What Do You Do When Your Restaurant Service Is Terrible?

As someone who worked as a waiter at several restaurants years ago, I have a lot of compassion and empathy for servers. I can tell when they’re doing their best in tough circumstances, like when they get double-seated, have kitchen issues, or have a difficult table (which hopefully isn’t my table).

I think, as a result, that I’m a pretty good tipper. 20% on the entire bill is my standard tip, and if service is special, it can go up to 30%. So it means something when I even consider tipping less than 20%.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I had exceptional service at two restaurants recently: Dalie’s Smokehouse and Midtown Sushi and Ramen. At Dalie’s, we didn’t have an assigned server, but it felt like the entire staff was constantly paying attention to us. At Midtown Sushi and Ramen, we had a baby at the table, and the server was incredibly accommodating and helpful.

So it was a stark contrast to have two terrible service experiences in the past week at other restaurants. At one of them, I had to go get our server 3 different times because he simply wasn’t ever dropping by our table (or even our section of the restaurant). My experience was pretty similar at the other–there were a total of 4 seated tables between 2 servers in the entire restaurants, and at several key times (when we were ready to order, check out, and then hand over our credit cards), we didn’t see our server for upwards of 20 minutes.

That’s where it really gets me: negligence. I understand a server who messes up an order. But I can’t understand why a server wouldn’t be present for extended periods of time.

I’m really not here to complain, though. We’ve all had bad service, and it doesn’t make for a good story. My question is: What do you do? Sure, maybe you tip less than normal, which I did. But is that it? Do you not eat at the restaurant anymore (or, if you do, request a different server)? The food at both of those restaurants is excellent. Do you write a negative Yelp review that could reflect poorly on the entire restaurant even though only one server is at fault, and maybe they were just having a rough day? I don’t want to actively hurt someone–sure, I had a bad experience that I don’t want to repeat, but I shouldn’t take it out on them or the restaurant. That doesn’t accomplish anything.

I’m not sure where I land on this. I want to offer a solution that positively benefits all parties involved–the customer, the server, and the restaurant–but I’m not sure there is such a thing. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “What Do You Do When Your Restaurant Service Is Terrible?”

  1. If the overall experience (including the food) is poor, I’ve written public reviews in the past. However, if it’s just service, I’ve privately written to the restaurant via their email, Facebook messenger, restaurant group company, etc. That way, it offers them the opportunity to fix things internally without any potential fallout.

  2. Given your questions and ethics/ethos, I might suggest that you call the next day and speak with the manager. They may not be aware, and it gives them a chance to correct.

  3. If something is amiss, I will tell the server, but I also tell them not to take it off the bill – assuming I was able to eat whatever it was. If I can’t eat it, I’ll usually send it back and order something else. I like to tip well – extra well if I am receiving drastically better service than I have during a previous visit.

    If the server is particularly bad, I will ask another passing server to find my server for whatever I needed. If it’s to pay the bill, I will ask the passing server to handle it and inform them that my server has disappeared for 20 mins. I rarely write public reviews in the negative unless the performance was all around exceptionally poor. (bad food, bad service, overpriced, hard to find, etc.) Like the time I ordered the salmon and it came out like shoe leather. I sent it back twice and it came back like shoe leather both times. The explanation I got was that it’s well done for food safety. Yuck for one, and bullshit for two. You have a “cook” who can’t cook his way out of a wet paper bag.

  4. Great topic Jamey! Not having ever been a waiter, I bring a different perspective to this discussion. First, it seems that society puts too much value on services that don’t have a lasting impact or are not as personal, such as being a server at a restaurant or even a bartender. In contrast, when you get a haircut, what is considered a good tip? A bad haircut will stay with you for several weeks, so it’s important to receive good service. If a men’s haircut is $17 and you tip 20% that’s only $3.40. Is that really enough for this service considering this will largely affect your appearance for several days? What about the pre-school and day care teachers that take care of your small children each day. This is a very important service which often goes without monetary recognition and a low salary to boot. I would say that most people when they tip at a restaurant their starting point is also 20% for average service. I practiced this myself for awhile. That means dinner for 2 people with an adult beverage each and an appetizer at an average place, the check could reasonably be $60. Add on a 10% tax and the total is $66. A 20% tip is $13.20. Wow! The point is that service could be average, even have a few misses, and often times the server gets 20%. Why provide exceptional service and either still get the same tip, or even a modest increase? Again, I never worked in the restaurant industry so I do have a smaller set of data to draw this conclusion. I will say that I have been to many dinners and bars in my younger days, and this has been my observation time and time again.

    With all of that said, to answer the original question, we hardly ever provide feedback for bad service because the over tipping is a force in the opposite direction. For the most egregious cases, or where we were completely we wronged we most certainly would. But just plain old poor service we won’t. We will either forgive them if it’s not the norm, or if it’s a completely new to us place, we just won’t visit again. I understand the importance of feedback, but it’s simply just not worth my time to provide it to restaurants. It’s not important to me.

    In all honesty, my wife and I don’t got to restaurants much anymore because it just simply isn’t worth it. I’m sure having to take our three year old along with us has impacted this decision for us. Between being a picky eater and having constant needs, the experience is less enjoyable and certainly not worth the expected 20% minimum tip. We do however monetarily reward my daughter’s day care teachers for the important work they do.

    Thank you again Jamey for these thought provoking topics.


  5. Having served as a waiter in college, I too feel empathy for that profession. However, there have been only two times, among hundreds of restaurants and visits around the world, in which I simply walked out. The first tie was in Savannah ion 2017 when visiting my daughter. The hostess sat us at a table and more than 10 min went by before anyone acknowledged us. Then when I asked for a cup of decaf (as we were having brunch), she said, “Well it might be awhile as the coffee urn only has regular and it ain’t done yet, so I can’t make decaf” She disappeared for another 10 minutes at which time my girlfriend and just left. The second time was at Forno’s an otherwise great restaurant near the Columbus Convention Center where I’ve been a patron the past few years. Again, not a busy night (it was Sunday after Origins) and more than 10 minutes went by and I stood up, and politely told the hostess, “when you seat someone it’s customary to have a member of the wait staff come by quickly and introduce themselves.”

    As for tipping, I’m almost always starting at 20% and will go up from there based on the level of service. I realize it’s a tough, difficult profession at times, most notably because you’re dealing with the public…but it also a line of work which is respected and admired in Europe, because they see it as a profession…not a job.


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