Travel Advice: Five ways to cope with bad restaurant service

Nothing can stain a perfectly planned trip like poor restaurant service. In the hotels, this usually isn’t a problem, as the wait staff is governed by the same fanatical commitment to keeping guests happy as everyone else on the property. But, nobody wants to eat every meal on site, so you’re bound to venture out for most of your lunches and dinners. This is where you’ll wind up rolling the dice. Restaurant service varies. You can do plenty of research and get recommendations, but from time to time, you’ll either make a guess or find out that your friend’s experience was an aberration.

When you get an awful waiter, abysmal food or terrible seating, don’t forget that you have rights. I’m fresh off an awful experience with Citrus, a restaurant in my neighborhood on Manhattan‘s Upper West Side, and while “negotiating” for my food, it occurred to me that most people willingly cede control of the situation to the restaurants that have wronged them. If we work together, this ends now.

Here are five ways to address terrible restaurant service from the start and get the most value for your dining dollars.

1. Don’t ask the waitress twice
If you encounter a problem with your food or drinks — from taking too long to get them to receiving the wrong order — always start with your server. If you don’t see the person walk by within five minutes of identifying the problem, hunt him or her down: doing so sends a message. Make it clear that you will not tolerate substandard service. If the problem isn’t resolved quickly, don’t bother asking the server again … it won’t get you anywhere. Escalate it to a manager.

2. Serve yourself
Part of the point of going to a restaurant is having someone else do all the work for you. But, if the staff isn’t delivering, sometimes you need to take matters into your own hands. Drink order taking forever? Go up to the bar yourself and ask what’s taking so long. Offer to help … you’re not trying to criticize; you’re in the solutions business! Usually, this less-than-subtle behavior can serve as a wakeup call to people who’ve been sleeping on the job.

3. Become the manager’s new buddy
Experiencing continued bad service? Demonstrate to the manager that you will make it your mission to waste his time until his team finally gets its act together. When you don’t get the right food or get served in a timely manner for each course, let the manager know. Getting up to go the bathroom? Find the manager on your way back and give him an unsolicited status report.

4. Don’t settle for discounts
I’ve had problems with Citrus in the past, and on one occasion, the manager offered to knock 10 percent off my next purchase. Idiotic. After the delivery order was screwed up three times (same order, same night), I went to the restaurant to see for myself the stupidity that could yield such results. He immediately proffered the 10 percent off a future purchase. He expected a future purchase from me following a terrible experience and made clear that the current situation was meaningless to him. Learn from this: any offer that is not immediate and substantial is an insult.

5. Recognize the power of the tip

One restaurant forgot to deliver a drink to me. When the waiter realized the mistake, he not only brought the drink, but knocked that one and the previous one off my bill. This is how you turn a service error into a 30 percent tip. I believe in rewarding service, and the standard 15 percent is a starting point, not a destination. Likewise, a staff that underperforms should be compensated appropriately. Don’t be afraid to go under 10 percent — or all the way to zero. On a few occasions, I’ve actually told the manager that the restaurant owed me money following the meal.

Unlike the service on planes, where you are a captive consumer, restaurants don’t have any control. You can leave at any time. And, there are plenty of choices available to you. In major cities, in fact, you can leave one restaurant and enter another within minutes. If you do this, have a frank conversation with the manager: “Look, we just had awful service at [name the restaurant] just down the block. I know you’re crowded, but we’re hungry and, unsurprisingly, not in the best of moods. I’m not looking for anything out of this except to let you know that I’m probably not going to be as fair as I could be … and to tell you that you have a chance to be the one factor that makes my evening amazing.”