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How bad can service be before it ruins the meal?

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I know lots has been said here about bad service, but wondering if it's a deal breaker when deciding to return to or recommend a restaurant?

I went to 2 well regarded restaurants in London earlier this month and issues with the service in both places left me wanting to give negative reviews of the experiences. Service in general is poor/non-existent where I live, so maybe I'm more critical when I visit other countries but then I think service should be the one thing any restaurant should be able to do right, consistently.

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  1. I think it all depends on the context -- the restaurant, the price level, the location -- "dealbreaker" service limits would be considerably higher at a higher-end, white-tablecloth place in a nice location than at a mom-and-pop place in a suburb, for example.

    Also hinges on who my companions are, too -- my tolerance for sloppy service would be much higher with friends than with clients, for eample.

    It also changes depending on the circumstances of the night -- are they slammed? Is there some sort of external issue at play, like 2 servers out of 5 didn't show up and the other 3 are running ragged?

    If you go back, is the service consistently bad, or were they just having a really bad night?

    I think there are just too many variables to say "if x, then y".

    3 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      In one case, I think it was a forgivable "oops", but in the other...the manager or head waiter argued with me and my guests. That's really not forgivable in my book, and I wouldn't go back because of it.

      1. re: Transplant_DK

        but you didn't say that -- you just left it as an open question...and it still depends on *what* the argument was about.

        1. re: sunshine842

          I was simply expounding on my own question/response. My bad experience--especially the one in which the manager argued with me and my guests about whether a bloody mary should be spicy to any degree and the waiter that seemed pretty clueless--got me thinking about how much good service means to MY overall evaluation of a restaurant. I'd already pretty much decided that it can be the deal breaker for me, but I posed the question to hear others' thoughts on the subject. I didn't give more specifics because I was interested in what specifics might be deal breakers for others.

    2. As Sunshine says, it will depend on context. Bad service in a Michelin -starred place would put me off as it would ruin the overall experience, especially considering the price, however bad service at a cheap and cheerful local bistro would bother me, but it wouldn't stop me going back there. I just wouldn't leave a tip.

      Often staff turnaround is high in the hospitality industry, or there are many other unknowns so you hopefully think it's just an 'off' night.

      1. Absolutely can be a deal breaker.

        Service is part of the whole experience of the meal. If it fails, then that impacts on the whole meal. For example, we went to a place earlier in the year. Been once before and had good food and a good experience. Went this time and had their tasting menu. Food was really good but the timings between courses were far too long. Fault was the kitchen (which sets the timings), not the server, of course - but it spoiled the evening and I wouldnt want to return.

        Of course, different folk have different views about what is good service. Reading this board, I conclude this can often relate to nationality and the expectation of what is "good service" in one's own country amy not be what is thought as "good service" in the country you're visiting

        12 Replies
        1. re: Harters

          The kitchen does not 'set the timings'. Most upscale to fine dining restaurants operate on an order-fire system. The server should know how long each course takes to fire, and sets the pace of the meal by when they fire each course. The kitchen isn't just hanging out back there thinking OK, it's been a while, guess I'll make that 3rd course now. They are waiting for direction from the server to finish and plate that course. The server should allow additional fire time if they know the kitchen is backed up or you want your steak well done. Of course, occasionally someone in the kitchen is slower than usual or makes a mistake and has to re-make a plate, but otherwise I would not say the kitchen determines the timing at all.

          1. re: babette feasts

            As I said, the kitchen "does" set the timings. I would not have stated it as a fact, if it was not a fact. i know it to be a fact because I had a discussion with the restaurant about their timings between courses

            They set it at 20 minutes between a cleared plate and the next plate of the tasting menu being ready to be served. The chef thinks it a good idea that customers have this period between courses. IMO, he is wrong. A 20 minute wait between each of the eight courses of a tasting menu is too long which is why I had a conversation with the FoH manager

            1. re: Harters

              Yike -- 20 minutes that you're sitting there idling? I could see 20 minutes between *delivery*, as tasting courses aren't that big, but 20 minutes to sit there twiddling your thumbs? Yeah, that's a mess.

              1. re: sunshine842

                Must admit, you do run out of conversation with your companion in life - except for "I'm hungry, when's the next two mouthfuls going to arrive".

                In the end, we had to ask to manager to get the kitchen to hurry dessert or we'd just have the bill. We had a 5am ferry to Calais and sleep was more important than dessert.

                They simply had their pacing completely wrong. And just so I can continue to completely diss them - here's the review link: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/79

                1. re: Harters

                  I was thinking about that...except my thought was "geez, even if you were with your best friend whom you hadn't seen in 20 years, I think you'd run out of things to talk about and start wondering when the next plate was coming!"

              2. re: Harters

                Have to agree in that the kitchen sets the timing although the server can have some input depending on their diners. If they're in a hurry (movie to catch) the server will communicate this to the kitchen and items might get fired sooner. Same if the customer walked over to friends at a nearby table to chat - the server might ask the kitchen to "hold" things up for a few minutes as an example. Otherwise the kitchen sets the pace, as overall determined by the restaurant. The kitchen will have an expediter whose job it is to make all of the entrees ready at the same time. He will tell the cooks when to fire different items. The server is not telling the kitchen when to fire the sole so that it is done at the exact same time as the roast chicken. It's really quite the show to watch if you've never worked in a kitchen. I've had 20 minute waits between courses that I thought were fine (good company, good wine) and I've had 10 minute waits that dragged on for a looong time.
                I try to keep this all in mind when determining who's at "fault" for the poor service. I'm not taking it out on the servers tip if I believe he/she had nothing to do with the problems. I might not return to the restaurant, but the service issue could belong to someone other than the server.

                1. re: bobbert

                  I don't know what your personal experience in the industry has been, but this has been mine in 5 or 6 places over the past 12 years: the expediter relies on the server for direction to fire the next course. Part of the server's job is gauging how leisurely a meal the guests desire, and keeping an eye out for bathroom breaks, etc. Coordinating the readiness of each dish is done by the cooks themselves, in exchanges of 'you up with that sole in 2 minutes?' 'the sole, oh crap, no that'll be 3 minutes'. Professional line cooks don't need the micromanaging of fire 1 sole, now fire a 2nd, in 45 seconds fire a 3rd, they have the tickets and all they need to know is 3 sole all day and that one goes with a medium rare steak and one goes with a well done. That's the job. The expediter makes sure the right plates get to the right table at the same time and look nice, but because the expediter is not in the dining room, s/he must rely on the server's input as to how fast/slow people are eating, if they are going to a show, etc. The server tells the expediter to fire the next course and the expediter fires it to the cooks and the cooks sort it out.

                  Interesting how much different experiences we might have had. Sounds like in yours the servers pretty much just sell the food/wine then act as runners with no additional input for the rest of the night, and the expediter fires each dish not each course?

                  1. re: babette feasts

                    When you're in a place that's doing 300 covers a night I can assure you that the vast majority of orders are "auto" fire and the servers are minimally communicating with the cooks and then they only communicate with the expidater who is running the show in the boh. Yes, there are many places where the server when punching in an order can adjust the pace and will determine when to fire the next course but I'll stick to what I wrote above - for the most part, the pace is set by management and accomplished by the kitchen with input from servers. There is no way a chef is waiting for a server for the thunbs up on when to fire something unless it's an exception. The steak or chicken was fired long before the customer got up to use the bathroom. I don't disagree with most of what you say except that, in my experience, the vast majority of servers punch in orders, don't say a word to anyone in the kitchen, and eventualy find a tray of food ready for delivery waiting for them in the kitchen. As I said, there are exceptions but at least in bigger places with a 4-5 or more person line, most line cooks wait for an "order" and then a "fire" command and many don't even look at the tickets.

                    1. re: bobbert

                      I think we are just talking about different types of restaurants, thanks for clarifying. I can see how what you say would be true of a pub or bar & grill type place doing those numbers. Turn & burn, no time to discuss. Much of my experience has been in smaller, cuisine-driven, more fine dining type places. When a busy Saturday is 70 covers and 95% of diners have one of the 4,5, or 8 course tasting menus, you better believe we know who is in the bathroom.

                      1. re: babette feasts

                        I'll buy that - small, high end, lower number of customers - it makes sense that everyone is way more on top of what might be going on at any individual table.

                2. re: Harters

                  Very interesting. Your earlier comment made it sound like you thought the individual cooks were responsible, now it is clear they are obeying the Chef's policy. Do you believe this to be a common policy, or just a quirk of that chef?

                  I agree that 20 minutes between plates is too long. While it is nice to not be rushed and enjoy your food, i simply don't want to be sitting there for 3+ hours. I have had dinners where one of us commented at the end about the time at table and the server responded in effect, 'oh I thought that was how you wanted it', and we couldn't figure out why they would have thought that. I'm sure some patrons do want to spend all night on their memorable special occasion - heck there are enough threads about diners who 'camp out' or expect the table for the whole night (because thats how the do it in europe) even at mid-range neighborhood places. But I really get tired of just sitting there - seriously, my butt gets sore!

                  1. re: babette feasts

                    As said, the 20 minutes is the policy of the chef who thinks it a good idea. I've eaten several multi-course tasting menus that manage to pace the meal much more appropriately - giving you a little breathing space between courses but not so long that you start finger tapping. I do not mind the 3+ hours if there's been good pacing. If this place wants to achieve its Michelin star, then it's this aspect that it mainly needs to address, as the food has generally very good on both occasions we've eaten there.

            2. There are a few things to me that ruin a meal, regardless of the "quality" of the restaurant.
              1. Don't let me be thirsty! I drink a lot (of water) and will ask for more to drink, but you have to come near me ;)
              2. A completely botched order where one person has not even started while others are finished. Mistakes happen but nobody wants to eat all alone when out to dinner with others.

              Otherwise I might get irritated but I won't consider the meal ruined. However, the tip may be as likely to appear as me at the restaurant again (assuming the problems are someone's fault and not some sort of fluke)

              1. Having worked as a server and a bartender in my younger years, I am both very tolerant and very intolerant when it comes to service. Keep me informed about any delays and keep my drink filled and I can overlook a lot.

                What starts to ruin it for me is bad attitudes.

                A very good customer of my husband's company owned a high-end restaurant ($75 and up, per person before booze) that we visited frequently, at least once a month. One night, our server must have lost his mind. He acted like a total jerk the entire night and the final straw was that he threw my dessert at me. Picture tossing a plate like a frisbee. It would have slid across the table and on to my lap if I hadn't put my heads up at the last minute. Needless to say, the manager comped us.

                10 Replies
                1. re: cleobeach

                  I agree, having been in the business and having kids in the business now, I too can be extremely tolerant. Servers new to the biz or just that place may not yet be up to par. I cut them some slack. Often, when something comes out cold or late it might be a back of the house issue and have little to do with the server. My daughter the server just told me about an issue with the cook where, as she didn't tell the cook to fire the apps first, he didn't think there was any problem firing the burgers and then following up with the apps. Service problem? You bet. Servers fault? Not really. As Cleabeach says, attitude good or bad goes a long way one way or the other. Keep me updated and treat me nice with the appropriate amount of respect and we should be ok.

                  1. re: bobbert

                    How is it not the servers fault that she did not tell the cook that the meal was to be two courses not one? I think you may be a little bit biased on that one : )

                    1. re: babette feasts

                      why would you have to tell *anyone* that apps should come before mains and not the other way round?

                      If it were a case where someone had ordered at app as a main course, THEN I could see where the server needs to communicate that, so that the app *doesn't* come out before the rest of the mains, but burgers before appetizers? Who does that?

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        Exactly. Just one example. In most places the ticket will show "appetizer" and those, by definition, usually come out before the entrees. The kitchen should know this. That is why, when one in your party just orders an app or a salad that they intend to eat as an entree, most servers will ask if you want that to come out with the rest of the food so that individual is not eating alone. The server will have to communicate this to the kitchen so that the timing is right. My sons work in the back of the house so my bias, if there is one is usually directed at customers who believe the customer is always right even when they're wrong. Don't get me wrong, I've still had bad food and very bad service - I just might be a little more forgiving than the next guy. The more money I'm spending, the less forgiving I am. I've never complained about too much special sauce on my Big Mac but I have complained about too much salt (inedible) on my $30 entree.

                        1. re: sunshine842

                          Why would you not divide your tickets into courses? It takes two to communicate, and there are many people with whom you cannot be specific enough. When your livelihood depends on being able to serve people the dishes they requested in the order they requested, it just seems like a good habit to let the person who is cooking those dishes in on the specifics. People ask for weird things, or are in a hurry and want it all at once, or want the soup and then the salad and then the burger because they are sharing everything and want to make it 3 courses instead of 2. The frustration in that scenario is totally understandable, but I hope it could be a learning opportunity to ALWAYS make the ticket reflect the order and coursings in which you hope to deliver the food. If you don't tell people what you need, how will they give it to you?

                          1. re: babette feasts

                            Heh..I am one of those weird people :-)

                            I like having potato skins with my steak. Not as an appetizer. I get my potato skins with my steak about half the time. I really like this steakhouse and have no other issue's with it, so I continue to go.

                            I have always wondered why this particular issue comes up so much when ordering there. I had been leaning towards it being a back end of the house issue, but after reading this thread, it may just be a server problem.

                            Maybe if servers called out the order in order regardless, and mgt made it mandatory, it would become second nature and more cost effective for the restaurant due to loss of product and perhaps loss of customer's that aren't as patient as I am?

                            ETA, I am really not that patient. I just love the steaks at this place..and I have never had a poorly cooked steak.

                            TC, Robin

                            1. re: Robinez

                              The kitchen in general hates anything "special" or unusual. Sometimes it's their system - imagine if everyone started asking McDonalds for something special? They'd be in the weeds real quick. Burger King, on the other hand is set up for this and will have no problems. It really is similar with regular restaurants. Too many special requests can sink a kitchen. Some restaurants won't substitute items because they might need those mashed potatoes as a side on a different dish. Then there is the chef who might think "how dare they request potato skins with the steak when I used all my culinary skills deciding to pair it with a baked potato". These guys are out there in force. There used to be chefs who wouldn't do steak well done and I guess if there's a line outside you can get away with almost anything. My people (New Yorkers) used to be notorious for ordering "off the menu" and not just the side dishes but the entire meal. It got to the point where restaurans just said no.

                              1. re: Robinez

                                I might have misunderstook the potato skins. Not sure if you wanted it as a side say instead of spinach or the app just served at the same time as the entree. If it is the latter then it could go either way as far as who's at fault. If the server doesn't communicate either electronically or verbally with the kitchen, server at fault. If the server did communicate, then boh. If the boh messed up and put the skins in the window as n app AND the server still delivered it as an app when they were told you wanted it with the steak - back on the server.

                              2. re: babette feasts

                                since the place in question was burgers, I'm guessing that *that* particular establishment simply isn't on a level to spend too much time working on timings and courses.

                                But NOBODY serves appetizers after a hamburger.

                              3. re: sunshine842

                                +1

                        2. We just had this debate ourselves.

                          We recently went a place in the Adirondacks (Keene). The food was great. They were clearly committed to using local products. But the service was funny at first but forty minutes later what no food had arrived, with three other diners in the restaurant and the chef was hanging out around the counter. It got to be a little much.

                          The turning point had to be when the waitress said she would check to see what the special salad of the day was and disappeared for twenty minutes. We joked that they supported another local substance and busy were smoking it out behind the kitchen.

                          As much as I’d have like to recommend this place to others the service was so bad I just can’t.

                          1. I visited a restaurant recently and we didn't hesitate to get up and walk out. For one, we were seated at our table and waited a good 10-15 minutes before we were greeted by our server. Add 10 more minutes to be given our water. This is where it gets good. Once our water was finally given to us, the cups were filthy. So filthy that a residue could be seen from outside of the glass and when a straw was scraped against the inside of the glass, the filth started floating into our water! This was in 4 out of the seven glasses! We aren't picky diners but that was revolting! Needless to say we promptly left and went to a local restaurant instead.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Laurenjo28

                              ugh. I'd have been right behind you.

                              The really over-the-top stuff really isn't arguable (like filth and inattention) -- but when phrased as an open-ended question like the OP posted, it's hard to pin down that "if they do ------, I'm walking"

                            2. What's the old saying? Service is like air - it becomes very important when you're not getting any.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Whinerdiner

                                There have been a few times when I or one of my teenage kids have had to get up from the table and seek out a server in order to get beverage refills. There was one time when we asked for the non-smoking section and got put in the smoking section anyway (admittedly, a crowded IHOP, and staff with a tenuous command of English). The worst was one time at a Steak & Shake in a college town where we must have waited at least half an hour at our table (in a half-empty restaurant) before the wait staff brought anything at all (probably should have just left & dined elsewhere that time).
                                And then there was the Pizza Hut which turned my kids off taco pizza forever -- by topping it with lettuce which was still gritty from not having been rinsed first. :(

                                1. re: CatherineMcClarey

                                  At a Holiday Inn years ago (traveling on business) I got *stellar* service when, after waiting 20 minutes for a refill on my coffee and being assured that Oh yes, I 'll be right back" every time someone went past (and the place was neither crowded nor understaffed), I finally took my cup into the kitchen (no doors, and I could see the coffee machine from my table) and poured myself another cup.

                              2. I think service needs defining.

                                Is it not being noticed by the hostess, is it waiting too long past a reservation, is it being ignored by waitstaff, is it not bringing butter with your bread, refilling drinks, being brought the wrong wine/drinks, brought the wrong food, meat not rare or done enough, wrong sides, orders not coming out together, dirty silverware, nobody asks if you want coffee, waiter rude or disinterested or does not know ingredients, is it waiting too long for the check, a feeling of being thrown out or hurried, food spilled on you or your dining partner, poor quality ingredients such as wilted salad, bugs, screaming kids or other loud customers that nobody is dealing with, not taking coupons?

                                1. The one thing that sets me off is disappearing wait staff. Even if they aren't offering bread or refilling drinks they still need to make themselves available. Dropping plates and either disappearing or avoiding the table really irks me. I don't care what the class of restaurant is, either. If they offer table service I expect service.

                                  1. I'm going to say that, yes - there is a level of bad service that makes a good story, and then there's the level that ruins the experience and comes to mind every time the restaurant comes up in conversation in the future.

                                    The server at Cheddar's chain place who first argued with my father-in-law about what constituted a "side" and whether he was actually entitled to a baked potato or not - for god's sake, just upcharge him already! - and then, when I asked whether potato-cheese soup had bacon in it, assured me it did not (it did) - it's a good story and gave us a few less than fun moments.

                                    The server at the fondue place who explained things on the menu that were very clear but didn't instruct us on how to work the burner, so our food took a long time to cook at first - then came and cranked it up, so that hot oil splashed on my hand and gave me some noticeable burns, which I had for a while - when the meal took nearly two hours and I was nearly in tears by the time we left - that server and experience turned us off that restaurant and fondue, forever.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: occula

                                      I agree with this. I was at a very popular, extremely hard to get into restaurant in Chicago over the weekend, and had a waiter who just didn't seem like he cared at all. So, nothing so downright terrible it made a funny story to tell friends, just an experience that made a meal with overall excellent food and atmosphere significantly less enjoyable.

                                      1. re: occula

                                        If it's a fondue restaurant chain I had a very similar experience no injuries just a very long wasted evening with disinterested server and very bad food.

                                        1. re: Withnail42

                                          This wasn't a chain, but a local one-location restaurant. The food was fairly good, but not worth poor service, splatter burns, and the very long time spent. Sorry about your experience.

                                          1. re: occula

                                            Likewise

                                      2. Mr Pine and I just had this discussion. Here's the scenario: we took 2 out-of-the-country guests to our favorite hole in the wall Mom & Pop Mexican place. Place was crowded (usually is, food is great & service is usually rushed, but good). Waited about 15 min for drinks, server knocked over the water onto Mr Pine's digital camera, didn't apologize or grab a bunch of napkins to wipe it up (I did). When entrees came, mine came, along with 1 guest's, but nothing for Mr Pine or the other guest. Had to flag down the waitress to find out why--said Mr Pine didn't order any (he certainly did) and the other guests was "on its way," which took another 15 min. The guest's whose food did come didn't have the tortillas, so she waited for them while her food got stone cold. When the missing guest's entree came, was totally bland. Mr Pine tried to eat 1/2 of mine, but was so salty it was inedible. Now, I saw the staff running around like mad with sweat dripping off them, so they were hustling. Guessed several staff must have been no-shows, but this was a Saturday night. When I paid, frankly told 'em that hubs and I eat there a lot and this was the first time I'd been majorly disappointed and gave some of the above details. They didn't even offer to take off 1 penny from the check.
                                        Now hubs and I are debating if we'll ever go back, and this previously had been a favorite place.

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: pine time

                                          Is it possible that there has been a recent ownership change? That could account for the missing staff and the drop in quality of the food.

                                          Or they could be struggling financially and in that classic restaurant death spiral where they are trying to cut costs and the quality suffers and they end up alienating their good customers, like you.

                                          I am sure that your experience was made doubly uncomfortable because you were trying to provide your guests with a nice meal. If it were a place that I had been a long time customer at, I would probably give them one more chance. Just go on a slower night and order a light meal to see if the situation has improved any. However, with that many mistakes and no apologies or courtesies offered it would also be understandable to write them off.

                                          1. re: pamf

                                            Good points. May try going on a weekday at lunch rather than a busy Saturday night. Just took the bloom off the rose for this place. While we're careful to tell guests that it's a hole in the wall place (ancient decor, dark-ish), we've always had good food before.

                                          2. re: pine time

                                            The wait, the bad timing on the entree's, even the spill on the camera may have been something that I could tolerate.

                                            But, Never try to cover your ass and insult me while using the "You didn't order an entree"., excuse. That's just too much...

                                            1. re: Robinez

                                              There is no one particular thing that makes bad service for me. It is, rather, a combination of elements, including, really, my frame of mind and whether or not I am able to be pleased (though even when I have been persuaded to go back to these places, I find that the bad service persists, indicating it isn't just my mood/frame of mind.) If I'm hungry when I walk out of the restaurant, then the service has been bad enough to ruin the meal.

                                              I'm not talking actual hunger, but the feeling of being unsatisfied, of saying "I should have just gone to McDonalds and been done with it." I have found, after lots of thinking about why I come home feeling starved after large meals and fully satisfied after small to normal sized meals, that it always, always involves the quality of the service.

                                              If the service is that bad, then, yes, that is a deal breaker for me when deciding whether to return/recommend.

                                          3. As many have already said, it really depends on the restaurant we're talking about. Expectations of excellent service rise enormously at expensive and highly regarded fine dining restaurants. When spending big bucks or celebrating a special occasion, the entire experience can be seriously impacted and perhaps ruined by bad service. Service is always important, but the expectations are obviously less at less expensive, casual restaurants.

                                            To look at the entire question of service from a different perspective, I think it's amazing how really great service can sometimes rescue a kitchen that on a specific occasion may be subpar. By doing whatever is necessary to make things right with the diner, servers can often turn what could be an unpleasant evening, into a good experience...one which will encourage the diner to return.