Sending Food Back in a Restaurant
Dear Brian: I'm glad you asked that question. The short answer is -- never.
First off, the critic's mode of operation at any restaurant should be to keep everything on the down-low, not make any moves that call attention to the reviewing table and its covert activities. Sending a dish back is like turning on a beacon. It immediately alerts the staff there's a problem party present.
I've had diners at my table who thought they'd like to send a dish back to the kitchen, but I nix it, and console them that it's usually a futile gesture, and may result in the dish becoming even worse. And then what are you going to do, send it back again? Trying to get a bad restaurant to improve its food is more than one person can do by himself; that's why I write a review.
A dish comes out inedible for one of two reasons: Either the kitchen is slammed, or so incompetent that it can't cook the dish consistently or correctly. In either event, sending it back is not likely to result in an improvement. In fact, if you can believe Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, sending a dish back can make the staff so mad, they'll do something unprofessional, like hock a lugie onto your steak and send it back unaltered.
Sending a dish back fundamentally alters the pace and atmosphere of a meal. If you send your entrée back, it means a delay of 20 minutes or more, and what are the other guests going to do, let their entrées get cold while you wait for yours to return? I pay the entire cost of all meals I'm reviewing, so it's not like my guests are out any cash; if something is bad, we simply share everything else.
Moreover, what can the staff do to your particular badly cooked entrée that doesn't involve actually swapping it for a new one? Any remedy that falls short of pulling a new steak out of the walk-in will be the first one they'll choose. The cook may, for example, run a too-salty steak under the tap, removing some of the salt, but also developing a repulsive surface texture. Or remove the fly carcass, make some cosmetic alterations, and then send the same dish back.
I can think of a situation or two in which it is your civic duty to send something back. If you truly believe you've discovered a threat to the public health, then alert the staff as discreetly as possible.
My experience at tables where I'm not reviewing is that food is usually sent back by nitpickers who are disappointed with their own choice, or scammers who hope to have their bill automatically reduced by a preemptive complaint. And this is the light in which most restaurant staff sees the complaint, because they believe they're doing the best that they can. Yes, if you're in a five-star restaurant, you can do anything you want and be treated with the utmost courtesy; here we're talking about the other 99 percent of establishments.
Badly prepared food is the best reason I can think of to never visit a restaurant again. It's not your duty to rehabilitate the place, or offer free advice. As I tell my guests, I get my revenge in print.