Ask the Chef

When a Restaurant Experience is Horrible, Is It Ever OK Not to Pay?

Laine Doss' report in New Times yesterday regarding the alleged shoddy treatment of a foodie blogger in a newly opened establishment in Miami brought to mind painful memories of a similar experience I had years ago, and begs the question, at what point during a "horrible" dining experience is it OK to get up and leave? Or, is it never "OK" to bolt without paying? The line, if there is one, is blurry at best. We have all had bad experiences in restaurants before. Poor food quality, bad service, cleanliness issues, you name it -- there are many opportunities for restaurants to lose our business. Have you had an experience that was so bad, that you left without paying, even after attempting to make it right with management?

My tale of restaurant woe begins many years ago, before I was in the business. It was the end of a 12-hour day and my wife and I were "hangry" (when you are ornery because you haven't eaten) and decided to grab something quick on the way home. Now, here is the disclaimer: I can't give you guys anything too juicy here. This happened many years ago and I don't set out to tarnish any restaurant's reputation, so this will have to remain anonymous (sorry). We chose a well known local chain and were seated right away. We ordered a drink, bread was brought to the table, ties were loosened, and we quickly began to feel better about the world.

All of a sudden, the hostess came to our table, apologized, and said that we would have to be moved, as a large party came in and there was nowhere to put them. Now, my wife and I are both in the service business, and are very laid back and understanding when it comes to matters such as this, and we obliged. We were shuffled over to a tiny, and very wobbly table right next to the door, so close that it hit my back every time it opened (and the place was busy). I tried to make the best of it, and attempted to commence small talk and ignore the commotion from the hostess stand behind me.

Not 5 minutes later, the manager came over, apologized, and said that we would have to be moved yet again. The large party had gone from 12 to 15, and they needed the wobbly table to accommodate them. At this point, I was frustrated, but my wife was upset (nearly crying actually). We were moved for the second time, without help. I went back to the table for our wine glasses. We were seated at a booth way in the back, cut off from the dining room, next to the men's room and the server station. At this point we were both considering walking out. We were completely over it, and not even hungry anymore.

The manager brought out our appetizer, and told us that wine was on him. We told him what had happened and how exasperated we had become. He apologized. At this point though, we were both so bothered by our experience that we still wanted to leave. We barely picked at the appetizer, and then overheard the servers behind us at the computer (so close they were right in our ear) cursing and talking shit and just being restaurant people and we looked at each other and said "let's go." We made our way out the front door and started crossing the street and heard the manager yelling at us! "I said I would pay for wine, not the food!" he shouted and followed us across the street.

The manager got into my face and we started arguing, pushing and shoving, and then some members of his waitstaff tackled me to the ground and said they were calling the police. (Another disclaimer: this has NEVER happened to me before, and nothing like it has ever happened again. I am a person who always avoids conflict and attempts to take the high road whenever possible) After a few threats, they let us go without talking to the police, and my wife and I walked to our car. I guess they didn't want to press charges over a $10 walk out. After this incident I crafted a thoughtful letter to corporate management regarding this location and the behavior of their staff toward a guest, but never sent it out. Even though I felt comfortable with what I had done, the truth remained, that "technically," we had skipped out on the check, and legally, I was in the wrong. We had purchased an appetizer, and not paid for it.

I felt frustrated by the situation, and felt that I had no recourse. To this day, I still get angry when I drive by this establishment and see this individual still working there and wonder what he has done to other diners. So I leave it up to you folks, the readers. Is it "OK" to walk out in a situation such as mine? Or should I have dropped a ten spot on the table and then left? We all know when we have been treated unfairly, don't we? Restaurants need to remember that we will tell one friend about a great experience, and 20 friends about a bad one (or worse, we will blog about it).