I was roaming through the open forum (a chat room) at Epicurious.com, a Website for foodies sponsored by Condé Nast publications, where the majority of messages were predictably upbeat and enthusiastic. Then I came across what I thought was a pretty valid question: "Doesn't anyone here ever get a bad meal and rotten service to boot? We all can't be as lucky as you!"
Naturally I immediately checked the guy's stats for his place of origin, expecting it to be South Florida. After all, I receive -- and dish out -- more complaints about this very subject than I ever have in any other state. I'd go so far as to say Miami in particular is notorious for its bad meals and rotten service.
The e-mail resounded for me because I had just downloaded a related gripe from a New Times reader. But my New Times correspondent isn't content just to bitch and moan; he wants to know exactly what frustrated diners should do, particularly if they've been pointed to the eatery by local critics or the place has an impeccable reputation. For instance is it legitimate, he asks, to walk out after the appetizers even if you have main courses coming?
"Never," says Delius Shirley, proprietor of the reputable Ortanique on the Mile in Coral Gables. "It's morally not right. Plus, I believe in constructive criticism; you need to address somebody. If you leave without addressing the problem, you're running away from it, and it'll never be fixed."
For the record I agree. Customers should have enough respect for the restaurant to cover the price of what they've already ordered, even if they choose not to eat it. And I'm with Shirley when he notes that, "Just as if you're in the army, you have to go through the proper chain of command. Complain to the waiter, then call over the manager."
In the real world (i.e., not Miami), such an action provokes an appropriate reaction. But quite honestly when I've followed that course, I've had managers say things like, "It's not my problem" or a belligerent, "So what do you want me to do about it?" Then what?
Admits Shirley: "If management doesn't have a care in the world, then you're completely justified in walking out. But I'd still leave money for what I ate."
Chef-proprietor Klime Kovaceski of Crystal Café in Miami Beach agrees. "When I am a customer, I'm going to try to find something good in the place. I will never walk out if the food is bad. But if a manager or waiter is rude to me, to the point that he is insulting me personally, then I will walk out." Still, he'll leave enough to cover the meal.
On the other hand, as a restaurateur, Kovaceski could give a hoot about the money. "If I ever saw that someone was going to walk out, I'd be out there even in my dirty shirt, handing them my business card, and begging them on my knees to give me another chance. And of course they wouldn't pay for anything." Ah, the exception to the rule.
Good management spots a problem as it develops and handles it, says Melissa Klurman, an editor for Fodor's travel guides, who recently had what we'll politely call a typical Miami experience. Klurman and her fiancé dined at one of our lauded restaurants where management completely ignored some difficulties that arose, and yes, she was tempted to walk out before the main courses arrived (but after they'd been ordered). "I didn't want to stay," she admits, "but I felt committed since I'd ordered entrées."
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In addition, she notes, "You really need to have serious grounds for complaint. But if the restaurant has made you uncomfortable, you should leave." That said, Klurman herself has never actually walked out of a restaurant, no matter how shoddy the service or subpar the fare. Her sense of etiquette prevents it.
So does mine, and as a result I've suffered through meals that have gone wrong from the beginning, like the one at The Addison, a Dennis Max eatery in Boca Raton. The hostess was so blatantly rude, that when we inquired about the state of our table (our reservation had been for 8:00 p.m. and it was already 8:30), she snapped, "You'll know your table is ready when I come and get you." Back in Miami I can't even get respect on the phone. I called a small place called Grandma's Kitchen the other day to ask how long they would be open that evening. "Until we close," the woman replied irritably.
But clearly I have an option most other diners don't: recourse. I don't have to walk out of a restaurant when I can call a hostess an uppity snit in print. I don't have to give a place a chance to do me wrong when even the phone etiquette just plain sucks. I don't have to send a meal back a hundred times when I can publicly evaluate it for its shortcomings. And frequently, unless I am dining on my own time, I don't even have to spend my own cash.
You do, and your options are limited, especially when management responds inappropriately to complaints. You can write a letter to the proprietor after the fact or bitch to a local columnist like me. Sadly with a few notable exceptions, neither course of action gets you very far down here. Most likely your paper and ink are tossed into the wood-burning oven, where they're used to roast somebody else's chicken. So despite the previous discourse on etiquette, perhaps it is time to begin walking out on our checks. After all, what stings more, a slap on the wrist or a slap to the piggy bank?