Have you ever had a disappointing meal out? Did a restaurant take ages to seat or service you and your party? Was the waiter a little too snooty – or was the food just a bit… rubbish?

The hospitality sector has faced some major challenges in the years that have followed the pandemic. Once popular restaurant chains and much-loved independent businesses have gone bust. The cost of key ingredients has resulted in significant price hikes for every kind of eatery, from fine dining to fish and chip shops. In addition, a lack of qualified chefs and front-of-house staff has led to many people reporting declining performance when dining out.

Like many people, I worked in bars and restaurants in my early years. So I have a great deal of sympathy for people working in hospitality. There have been many reports in the media about increasing numbers of rude and aggressive restaurant goers – and that evergreen news story, the diners who do a bunk without paying. So be nice.

But if you do have a bad experience at a restaurant, then you can – and should – complain about it. Here’s my guide.

What is a bad meal or experience at a restaurant?

Lots of things can go wrong when you are dining out. So it makes sense to have a think about the different categories of problem that can occur if you’re unhappy with the experience. These include:

  • Poor quality food and drink.
  • Food poisoning, hygiene and allergies.
  • Bad service from front-of-house staff.
  • Unacceptable delays and problems with bookings.
  • Seating and ambiance (like tables by toilets or too-loud music).
  • The behaviour of other diners.
  • Damage to clothes or personal property.

Looking at that list, it’s clear that many of the things that can spoil your meal are subjective, or might be out of the restaurant owner’s control. So it’s important to be both fair and reasonable when making a complaint, while being clear about what it is that you’re most unhappy about.

It’s also important to make a decision about what you want to resolve the dispute. This might range from a reduced bill, a refund in full or in part, complimentary drinks and meals or a voucher/credit to visit the restaurant again. 

What does the law say about restaurants?

There aren’t any definitive regulations or laws that govern the hospitality sector when it comes to disappointing experiences. However, there are a number of laws that relate to licensing, health and safety and food standards.

The Food Safety Act 1990 governs the food hygiene regulations that restaurants must follow, incorporating (amongst other things):

  • Food safety.
  • Cross-contamination.
  • Hygiene
  • Storage (ensuring food is chilled, correctly stored, etc.)
  • Staff training.

You can find more on the Food Standards Agency website here – and check out a restaurant’s hygiene rating here.

When you make a booking with a restaurant – directly or through a third-party booking website – you are entering in to a contract with that business. You agree to turn up on time and follow the rules of the restaurant. They agree to hold a table for you and provide the services advertised on their website or when you made contact with them. Of course, in reality, things are a lot more subjective and dependent on the situation.

How to politely ask for a refund

If you are unhappy with any aspect of the restaurant and its services, then you will need to raise the matter as and when the situation arises. There’s little point in eating a meal that’s cold, then complaining about it afterwards. You should give the manager chance to rectify the situation first. If you wait too long before complaining, then it’s hard to prove what’s actually gone wrong.

For example, if you are unhappy with where you’re seated, then make it clear there and then, politely specifying if the restaurant has failed to accommodate a request confirmed with your booking. Don’t go in hard on demands for complementary items at this stage! If you decide to stay with the table you’ve been given, be polite but say that you are disappointed.

If you are given poor quality food or experience unacceptable delays then this should also be raised at the time. If one of your party is left without food or is given the wrong option (or worse, something they can’t eat), then make a decision if you’d like to return your meal until your dining partner’s food is ready. With bigger parties, this is not practical, but you may find that the person affected gets their meal comped or a freebie to make up for the debacle.

Should something go wrong, explain to the member of staff who is serving you what you’re unhappy with. You can ask to have a discreet chat with the manager when they are available too.  Clarify calmly what you’d like as a resolution. You can, of course, ask the manager to suggest a resolution if you feel a bit awkward.

Of course, sometimes dining out can involve a series of disasters, as anyone who has ever tried to organise a large Christmas party will know. Keep a log of what’s gone wrong and explain to the manager that you’ll contact them in the morning with a formal complaint.

You may want to ‘sweeten’ the deal by saying that you’re happy to hold fire on reviewing the restaurant while the manager looks at the complaint.

Can a company refuse to refund you?

Because a bad dining experience is very much open to interpretation, businesses can indeed refuse to refund you if they think you are being unreasonable, or have left it too late to make a complaint.

Ask the manager if you can make a complaint to the head office if the restaurant is part of a chain. If the dining establishment is independent, request the details of the owner so you can email a complaint to them at a later stage.

Remember that the manager may have a limited range of options when it comes to refunds, but they couldoffer you free things, like drinks or desserts. Alternatively, you could get a discount voucher if you don’t mind returning. Think about what kind of compromise would be acceptable for you.

If the manager won’t back down, then pay the bill, but make it clear you are ‘paying under protest’ and will be taking things further.

How do I take things further?

You may well be furious by the time you get home, so channel that anger in to recording a few bullet points about what went wrong while it’s fresh in your mind, along with details of the people you spoke to about your complaint.

When you feel a little less angry, write a succinct overview of the situation, explaining how the problems impacted you personally. Use evidence, like booking confirmations and information on the website. Finally, spell out what you want to resolve the complaint.

If you are still unhappy, you have two options. Leaving a bad review on an online review site and/or taking the matter to small claims court.

If you chose to leave a review, it’s important to be fair and keep the emotive language out of your comments. This is not about revenge – it’s about informing potential diners of the problems you encountered.

The question of whether a bad review meets the legal definition of defamation or not is ludicrously complicated. Offering your opinion is not generally considered to be defamation, but making comments that are untrue, or actively seeking to cause serious harm to a business could result in a sticky legal situation. In short, don’t go there.

Failing that, you could always take the restaurant to the Small Claims Court (the name of the court varies depending on which country in the UK you live in). It’s not that expensive if you want to make a point. Read my guide here.

Why do restaurants ask for a deposit?

One of the biggest challenges faced by the hospitality industry is the no-show. Numerous celebrity chefs have gone on the record about their own restaurants being seriously affected by diners simply failing to turn up.

Restaurants are allowed to take deposits from you to counter this problem, but the charges – typically around £20 per person – hardly reflect the impact of losing out on a final bill of £100 or more if they can’t fill the table.

Deposits can be returned on arrival, but increasingly, are used to reduce the final bill. If you’re the one paying the deposit you should factor this in when the bill arrives so you don’t overpay. You may also find that some big bookings have ‘minimum spend’ requirements. The venue should explain what happens if you don’t reach this target. If no one shows up to your party, don’t despair. Many businesses will be reasonable if you’re already having a terrible night, as long as you haven’t booked out the whole venue.

If money is taken from your account without your permission and you haven’t broken any booking rules, you can ask your bank or building society to ‘charge back’ the money.

Is it illegal to serve food that is undercooked or partially spoiled?

When you eat out, the same laws apply as any other goods or services that you can purchase. This means that goods should be:

  • As described
  • Of satisfactory quality
  • Fit for purpose

The law in question is the Consumer Rights Act, which also covers things like misrepresentation and timeliness. You can find out more about the law in my guide here.

Some food may be obviously of low quality, spoiled or undercooked. But the thing about food poisoning is it can creep up on you after you’ve left the restaurant and made it home.

Food poisoning tends to happen in clusters, so if you are affected, others dining out that night should also be affected too. This makes it easier for the restaurant to know if the problem lies with them. You can also report the matter to your local council’s environmental health department who can investigate if the Food Safety Act has been breached.

Your checklist for making a restaurant complaint

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there isn’t any real definition of what makes a bad dining experience. Because this is open to interpretation, try to keep things polite and informal when speaking to staff. Chances are they are having a bad day too and are more likely to be reasonable with someone who is sympathising.

If you want to make a complaint, don’t forget:

  • Speak up when the problem arises.
  • Ask to speak to the manager when they have a moment.
  • Complain about problems with food before you eat it.
  • Decide what you want to resolve the matter.
  • Ask how you can take things further if the restaurant manager can’t resolve the problem on the night.

Bon Appétit!

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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