How to Complain at a Restaurant, According to Restaurant Owners

The best way to give good feedback about a bad dining experience.

An illustration of a diner going from feeling badly about a dining experience to feeling good
Photo: Oscar Bolton Green

There's a hospitality version of "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets." It takes place on the occasional Monday night at a restaurant in Nashville. "We hold dramatic readings of bad Yelp reviews with our hospitality family; it's very funny and cathartic," says chef, restaurateur, and Chopped star Maneet Chauhan.

The concept had a room of F&W Best New Chefs erupt into deep belly laughter during a recent panel on how to manage negative customer feedback. Comedy aside, Chauhan encourages her staff to regularly read reviews, but she won't stand for bad behavior: "You cannot come into our restaurant if you disrespect our restaurant family," she says.

Customer entitlement has long been an issue in the hospitality industry, but heightened emotions during the pandemic made the problem—as well as snarky online reviews—more pervasive. It's hard not to let these things suck the emotional life force out of you as a business owner. (Trust me: I'm a F&W editor who also owns a restaurant!) Panelist Caroline Glover, a 2019 F&W Best New Chef, agrees: "I'm not allowed to read the reviews. Yelp is a garbage fire. It's so personal to me."

Fellow panelist June Rodil, who has opened over a dozen restaurant concepts and is a partner at Goodnight Hospitality in Houston, feels similarly. While she asks her staff to reply to positive reviews before the negative ones (so they come to the yucky feedback with an optimistic mindset), she ultimately wishes that complaints came in person before making their way online.

"I know that confrontation can be perceived as negative or aggressive, but truly, if presented in a genuine way, negative feedback and constructive criticism in the moment give hospitality professionals an opportunity to address, apologize, and ultimately make right a less-than-ideal situation," she says.

So, the next time you have a crappy night out, don't be tempted to publish a one-star review later that punishes a restaurant in perpetuity for one occurrence. Restaurant teams truly care about feedback and spend a lot of energy thinking about it. "It is never our intention for a guest to have a bad time," says Glover. "We take it really seriously if there is something that is keeping that from happening."

How to React

...After the Fact

"If it does take some time to gather your thoughts, please write to the restaurant directly and be as forthcoming as possible with what went wrong or less than stellar for you," says Rodil. Meanwhile, Glover's restaurant has started leaving comment cards on tables for guests to fill out if they don't feel comfortable approaching the staff in the moment.

...When Writing a Review

Rodil urges diners to be descriptive. "General complaints like 'I had a terrible time' are difficult to address because we do not know what happened or what we can do to prevent further issues," she explains. "If there was a dish that you disliked, was it under-seasoned? Over-cooked? If you did not like your server, were they slow in their service? Too casual and talkative?" Be specific, and the restaurant can respond.

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