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How to complain in restaurants: There's a right way and a wrong way

 You have to have a just and righteous cause before you set off on a tableside crusade

Samuel Muston
Tuesday 15 March 2016 20:04 GMT
Complaining in restaurants is a delicate and important business
Complaining in restaurants is a delicate and important business (Alamy)

On the continent it is a universally acknowledged fact that the British cannot complain. We grumble, and sometimes we harrumph. Or else we talk of the weather and hope for the best. What we never do is spring forth with a red-blooded, teeth-bared chandelier-shaker.

I share a flat with two French people, and they explain this often; nearly as often as they say things like “you are not cutting that cheese properly” and once again explain the notion of the cheese coeur to me, like primary school teachers explaining that crayons aren't to be used on walls. They do not wear berets, but they care about food, and in that at least, they are fully paid-up French stereotypes.

Their own Gallic-born British stereotype, it must be said, is miles off target. The British often complain. It is just we do it very badly. And no more so than when it comes to complaining in restaurants. We are the poor relations of Europe when it comes to explaining what we want to happen to this here slice of lasagne with its crown of hair. It is a terrible failing.

Complaining in restaurants is a delicate and important business. You have to have a just and righteous cause before you set off on a tableside crusade. To complain simply to try to get a freebie is indefensible. As bad, in fact, as not complaining when you really ought to. Complaints serve a vital purpose, after all. They expose faults and graft and overweening staff, often to managers and owners who wouldn't otherwise know. We'd still be suffering under the yoke of the Lyons teashop if it wasn't for a collective groaning voice. Moaning, done properly, leads to improvement.

There is an art to it, though. Italians and French may do it much better than we do, but there is no point trying to ape them. You don't get to be a good writer by just copying out pages of Molière and you won't get to be a good complainer by copying our continental cousins. They are born with fire and wine in their blood and ours is a bloodstream more accustomed to shame and builder's tea.

How do you do it, then? First, pick your battles. A couple of weeks ago I was in a McDonalds – buying takeaway for a friend, honest – and a woman stood and raved for ages until they gave her… another slice of cheese for her burger. I wondered then, was it worth the effort? And the answer: absolutely not. Unless your sandwich actually has a tail, there's not much point going to town on a teenage burger-flipper who is powerless to do anything save give you your quid back. Keep your powder dry for that French place that has charged you for an extra bottle of Pouilly-Fumé.

The second complainers' commandment is: don't shout. Shouting leads to people saying things like, “get security” or “call the police, Dave”. Hiss if you must, but don't raise your voice.

Finally, know what you want. You might want to vent your spleen at the execrable service, but what do you want them to do about it? If you know exactly what you want to happen to your bill and you are on the side of the angels, it is hard to bat you off. Do this and make an art of your complaint. You can be righteous and annoy the French all in one go.

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