Very few people like the awkwardness of complaining to servers or management during a meal. In fact, some people are so shy they'd rather eat something they don't like than bring the problem to a server's attention, and would rather leave a restaurant hastily and never return than ask to talk to the manager. But there are some things that drive diners over the edge, and rightly so.
1. I ordered it rare.
Nothing seems to bug a patron more than overcooked steak. Medium-rare is the preferred temp for most, and kitchens that go beyond that will see a lot of plates come back. "If I order my steak medium and it comes out well-done, I'll probably mention it (and may or may not send it back depending on how overdone it is)," says velochic. But nsstampqueen is hardcore: "I like my food to come the way it is described in the menu or by the server. If I order a steak I order it medium rare to rare. It better come that way—if it is overcooked more than to medium I will complain and ask for a replacement."
2. That's not what I ordered.
You asked for pumpkin risotto, you got braised pork belly. That's a no-brainer; unless it magically looks more delicious than the item you ordered, call the server and make it right. Then there are the dishes that claim to be what they're not: Fish mislabeling is a notorious problem on restaurant menus: "I can usually spot switcheroos with fish dishes (menu says grouper, but it's not grouper on my plate)," says sunshine842. "If it's good, and it's *not* flatfish (allergy), then I'll mention that it's not grouper, but I'll probably eat it anyway. If I know it's flatfish (sole, flounder, or haddock) then it goes back, because I'll be violently ill in a matter of hours if I eat it."
There are also situations where diners may feel that the menu has falsely described the dish that comes to the table. I'll never forget the time I was breakfasting with a friend at a San Francisco diner and she ordered the French toast with tropical fruit. When it came, it was two pieces of Wonder bread dipped in egg, fried to flabby paleness, and mounded with trail mix. She didn't send it back. But we never returned.
3. The service is intolerable.
"Goofing off, sitting, texting, gossiping, truly makes me lose my mind," says Whinerdiner. "Especially if my drink is empty! I once had a server go missing for what seemed like forever. I assumed there was a problem and she was tied up in the kitchen. Everyone around us was getting their food, though. On a trip to the ladies room I passed by the back deck. There she was, huddled outside, smoking. And talking on the phone. And laughing. Definitely having more fun than we were." "As a server you do not belong standing beside tables talking to other staff LOUDLY and OFFENSIVELY, then when I call your attention you put your hand up and say '1 minute' and continue with your vulgar conversation," says nsstampqueen.
4. This is cold/raw.
Nobody likes "hot" food that's still frozen in the middle, or a baked good with a raw-dough center. "I'm usually pretty patient and rarely send anything back but I did order manicotti recently only to find that the tomato sauce on the outside was plenty hot but the cheese filling was still refrigerator-cold," says Jambie. "I brought it to the attention of my server and she was pretty skeptical telling me that it really shouldn't be cold. Well, it was. I will say that the manager came out to apologize and it was hot when it came back to the table!" amazinc says, "Please bring me the 'extra hot from the fire' soup I ordered. Please bring this with a smile and you'll enjoy a 20-25% tip. But if you say 'but I can see the steam rising from the soup' you will lose the tip AND get the soup back."
5. I can't eat this.
This is tricky, because my "too salty" is your "not salty enough," and my "painfully spicy" is your "bland." Salt, in particular, raises the ire of diners: "I have only ever once sent back a dish," says rorycat. "It was at a now-defunct celebrity chef's restaurant in Boston and my entrée was so oversalted that it was inedible. I am a salt lover, and if I think something is too salty, I can only imagine what others might have thought of that dish. I politely asked the server to return it to the chef because of the saltiness—I even asked if it could be toned down just slightly. She removed my plate and came back shortly thereafter to snottily inform me that the chef had tasted my entree and pronounced it 'perfectly seasoned.' She then left our table and didn't come back. Talk about an epic fail on both the food and service fronts. We paid for my husband's entrée and left no tip. You can probably imagine the things I had to say to the manager."
CHOW's etiquette columnist says that diners should feel free to inform servers, order something else, and expect to pay for the new dish, but that most places will take it off the bill anyway.