Restaurant dining involves promises fulfilled - or broken

November 2, 2018

A few weeks ago I wrote that my email boxes have always been a good indicator of the zeitgeist - the defining spirit or mood – of the business of eating here in the Cape Region. In light of the recent news about a local fine-dining restaurateur’s edgy (and often humorous) responses to “customer” “reviews” on Yelp, etc. (yes, both are in quotes, because in some cases neither is true), I thought I’d add a bit of perspective.

One of the things that I can depend on when I open my email is the avalanche of restaurant complaints that lurk therein. Right, wrong or indifferent, I’m at a loss as to what people want me to do with these complaints. Publish them in Cape Gazette? Beach Paper? On Talk about them on the radio? Based only on their word? I think not.

So I respond by asking them if they informed the restaurant owner or manager of their issue. The answer is almost always “No.” If the complaint actually seems justified, then I’ll ask the writer why he or she didn’t bring the mistake to the attention of somebody in charge. The response is either “…I didn’t want to hurt their feelings…” or I don’t get any response. Both tell me the same thing: Their actions are more about their fear of confrontation or not being “liked” than they are about hurting someone’s feelings. Why? Because these same people have no problem going into painful detail with me, and possibly on the internet, regarding the real or imagined transgressions. So rather than give the restaurant a chance to make things right, the complainers scamper to the safety of their laptops to pummel the restaurant with invectives for thousands to see on unmonitored sites such as Yelp and the like. So much for hurt feelings. Furthermore, I’ve lost count of the “reviews” on Yelp posted by those who clearly and obviously never even visited that restaurant.

It is an inescapable fact that restaurants are run by people. It is also a fact that people are not perfect. So we can therefore conclude that restaurants are not perfect. That’s not an excuse for anything - it’s just a reason. My experience has convinced me that the great majority of restaurateurs want you to enjoy your visit. And if you don’t, most are willing - even anxious - to step up and make it right. And therein lies the tipping point between giving the restaurant a chance to correct a mistake, and typing out complaints to food writers and on the internet:  If your complaint is justified and valid (that’s a big “if,” by the way), and you do indeed confront the owner/manager, and they are rude or dismissive, then all bets are off. Fire up that computer and type away.

A complaint is not justified or valid if it’s about having to wait in line at a restaurant. Some actually see this as a personal attack, and I can’t get to my delete button fast enough. Other complaints that get vaporized concern menu prices. If a restaurant is too pricy for you, then don’t go. There are lots of good, mid-priced restaurants. I don’t hate Maseratis just because I can’t afford one. Unless you have access to the company’s rent, food and labor costs, complaints about price are meaningless. If a restaurant does actually price itself out of the market without delivering on the promises mentioned above, it will not survive anyway. The proper price is nothing more than what the local market - and the fixed costs - will bear. Period.

When I write a restaurant review, I start with the assumption that restaurants actually want to provide a good product. So I rate them using one simple premise: Do they provide what they promise to provide, given their price point? I award the same high rating to a perfectly prepared and politely served ten-buck burger at Five Guys as I do for an expertly cooked and served rack of lamb for $45 at Eden, Blue Moon, Heirloom or one of our other fine-dining eateries. Both delivered on their promise. And both did it well. But if my assumption proves to be incorrect (it happens…) and I encounter attitude or resentment when making a (reasonable) request, that will certainly be reflected in the tone of my review. (If that comes off as an understatement, then you understood it correctly.)

This whole diatribe started with the local restaurateur’s snarky yet amusing responses to comments posted on the internet. The “review” site in question has no way of knowing if the writer even went to the restaurant (there are sites that do verify this, Open Table being one of them). So as far as I’m concerned, this restaurateur has every right to post whatever she pleases. Some of the complaints could indeed be valid (remember the “human” thing above), but in this case, since there’s no way of knowing that, it’s open season for fighting fire with fire.

Businessman Danny Meyer is quoted as saying, “A great restaurant doesn’t distinguish itself by how few mistakes it makes, but by how well it handles those mistakes.” My sentiments exactly.

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