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Embaressing Dining Partner- What to Do?

I recently visited a close family member who I haven't seen in a while- I love this person. However, my relative makes me cringe anytime we go out to eat (which ironically is all the time when we are together as she refuses to cook anything!)
Here's a common scenario:
We go to a diner or a deli. As soon as we are seated, she complains of a draft (sometimes there is one but more often than not there isn't). We move our seats.
She complains of another draft (no, I am not joking- this usually happens minimally 2 times in a row). We move again- and at this point we may even have glasses.
She orders her meal but dissects it- a typical meal being broiled salmon, veggie and baked potato- but no spices on the fish including salt or pepper, no sauce. (In her defense she does have acid reflux so some spices can cause her problems, but then she'll drown her dish in ketchup which has salt and spices in it...I refuse to point this out to her)
Not always but many times she'll send her dish back- I recall more than one occasion when she sent the same dish back twice. Sometimes she has a justified reason- they didn't cook her steak medium well as asked for example. But sometimes she'll complain that there are spices on it and there really doesn't seem to be to me at least.
Throughout the meal she purses her lips and doesn't seem very friendly to the waiter.
I want to emphasize again that I love this person with all of my heart and obviously I feel that whatever discomfort it is eating out with her is worth it despite my embaressment.
If you have been or if you were ever to be in a similar predicament, how would you react?

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  1. I overtip and/or pull the server aside (out of earshot of dining companion) to apologize profusely.

    3 Replies
    1. re: marthadumptruck

      The big tip and talking to the server is a good idea. To bounce off this, I'd attempt to "train" one restaurant of the particulars (same table, same service/server, same big tip) and only go to this place with the relative, i.e., find a regular place. If the servers know there will be a big tip and it's sort of a game and that you'll screen them from the fussy one, they'll probably be happy to serve you.

      1. re: ML8000

        talking to the server in private is a good idea. i know whenever i get a warning i'm less likely to be bothered by a customer.

        i served a this family once- and grandma was acting very strange. she'd say no when i put down what she ordered in fromt of her, etc. i was patient with her anyways because i love little old ladies, but one of the guests whispered to me that she had alzheimer's. i thought that was nice of them to tell me.

      2. re: marthadumptruck

        I recommend speaking with the restaurant in advance, making a reservation, and requesting a tough-skinned server, whom you will pay in advance because you know that yours will be a difficult table. If possible, talk to the server personally to describe your plan. Palm the money to the server when you get there, and then tip appropriately afterwards. This way, you know that the server is being paid properly for service above and beyond what is reasonable and that amount is not dependent on the vagaries of your order (wine? appetizer? dessert? coffee? chicken or filet? - your choices can add up to significant differences in the amount you tip if you are basing it on a percentage of the cost of the meal). The tip can then, alas, remain subject to whatever influences you customarily choose.

      3. I suggest you either cook for her (in her house if necessary) or spend time with her that does not involve a meal.
        For all intents and purposes it sounds as if SHE didn't enjoy the dining out either.
        Obviously she must eat at other times, so find out how she eats normally and join her that way, even if it's warmed-over frozen dinners in front of the TV. It's the company that counts, right?

        7 Replies
        1. re: Covert Ops

          My relative honest to goodness eats out almost every single meal except for breakfast. (She and her husband are retired). That is how she eats normally!:} Therefore when I visit I really don't have a choice because she never wants to let me cook (believe me- I have offered- and the one time she let me I regretted it because she nitpicked everything I made)- if I am to visit I have to eat out with her, end of story. Believe me- I know there are a lot worse things in life- and again, I love her and appreciate the time spent together- but it still can be an embaressing experience.

          1. re: Covert Ops

            Can't you talk to her about it? Not while you are at a restaurant obviously, but at some other time?

            1. re: Missmoo

              OOOh, don't go there! This is obviously an ingrained behavior. Talking to her in unlikely to change her behavior, and risks pissing her off. If you value the relationship, (which it sounds as if you do),suck it up and go with the first suggestion to tip big and apologize profusely. But don't let her catch you!

              1. re: Missmoo

                Definitely- I am a big believer in not holding things in. I've gently asked her about it but she always gets defensive, justifying her dining behavior with a "medical" reason. She has acid reflux but that's pretty much it.
                Let's put it this way: her husband drives her everywhere- she never has to walk. I think she's just used to having things her way and as I've said, I've reached a point where I realize that spending time with her is worth it. However, I was curious as to how others on this board would react, and any ideas of how to find situations like this less embaressing?
                (My own recent trick is to try and find some humor in it- see how many times we have to move our table for example and try to set a record!) :}

                1. re: NicoleFriedman

                  Any chance that since your relative goes out a lot, and you are visiting her, that you are eating at establishments that she frequents regularly? and that the staff know her ways?

                  If not, I would probably just pull the server aside on the way out and say a heartfelt "thanks for being so understanding" and slip em some extra. You can also convey the same idea when the requests are placed. I wouldn't feel embarrased about it, but more work with the server so you are working together to make your relative at ease.

                  1. re: NicoleFriedman

                    I'm with the "leave a v. big tip" camp, and try to take the waiter aside to explain if possible. I've had some very odd dining experiences with my father in law at some of our favourite restaurants (yes, I should learn not to take him to those, due to hitting on waitresses, v. strange dialogues with servers whose English is not great, etc.) and that is the approach that I (we) take.

                    1. re: NicoleFriedman

                      In that case I agree with what everyone else says ;)

                2. Yikes, this sounds so much like my own mother it is frightening!

                  For instance, we went to a nice steak place not long ago... she ordered her filet medium-well... I ordered mine medium rare. Of course the cooks butterflied hers (they were thick) to cook it evenly throughout. Well when they served our steaks and she saw hers and mine, she complained that they gave us different steaks, and had her take it back! I tried to explain it to her but it was too late at that point... these kinds of people dont like to be told they are in the wrong.

                  It is very difficult indeed, especially when you're trying to enjoy yourself (and your meal) as well.

                  I'm interested too to see how people deal with it... since in my lifetime I still havent found a way to get her to just enjoy a meal out without literally looking for something to be wrong.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: littlelea

                    warn the server in her presence. Say something like, we might be moving tables as my aunt/cousin/sister likes to complain about draughts. Then once you order, again warn the server, she might be sending her food back 2 or 3 times until satisfied. Do it with humour!!! She might realise she is a PITA.

                    1. re: smartie

                      Exactly what I would have suggested!

                      Or ask the host/ess in advance to the table which has the least draft.

                    2. re: littlelea

                      I've come to believe that for some people the enjoyment is in the bitching. My mother dearly loved being miserable in her old age -- nearly drove me crazy! She complained about everything, but I knew her days were numbered, so I just let it be.

                    3. Sometimes when someone is annoying me I tend to focus on that and nit pick every little thing he/she does. Then I tend to overexagerate and obsess over silly small stuff that in the end doesn't really matter. I'm sure the moving and the tons of special requests can grate on your nerves but you can't change her behavior. Instead, change yours. Try focusing on something else, like how nice the atmosphere is, how delicious the food, maybe ANOTHER glass of wine, anything. Just relax and smile to yourself at your inner joke and enjoy yourself.

                      1. My grandfather tends to be difficult in restaurants, not quite as bad as you describe, but tough. I make sure the server is well compensated financially for his or her troubles, and I make sure to give the server a couple of heart-felt, eye-contact, knowing thank yous. You know, the sort of "thank you" that comes with a look that means "thank you so much for being kind to us, I realize she's a bit of a handful." When I was a server, one of those thank yous went a long way.