Dear Salty, I recently went out to a nice restaurant: not especially fancy but a good spot for a date or a business dinner.
Anyways, I went with with a party of four on a Tuesday evening, when it was less likely to be packed. Our server was nice, but a little overburdened because although it wasn’t packed, it was busier than they expected and they were short-staffed. Fine.
As a group we ordered a number of appetizers and small plates for the table, and I also ordered an entree for myself. The apps all came around the same time, they were all delicious, everyone was enjoying themselves. But as time passed, I realized I still had not received my entree. I had expected it would come later, but this was going on 45 minutes. So I called the waiter over and asked after my dish. He had totally forgotten and I had to remind him of the conversation we had when I ordered it, so he went to check the slip at the kitchen. He had written it down, but it went completely out of his mind and both he and the kitchen missed it. He apologized and admitted that he had forgotten because it was busy, and I appreciated his honesty. My table agreed to wait for me to get the entree because business had slowed down and the kitchen could fire it up quickly, and it was fine. Not worth the wait, but fine.
Later, our server brought over two desserts on the house and apologized again for the earlier mistake. I didn’t want dessert, so I passed, but my companions nibbled a bit and appreciated the free sweets.
But I couldn’t help feeling that this was a lazy apology. Instead of comping me for something I did order, like my forgotten entree, I was given something I didn’t ask for at all. Maybe I don’t like dessert or I have allergies to some of the ingredients or I’m on a diet, etc. I suspected that they happened to have a bunch of these desserts pre-made, sitting in their fridge, so it was easy to pull them out and present them to us. Certainly they lost less money by giving us free dessert than a free entree.
Am I right to feel that this was a lesser apology, a quasi-bribe seeking forgiveness than actual restitution? Of course there’s no obligation for restaurants to apologize at all, only professional and ethical courtesy, but I found myself feeling uncomfortable and wanted to ask an expert!
Didn’t Want Dessert
Dear Didn’t Want Dessert,
I’m stumped by the premise of your dilemma. Didn’t… want… dessert? My mind struggles. But I suppose there are people out there who would turn down free cake. What a world!
Desserts are a fairly standard comp because, as you guessed, they’re relatively easy and don’t disrupt the kitchen flow if they’re premade. There’s also some effective psychology at work: Desserts are the last food you ate at the meal, so they stick in your mind as you’re signing the check and mentally reviewing how good of a time you had. Free desserts, that was nice of them, you’re supposed to think.
In your situation, it sounds like you weren’t too pissed about the delayed entree in the moment. Your server was honest about the mistake, and it sounds like he gave your table the opportunity to cancel the entree order. But you agreed that you wanted it, and the food ended up tasting fine.
It’s only after you got those two free desserts—which your table did eat and enjoy, by the way—that you began to wonder if you couldn’t have got something else for free. That’s not how freebies work, sweet pea. They’re a gesture of goodwill, a small token, and you don’t get to pick and choose which free thing you want. If restaurants comped entrees for every small hiccup, we’d go out of business.
We generally reserve comped entrees for what I’d refer to as Major Fuck Ups, like when your food is inedible or it never comes out at all. In your case, you got your entree and it tasted fine. Especially if this was a small-plates, tapas-y kind of place where food comes out staggered anyway, the server probably didn’t think the delay messed with your meal all that much.
As for your what-ifs… What if I had an allergy? What if I had a previous traumatic experience related to crême brulée? Well, you don’t. Your table ate the desserts and liked them. They were free. Doesn’t sound like too bad of a deal in my book.
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