whole blogging in place of confrontation thing is so over the top passive aggressive. I'm a feedback junkie and tend to think the rest of the world is too, so I'm constantly delivering. People who blog instead of delivering feedback to the source are the people who don't know how to interact with other people. They don't get that there are nice, effective ways of delivering constructive feedback and are generally completely lacking imagination.

  5. Sounds a bit premature to me. Personally I work on a three strikes and you're out policy for reviewing/recommending restaurants...

  6. What a well written piece this is. I agree with everything you say. Some people are noted for saying one thing and meaning another - Nice things to your face and something else when your back is turned.
    I'm all prepared for this at my Tea Events, but I know all my guests are very nice people and would tell me nicely if they didn't like what I was doing and we'd have a laugh about it. But having worked (not any more)in an environment where feedback is given every 2 seconds,constructive and positive, I like to think I know how to give it and receive it. I'm all for constructive feedback, if done correctly. If I don't like a meal it's often due to my 'taste' and not necessarily because of the way it's been cooked. We are all human, or at least some people are, and feel the pain when criticised about our food, our home, our friends all the things that mean a lot to us. And, how can someone become a critic if either you cannot/don't cook or eat out a great deal. I'm ranting, so I'll stop.

  7. Who in their right mind would invite AA Gill to dinner in the first place??

    Your cooking's great, I'm sure you have many more good review than bad ;)

  8. Complaining fascinates me. I'm not british so I lack the shyness involved in it. If i'm not happy with something at a restaurant I let them know and give them a chance to put it right. So many times it can be a result of oversight on a busy night. I also judge my dissatisfaction basis the price I am paying. Like you say a 3course meal for £25 is generally always going to be good value and I would never expect the same level of service/attention or even the same quality of food (unless very lucky!) as at Petrus for example, accordingly I would never judge it through the same lens. Furthermore booking for a fixed menu will always carry a risk, and more fool them if they aren't open minded enough to appreciate not everything will be to their liking. Thats the whole point! Trying things you might normally never order!

    Anonymous complainers need to grow a backbone. How can anyone put the situation right for you if you never give them the chance?!

  9. Bravo Great post! Did madame enjoy...Pure genius!

    If you don't have the balls to complain at the time -or- even direct a complaint after the fact to the resposible party to let them correct then you are just a pratt.

    Personally, unless something is a terrible abomination to food, I would not want to waste time writing about it.

  10. You have to have such a thick skin in this business it would seem - you can never please everyone- no matter how you try - and people should think first before they criticise. If they are complaining to offload/for the sake of it/to statisfy their own ego in some weird way then they should stop right there. It isn't helpful. They should think about how their words are going to effect someone else. Do they want to complain in the hope that their comments will help you improve or are they just being downright nasty?

    Constructive cristicism politely put is a much better way to go about it. People forget the old saying 'do as you would be done by!' I'm sure if they had slaved away, worked their butt off, they would not appreciate rude, unhelpful comments...

    With home restaurants you need to practise even more sensitivity I think...it is someone's home that they have kindly let you into... xxx

  11. While it's true that it's a pain that people post anonymously (or not) on internet sites when they dislike something, it really is the way of the world. Whether you like it or not, those of us in the underground dining scene are perceived as just another type of restaurant - we may think of it as our home, blood, sweat, tears and all that, but the average customer does not - for them, it's a paid-for dinner, therefore, a restaurant.

    Few people, whether in a traditional style restaurant or one of ours, want to have a face to face conversation when they don't like something, or the place, or us. It's uncomfortable, and if they've already had some part of the experience be negative, it just highlights that and makes the entire evening a bad memory.

    Awhile back we started sending out a followup e-mail within a day of the dinner asking for feedback - once it's no longer face to face, we've found that people are much more likely to give us an honest response, and, it also nearly elminated the negative postings on various internet sites - not completely, but it had a clear impact. Oft-times it was something as simple as they didn't like the spicing on one dish out of five, or didn't like the shirt that I wore that evening, and it just sat in the back of their mind - without followup, they vented somewhere else, usually after something small had grown into something big in their mind. Defusing it by asking, not on the spot, but in a simply worded e-mail, gives them an outlet, let's them know you care, and gives you the opportunity to apologize if need be (never be defensive), and, often brings them back for another chance.

    And always keep in mind that no matter how hard you try, and no matter how much the majority may like what you do, there will always be someone who isn't pleased for one reason or another, and sometimes, it isn't you or your food, they're just having a bad night. If you don't have a thick skin, this isn't the business for you.

    Oh, and btw, not everyone who opens a supperclub can cook. Really.

  12. I found an extremely nasty comment on Monday by accident left on a travel website about one venue I know entitiled 'a public disgrace' and ending 'avoid like the plague'. That was amid lots of others praising it and people who keep going back year after year because they love it. Those bad comments have such an awfully strong power. I wonder if people who write them truly realise. Criticism should be helpful rather than vindicitive - the idea should be to improve or change what they felt was wrong rather than advertising it. The Italian trattoria owner sure has the right idea.

    I like Saltshaker's idea of the follow up email dealing woth problems before they arise. Reminds me I used to do this before I got so busy.....

  13. It seems to me that jealousy has a lot to account for here. Its a shame when people who don't have the confidence or effort to do something amazing like this, want to try to spoil the enjoyment and achievement of those who do.
    I think your supperclub sounds amazing - I've been watching your blog for a while and I want to come along sometime - its something totally different to what i'm used to. Keep on keeping on and enjoy yourself.

  14. I don't agree with visiting a restaurant more than once before writing about it. Some of us don't have the money for that, and why should restaurants be given more than one chance to impress? If I didn't enjoy my first visit I just wouldn't return.

    I have no qualms about (politely) sending my dish back if there is something fundamentally wrong with it, though.

  15. Hugh: Please post the link to the Italian trattoria who dealt with some nasty guests...
    So Lovely: I think if somebody is so unhappy that they write a very very bad review they at least owe it to you to let you know that things weren't right for them at the time or just after...
    JustIn: very generous!
    Saltshaker: good constructive idea...your shirt? lol
    James: I think they do know...
    Gabriella: well one of the anonymous nasty ones is now opening his own supperclub so....you may be right
    Lizzie: yes it is a problem for me too. I went to a supperclub recently which wasn't particularly stunning and I feel to do it justice I should go back again on another night, another menu but have to find the money...

  16. This is a great article but VERY similar to Oliver Thring's piece in the guardian

  17. Anon: I know it's terrible isn't it? I really ought to get my own ideas...;)

  18. I'm afraid I hadn't had the chance to read this before I wrote the WoM article - perhaps it would have been better if I had.

  19. Sorry - pressed 'send' too soon.

    So yes - this post was new to me. I've read and enjoyed that bit of Table Talk, though.

  20. This commet doesn't really belong to this post. However I got to here and felt the need to say, "What a fantastic set of posts you write." It's a shame I can't get to the "Underground restaurant" (no TM needed, I hope) but that's because I live in Dallas, TX, USA.

    Your events sound terrific, you are full of ideas that will help others, and I greatly appreciate the amopunt of yourself you have poured into this.

    Well done indeed!


  21. большое спасибо было очень интересно прочитать


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