Unhappy Meals

Chefs and restaurant owners, this one’s for you.

On two recent outings in Boston and the ‘burbs, my dining companion and I found ourselves presented with really bad meals. Horrifically, inedibly bad, with dishes that were not only underseasoned and ill-conceived, but somehow managed to be both over- and undercooked at the same time. After a few bites, it was clear that neither of us was going to finish our food.

On both occasions, we considered sending the dishes back. But at one meal, the server made her “How is everything?” stop about five minutes too early—before we’d even had a chance to dig in—then disappeared for the duration of dinner.

At the other place, we got no such check-in, and eventually had to flag down a busboy to take away our (cold) plates. By the time we’d gotten any attention, both my companion and I had lost interest in extending the meal by sending the entrees back. As we left, I felt the teensiest twinge of guilt. Had we done the right thing?

Clearly, these were not four-star establishments. But poor service aside, I have a bad habit of not sending food back to the kitchen, even when it’s clearly sub-par. This is especially true when I’m dining out with a group—who wants to sit empty-handed while everyone else eats, and then have to finish the meal solo while the rest of the table waits?

When I’m in more upscale spots where service is a priority, I’m more inclined to pipe up, if only because I know that the fix will be made promptly (and the server check-in is appropriately timed to make a correction possible). When I do keep quiet, though, I wonder: Shouldn’t I let the restaurant know when they’ve erred? Shouldn’t I give the chef and management an opportunity to make things right? Or are some flubs just too big to fix?

What do you think? When should an unsatisfied diner send a bad meal back? Is it ever OK to stay mum?