Top 10 Complaints Heard in Restaurants and the Reason They Aren't as Bad as You Think (complete list)

The point of this list is not to apologize for bad service, bad servers, or a poorly run restaurant. I am not a restaurant apologist. Far from it. I hope I can bring come clarity for you, the restaurant consumer, to situations that might seem unreasonable or inexplicable. At the very minimum, I hope to help you focus your anger in the proper direction when you encounter the situations listed in this top ten list I’ve complied over my seven plus years of waiting tables in a corporate chain restaurant.

Number 10 Complaint: “You need my I.D.? Why? I’m like 34?!!!”

Lets start with a question: How many jobs do you know of that, in the course of normal day, can land you in prison? You might be minding your own business, doing the job as you’ve been trained to do it, and then, with one mistake in judgment, go to jail? As in JAIL. I know one! It’s called waiting tables. Why? Because you didn’t ask the right question to the wrong customer.

At the restaurant I worked in, it was not uncommon to have undercover police officers “sting” our establishment once a month. A “sting” involved the police employing an underage person (usually girl) to order an alcoholic beverage from a bartender or server. If the underage girl wasn’t asked for proof of age the server was arrested, slapped with a large fine (thousands of dollars), and fired from the restaurant. As an added bonus, the guilty party would have extreme difficulty finding another serving job in any restaurant. A very good friend of mine had this happen to him one night. He was one of the hardest workers in the restaurant and made one mistake. He left the restaurant in cuffs. Nice huh? Thank god that’s not the case in your job eh?

These types of operations are common in the business. I’m not a lawyer so I can’t intelligently argue if this type of police action constitutes entrapment. I do have a problem with police intentionally promoting illicit, illegal activities to catch someone committing a crime they weren’t really attempting to commit in the first place. The legality of this action is irrelevant to my top ten list however. As a result, of these practices, there is a significant chilling effect throughout the restaurant industry. I’m here to tell you, there is NO WAY I am going to jail. I card ANYONE who orders an alcoholic beverage. I’ve carded 60 year old women. I’m not kidding. I don’t know why States don’t just mandate that you need a drivers license to drink in public. It would save a whole lot of trouble for everyone involved.

At any rate, producing proof of age is almost never a problem for most people. Most people, who have proof of age, are flattered by the request. It makes them feel younger. However, things get interesting when I card someone who doesn’t have the “card”. In other words, they left their drivers license at home. This happens more often than you might think. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: What can I get you to drink?

Customer: I’ll have a beer.

Me: Great. Can I see your I.D.?

Customer: Oh, I forgot it in the car…..

Me: I’m sorry. Can I bring you a soda?

Customer: I don’t look 21?!!

Me: Yeah, well I’m sorry. I can’t serve you without I.D….

This is usually where it could go one of two ways. About 50% of the time, people are disappointed but they understand and order a non-alcoholic drink. Typically, it will affect my tips by about 5% but I can live with that. It’s better than jail.

The other 50% of the time is not so pleasant. I’ve had people become irate, ask for my manager, demand I be fired, leave the restaurant, and in the extreme cases, threaten violence if I didn’t produce their beer. On one occasion one “gentleman” did all of the above. The manager eventually caved and forced me serve him his beer. It was awful. This is a classic example of how to get your food spit in. I want to go on record, if that individual is reading this, that I did not spit in their food. But, by all practical judgments, I was entitled.

We don’t ask for your I.D. because we are jerks, hate you, want to make your life miserable, or don’t want you to get drunk. We know you are probably 21. We really do. We also wish we didn’t need to card you at all. But think about it for a moment…. what would you do? We can go to JAIL if we GUESS wrong about your age. That’s really what it amounts too if you don’t have your proof of age. That’s no fun. I won’t do it and that why, if you are in my section, you need your I.D. to drink.

Number 9 Complaint: “What do you mean I’m cut off??!”

Have you ever had to give a good friend bad news? Most of us have all been in a situation like this. For example: “I think I saw your wife cheating on you”. “You were so drunk last night you ­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________". "I'm not sure how you did it, but you ate the entire goldfish in one swallow". That kind of thing. To say the least, it can be awkward and uncomfortable. Sometimes it doesn’t work out very well for you, especially if your friend is looking for a place to vent his or her anger/embarrassment. The only thing thats worse than breaking bad news to a friend is breaking bad news to your boss. That can have unfortunate results for you and your future employment.

This is a situation that servers, at a corporate restaurant, are forced to deal with on a regular basis. Although servers are technically hired, fired, and critiqued by the corporation and management team, they really work for the customers who patronize the restaurant. A server who has a hard time keeping up with the management’s expectations but is loved by his/her guests will never get fired. Management will reward servers who keep their customers happy. Several friends of mind who worked at the Steak House were summarily fired because a customer called a comment line to complain. These friends weren’t particularly bad servers. However, when the customer speaks in a chain restaurant, management almost always listens.

It is this aspect of the job that makes the serving of alcohol stressful. As I mentioned in complaint 10, it is not uncommon for customers to forget their proof of age or drivers license. If the customer orders an alcoholic drink, without proof of age, it places the server in a tenuous position: serve the drink and hope the customer is old enough (and not a cop) or deny service and deal with the ramifications.

Complaint 9 is an offshoot of 10. Say a customer orders an alcoholic drink and has proof of age. However, the customer wants two beers or a “double”. A “double” means, literally, double the amount of alcohol (vodka in a screwdriver, gin in a gin and tonic, etc) in the same glass for double the price. In a corporate restaurant, this again puts the server in an uncomfortable position of telling their real boss “no”. The Steak House corporate policy was not to allow anyone to have one than 23 ounces of beer, one glass of wine, or two ounces of hard liquor at any one time. Also, we could not allow a customer to drink if their express purpose was to get drunk.

Why, you might ask, would the restaurant care? There are two reasons. The first is because the Steak House saw itself as a family establishment and not a bar. At the Steak House, alcohol was a “garnish” to be provided sparingly. The second reason, as many things do in a restaurant, comes back to liability. Restaurants, at least corporate ones, are scared to death of lawsuits and legal culpability. When you work at a corporate restaurant you will, eventually, be subjected to an alcohol training session that “teaches” the staff what a drunk person looks like. The ironic element to these training sessions is that they were usually held on a Saturday morning when most of the participations were horribly hung over from the previous night’s libations. The sessions used a color code to help us identify the stages of “drunkness”. Essentially, the breakdown was as follows: green = sober, yellow = too drunk to drive, red = too drunk to stand. We, as servers were to avoid serving a customer into the “red”. The penalty, to the server, for serving people into the red could be termination.

Restaurants are held to some pretty high standards in regards to serving alcohol. Beyond the requirements restaurants must meet to actually receive a liquor license, there is serious liability issues for a bar or a waiter who serves a customer into the “red”. If a restaurant serves a drink to a person who, later in the day/evening, crashes their car into some poor unsuspecting motorist, the restaurant will have some measure of liability in the accident resolution. Translated, the restaurant could get sued and the server who sold the drink to the jerk drunk driver, could go to jail.

Inevitably this corporate policy would cause a complaint once or twice a month in my restaurant. Typically, corporate would back the restaurant up on these matters (unlike 99% of other customer service “issues”) obviously because it was their policy that caused the complaint to begin with. So now you know. If I could allow you to drink yourself into oblivion, I would. Unfortunately, I can’t and I won’t. You can’t have a double. If you look drunk, you’re getting soda. Your beer is not worth my job. Deal with it. It’s not my fault. Feel free to take it out on me with words, complaints, or a lower tip but that won’t change a thing. If you want to drink, go to a bar, not a chain restaurant.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 8: “It’s too dark/too loud/too bright/too cold/too hot/too busy in this restaurant!”

Moving away from alcohol (complaint 10 and 9), we dive into another common complaint heard in my Steak House. Generally, this revolves around the atmosphere in the restaurant itself. Corporate restaurant have convinced themselves that every “dining experience” for every customer in their establishment must be just that: an “experience”. The corporate way of thinking does not allow for any variables that could potentially be negative and damage this “experience”. This idea is carried into the very dining room environment. I’m not referring to the actual decorations on the walls necessarily. Corporate restaurants try to control the “dining experience” down to the temperature of the room, the volume of the music in the background, and the general brightness of the restaurant.

What follows could be plucked from any corporate regional manger’s stream of consciousness:

“Servers must greet the table in X amount of time, bring the food in Y time, and bring the bill in Z time. The guest must hear music, but only in the background, while seeing their menu in light that is not brighter than 5 candles in a room that is 72 degrees.”

Is this insane, unnecessary, controlling, etc? YES! OF COURSE IT IS. Corporations are all about what looks good on paper, not about what works in the real world. There is a serious disconnect between the board room and dining room in virtually every corporate restaurant. When you specifically (and arbitrarily) decide for everyone who will ever eat in your restaurant the proper temperature of the room, volume of the music, and brightness at their table, you will have, every day, complaints about one or all three. Is everyone going to complain? Definitely not. However, there were demographics of people who, in my experience, would complain consistently about all three environmental variables. Typically, elderly people who would have a hard time hearing each other over the music, reading the menu in the dim light, or freezing to death would complain, with vigor, to their server.

When I was, repeatedly, confronted with this situation, I would do one of two things. I would either politely explain that the lighting/temperature/music was unadjustable or I would lie and tell my customers “I’ll talk to the manger about that and see if we can fix…” whatever their complaint was. Talking to the management about the problem was, typically, an exercise in futility. The management didn’t want to be reprimanded from the corporate offices if they adjusted any of the “experience” variables in the restaurant like lighting, heating, or music volume.

You might be asking yourself why the corporate front office would micromanage the Steak House to this level. If you think about it, a restaurant management team should be able to control the heat, lights, and music without a corporate directive on the matter. One would hope that corporate hiring practices were advanced enough to ensure management teams in individual Steak Houses could be trusted to handle the environmental controls of the restaurant. Unfortunately, the corporate mind set is to always assume that the people who work in the restaurant are complete idiots who have no idea what a comfortable temperature / proper lighting / reasonable music volume might be. Corporations also get so caught up in setting a “mood” or creating an “environment” they can lose sight of reality. People like to be able to hear who they are talking to, see their menu, and be comfortable indoors.

So, when you ask your server to turn up/down the heat, brighten the room, turn down the music, etc. understand that the parent corporation has specifically controlled all the environmental variables for you, the customer. This includes heat, music, and lightning. The restaurant staff (especially the management) has nothing to do with these decisions and, if they want to stay in the good graces of the corporation, will do nothing about your complaint. Corporate would rather control the variables than listen to you.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 7: “We had a party of 10 and it took forever to get us a table!” and other waiting complaints.

Imagine this: You are starving and go to your favorite restaurant only to be told by the bitchy host there is a 30 minute wait for a table. By definition a wait, usually, means that there are not enough tables in the restaurant to seat all the people coming in the door. In those situations, the restaurant is forced to stop seating people because, literally, there is no table for them in the dining room.

Waits in a corporate restaurant is an unfortunate reality. It has to happen occasionally, especially on busy weekend nights. As a consumer, being waitlisted is disappointing and frustrating. Suddenly it feels like you’re back in elementary school patiently waiting your turn in the milk line. To grown adults, this reversion is not a welcomed one. Restaurant patrons are typically starving, so waiting an additional 30 (or more) minutes to get to the point when you can actually order your food seems like an eternity. What to do? In my experience, most people wait the thirty minutes, begrudgingly. To the millions of people who patiently wait for a table, I thank you. I know it’s hard and probably the last thing you want to do on an empty stomach. Number 7 of the top 10 complaints heard at a restaurant (and the reason they aren't as bad as you think) is dedicated to the select few who never really learned how to wait patiently.

In the interest of fairness, there are moments when the restaurant is to blame for a wait. People screw up and the majority of hosts (or the people who seat the tables), especially in corporate restaurants, are college age girls. For many hosts at the Steak House, hosting was there first job EVER. What always killed me about this was the fact that hosting is one of the most important jobs in the restaurant business and management decides to allocate the least experienced worker they can find to fill these roles. Why is hosting so important? Without getting into the specifics of the job, think about what I said in reason 8. The corporation wants to control all the environmental elements it can in the “dining experience”. The temperature, music, etc. are all micromanaged by the parent corporation. How can a business put this much thought into the “environment” of the restaurant and then put total incompetence at the front door? I have no idea. The first thing a guest sees is the host! If the host screws up, I promise most patrons will never return. So, what deserves more attention? The hiring practices of hosts or the music volume in a restaurant? But I digress.

Having said that about the hosts, most of the time they are simply doing their job when they tell you there will be a wait for your table. Here are three tips if you find yourself in this situation.

1) Look at the time. If a host tells you that your table will be ready in thirty minutes, be ready to be sat in 15. Don’t go anywhere. Have a drink at the bar or find somewhere to relax (if possible). Check out the menu and get your order ready. Waits sometimes move a lot quicker than the hosts might think. It is extremely difficult to gauge how long people take to eat their meals. This is, truly, what you are waiting for when your name is placed on a wait. You are waiting for another table to get up and get cleaned by a busser so you can sit down and order your food. Simply stated, relax! You are at a restaurant to enjoy yourself! You could get stress at home.

2) Understand that if your party is larger than three of four people, the wait might be (a lot) longer. 70% - 80% of tables in many restaurants are three or four “tops”. In other words, most restaurants are geared to handle a large volume of three or four person families. Five, six, and up sized parties require larger tables which are not as readily available in most restaurants.

3) Finally, remember that, just because you see an open table, doesn’t mean the wait isn’t justified. One of the biggest complaints hosts receive revolves around this scenario: A hungry customer walks into a restaurant and is told by a frazzled host there is an hour wait. The customer looks around the restaurant and sees a few open tables. The customer proceeds to say something like “I see open tables … why can’t we sit there??!” While this question drives hosts and servers crazy, on some level it is a logical query.

Here is the answer why you “can’t sit there”.

First, let me say this situation never occurs on a Friday or Saturday. Typically, the Steak House was insanely busy on these days and there were never open tables to be pointed to by an angry, hungry customer. Also, the restaurant was adequately staffed to handle a large volume of customers on the weekend. This problem usually reared its head during “slow” times like mid-week lunch shifts for example. To fully staff the Steak House, you needed to have twenty-two servers on the “floor” with three or four tables each. Good business sense tells you there is no way the restaurant will bring twenty plus servers to work a Tuesday lunch which is traditionally a slow time without a lot of business. On such occasions, when a lunch shift is much busier than expected, it is very possible that a restaurant and its staff will get overwhelmed. A handful of servers can be working as hard as they possibly can, waiting on five and six tables each, but 50% of the restaurant’s tables will sit empty. It is in these moments that hosts are forced to start a wait, despite the fact that there are empty tables. Empty is the not same thing as available. The restaurant simply does not have the personal to handle your order at that moment.

You, as a customer, can blame management for not staffing properly, the hosts/servers for not working hard enough, or the corporation for not having a better way of dealing with these situations. Your anger in these moments says a few things about you. You are hungry, you want your food as soon as possible, and you know nothing about the restaurant industry. My advice? Go someplace else and try the restaurant on a different day. The hosts would love to seat you, they just can’t at that moment. Don’t take it personally. It is not a conspiracy against you and your lunch. Restaurants in these moments are running on the brink of disaster with angry servers and stressed out hosts. That is a recipe for getting your food spit in. Take your business elsewhere and save everyone (including you) the stress.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 6: “I don’t like this table! Can I have a booth!” or “Is there anything by the fireplace/window/talking animal?”

When you go out to eat, you want everything to be perfect. I was a server for seven years at the Steak House and I worked very hard to make sure every customer I waited on had as close to a perfect experience as I could provide. It was in my best interest to. The better I did, the better my tip was. Honestly, this should be the goal of every server. Did this always happen in my case? Was I always “perfect”? Definitely not. Part of that is my fault. I am human and I make mistakes. Part of that is the restaurant’s fault because, lord knows, management wasn’t perfect. Some blame belongs to the corporation for inconsistent policies. Sometimes the people I worked with would makes mistakes (read: kitchen staff, hosts, bartenders, runners, etc.).

For most people, a perfect experience means your food should be prepared well, the server should be attentive and polite, and you shouldn’t have to wait to long for anything. These are completely reasonable demands. Common restaurant complaint number 6 addresses one of the first warning sign for restaurant staff that a guest with unrealistic expectations is dining in their establishment. The staff at the Steak House referred to these particular types of unreasonable people as the “Table Choosers”. Complaint 6 revolves around table selections.

A typical dining experience begins with a host saying hello and taking you a table. For most people, this is a simple matter. Unfortunately, there is a select group that will not be happy with any table the host brings them too. These people usually fall into three categories:

1) The upfront and honest types.

For me, the upfront and honest types are the most annoying. These customers, when brought to a table they don’t like, immediately start to complain about it. For example: “This is too close to the kitchen!” “This table is too dark!” “We are too far from the kitchen!” and of course “We want a booth, not a table”. This many not sound like a huge deal to someone who never worked in a restaurant. A table is a table right? Wrong. In the Steak House, each table was assigned to a server. The host usually has a rotation that fairly distributes customers to each server so everyone working can make money. Sometimes, when the restaurant isn’t fully staffed on a slow day, some of the tables in the restaurant will not be assigned to any particular server. In other words, hosts seat customers in certain locations for a reason. Usually the upfront and honest types will immediately asked to be moved if they don’t like their table. These same customers never seem to understand why it takes the hosts a minute to figure out where to put them. While seating a restaurant is not the hardest job in the world, there are a few things hosts should try to avoid doing. One of the cardinal rules of hosting is: don’t “triple seat” a server. Being “triple sat” sucks. That means three tables are sat in your section at the same exact time. As you can imagine, this makes servers insanely busy. Being triple sat takes years off your life. Obviously, when a server gets triple sat, it affects service for all the server’s tables. Again, this many not sound like a big deal to some, but I can feel my blood pressure rising as I write this. I still have nightmares about being triple sat. Usually the upfront types start pointing to tables they want to sit in and saying things like “I don’t understand what the big deal is! I’m the customer and I want to sit THERE!” The big deal is, by selecting your table, you may force the hosts to triple seat a server and your dining experience is going to suck because your server will be too busy to give you proper service… THAT is the big deal.

2) The silent but deadly types.

The silent but deadly types are just plain weird. Unlike the upfront and honest guests, the silent but deadly customers will sit in the table they are brought too, but will suddenly disappear only to reappear in a table of their choosing. The silent but deadly types are apparently too shy to complain and take a passive aggressive approach to their seating arrangements. These customers can lead to all types of problems. First of all, there is a good chance, on a slow day, they will seat themselves somewhere in the restaurant where no server is assigned to work. As a result, they sit in their chosen table for a LONG time fuming at the server who should be waiting on them (who doesn’t actually exist) before someone notices them and takes their order. Silent but deadly customers can also seat themselves into a section where the server is extremely busy. Again, these customers will sit, waiting for service, and generally get pissed at the slow waiters in the restaurant.

3) The driven by shiny objects and pretty things types.

Most of the time, these types of customers are driven by love: as in love of their children. At the Steak House, we had several “talking” animal puppets attached to the wall. I know. Don’t ask. The kids loved these animals and wanted to sit by them at ALL COSTS. It was not uncommon for these types of customers to be sat at a table only to ask for a different table “closer to the animals”. Also in this category are the customers who want to sit near windows or fireplaces. At the Steak House we had a very scenic view of a parking lot. Occasionally, we would have customers ask to be sat near a particular painting or photograph on the wall. It’s not like there was an ocean or something out those windows. We didn’t exactly have Ansel Adams’ hanging on our walls. But, inevitability, customers wanted to sit where they wanted to sit.

Sadly, the easiest way to deal with all three of these types of customers was to give them what they want and apologize, in advance, to whomever is forced to wait on them. You can forgive the parents who are just trying to make their kids happy. There is some nobility in that. Does that mean that I loved waiting on other people’s kids? God no, but that is a different story for a different day. The bottom line is, don’t be one of these people. The hosts are sitting you in specific areas for specific reasons. If you must change tables, be polite and patient. It will go a long way in avoiding spit in your food.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 5: “I want this, this, and this on the side!”

Everyone has their own little quirks. Some people are lazy. Some people are perfectionists. Some people work every moment of every day. Others can’t wait for their next vacation. Some people think Star Wars is better than Lord of the Rings. We are all entitled to our own little idiosyncrasies. As with personality traits, everyone has their own culinary tastes and preferences. Personally, I hate blue cheese and mayonnaise. I detest both and will not order anything off any restaurant menu that contains either of these products. I don’t begrudge people their taste preferences. I must admit, however, that customers with numerous special requests drive me up a wall.

If you, occasionally, ask for your salad dressing on the side or an extra ramekin of barbeque sauce, this article is not necessarily directed at you. Common restaurant complaint 5 is directed to those of you who feel the need to create your own menu when you go out to eat. As with everything in life, this issue is not a simple black and white issue. There seems to be an escalating scale of customer requests.

The first level involves asking for one or two things of your order on the side or removed completely. Generally speaking this is not a big deal and the server is happy to accommodate. A happy customer tips better.

The second level is slightly more involved. This usually involves putting several items on the side or bringing an extreme amount of extra salad dressing, blue cheese, etc to the table. At the Steak House we had a family that regularly visited us eat half a gallon of ranch with every meal. Seriously. These types of requests boarder on annoying but are more interesting than anything else. I always found it fascinating to see how much blue cheese, for example, one person can eat.

The third level is simply annoying. There is no polite way to say it. This usually involves creating some special request side dish for the customer. For example, asking for “carrots only” out of a vegetable medley or asking for cocktail sauce when the restaurant doesn’t offer seafood on the menu. Another level three request involves heating water for a baby’s bottle. This always drove me nuts. I’ve actually had mothers ask me to heat a bottle of formula for their babies. First of all, as a father of twin girls, I would never let a complete stranger touch, let alone prepare, a bottle. Secondly, my wife and I never go out to eat when we know the babies will need a bottle of formula. The last thing we want are hungry and fussy babies in a restaurant full of people trying to enjoy a meal. When you have kids, you need to stay home sometimes and do what’s right for the baby. At any rate, level three requests involve significant work for the server and tends to really put them behind with the rest of their tables.

Level four customers are simply inhuman. These are the types of people who clearly have huge insecurities in their own lives and bossing servers around makes them feel superior. Let me give you an example of this practice. At the Steak House one of our regular customers had the following order for every meal:

Drink: Diet Coke, no ice, three (no more or less) lemons

Appetizer: Three (minimum) loafs of break with four ounces of butter.

Meal: This particular guest always ordered a grilled chicken salad. Rather than have the normal, fresh cut, iceberg lettuce mix, this particular customer demanded a head of lettuce chopped into fours. This meant that whomever served this guest had to cut the salad fresh. The lettuce mix was less than an hour old when she ordered it during the lunch shift. As restaurants go, this is extremely fresh. Why she had to have the head of lettuce, I’ll never know. The chicken for the salad had to be grilled on a “flat top” range rather than on a chargrill (as was corporate policy). There is a reason that chicken at the Steak House was cooked on the chargrill. The “flat top” range was extremely hot and burned chicken very quickly. The cooks had to watch this customers chicken like a hawk or face her wrath if it didn’t exactly meet her “char expectations”. The chicken breast could not be chopped into strips, as the menu specified. The salad/chicken combination could not have any tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, croutons, cabbage, cheese, or eggs. Again, all things the salad was supposed to come with. The customer ordered four extra ounces of bacon and salad dressing.

I could go on but I’m sure you get my point. Taking this order, as a server, is a colossal pain in the ass. This customer would also say absolutely miserable things to the server like “What’s wrong with you!” or “I don’t like you, send me someone else to take my order!” This particular customer was extreme, but not uncommon. Level fours’ eat in busy restaurants every day.

To people, like the customer I just detailed, I say this: If you don’t like the menu, don’t eat there. Go someplace else where the menu is more to your liking. Better yet, don’t go out to eat at all. Stay at home and make your own food. That way, you can never get pissed at the server for forgetting one of your countless special requests. We will all be better off that way. Being one of these people is, without a doubt, one of the easiest ways to get your food spit in.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 4: “I asked for medium well!!”

Most Americans love a good steak. Personally, I love a well cooked sirloin. Filets are nice, but there is something, for me, about the texture and make up of a sirloin. As a server who worked in a Steak House for several years, I had to become very familiar with all types of beef products: sirloins, filets, t-bones, chop steak, rib eyes, prime rib, hamburgers, etc. Perhaps more importantly, I had to become an expert on how these steaks are prepared. Steaks in the restaurant I worked in ranged in price from $10 for a chop steak to $24 for a T-Bone. $24 is a lot of money to most people and those who order steak usually have expectations of their meal, as they should.

I can’t tell you how many times, in my seven years as a server, the following transpired at my tables:

A table in my section would a steak and I would ask them how they would like it cooked. I would repeat back to the customer exactly what they said to confirm how they wanted their steak. Twenty minutes later, the steak would arrive at the table. I would ask the customers to cut into the steak to confirm it was the temperature they ordered. The customer would cut into the steak and say “This is not how I like it!”

Whose fault is this? It’s very easy to blame the server or the kitchen or even the restaurant. Let’s face the facts: assuming the server can write down what you said and the cooks can read what the server wrote, there is a good chance that the server/kitchen combination is not at fault. Of course, there are moments when a cook totally under or over cooks a steak. It definitely happens. However, I would say that well over 85% of the time, you, the customer, did not communicate your expectations to the server properly. Ordering beef at a restaurant is something that customers need to do a better job at. You are paying a lot of money for steak and you owe it to yourself to be more precise with your order.

The restaurant I worked in had the following steak temperatures:

Rare: A Cool Bloody Center

Medium Rare: A Warm Bloody Center

Medium: A Hot Pink Center

Medium Well: Cooked Throughout

Well: Burned

Across the street, a different restaurant had a completely different set of steak temperatures customers ordered from. To this restaurant, “well” meant cooked throughout and not burned as it did in my restaurant. You see what I’m getting at here? Each restaurant is going to be different and what is “medium well” in my restaurant would not necessarily be the same in every other restaurant you might visit.

As a customer, who is paying a lot of money for their dinner, you should order your steak as you want it to look. You should tell the server “I want my beef to be hot and pink in the center”. Let the server figure out what to tell the cooks. Never say something like “I want my steak medium rare” because I promise you, your steak will not live up to your expensive expectations.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 3: “This meal is so expensive!” and similar complaints.

There is a simple concept in economics. It’s called the law of demand. The law of demand says that as price decreases, consumers will buy more of a good or service. Translated, the cheaper things are, the more we buy. It’s called a law for a reason. This law is on display everywhere in American society. How do you think Wal-Mart made 11 billion dollars (profit) in 2006? People LOVE cheap stuff.

This law holds true in restaurants as well. People want more food then they can eat for as little cost as possible. A certain percentage of restaurant customers will always take issue with the cost of their meal because, for whatever reason, it does not align with their expectations. About once a week I would bring a bill to a table only to be called back a few moments later to hear a complaint about the cost. Sometimes the complaints would be valid; most times they would be completely unfounded. Complaints at check time typically fell into a few different categories.

1) The most common complaint came from people who had been burned by less than honest servers in the past. There are jerks in this world and some of them do work in restaurants. I know that some servers intentionally try to overcharge customers because they have dreamed up a way to increase their tip. Most of the time this takes the form of adding items to a guest’s check that was never actually ordered only to remove this item from the bill after the guest has paid. The difference between the falsified bill and the actual cost of the meal is added to the servers tip. The dishonest servers of the world are counting on the customer paying the bill without looking at the actual amount. Most people do not itemize their bill when it comes to the table. They already have an idea of how much it should be and if it’s close, they pay it and leave. This crime, because that’s exactly what it is, works best when the customer pays in cash. This eliminates a paper trail that a credit card would provide. Servers who intentionally cheat their customers make waiting tables a lot harder for the rest of us honest servers. Customers, who have been burned by this bill inflation, are more likely to itemize their bill at the table and, sometimes, falsely accuse innocent servers of overcharging them. I have never intentionally overcharged a guest in my life, but I have been accused of it dozens of times over my seven years in the Steak House. You can’t blame people for being suspicious, but it doesn’t make it any less of a pain in the ass.

2) The second type of complaint comes from people who didn’t actually read the price on the menu or, for whatever reason, thought their meal cost less than it actually did. These complaints usually go one of two ways: the bill arrives and the customer asks to see a menu. At this point the customer realizes he/she is wrong and either: a) owns up to the mistake and pays the bills or b) refuses to believe they made a mistake and throws a fit. This latter situation is never pleasant and usually ends with a manager visit to the table. Sometimes the manager will remove items from the menu to reduce the cost. This is clearly the path of least resistance for the manager because there was nothing wrong with the meal, service, or food and by all rights the customer should have paid the full amount. In these situations, the manager is worried about a customer call to corporate. Sometimes, if the customer is abrasive enough, the manger will politely explain that, if the meal was satisfactory, the bill needs to be paid. Sometimes it’s not so polite. Personally I think this is just about the most obnoxious thing a customer can do. The customer ordered, ate, and enjoyed a meal. Pay the bill and stop complaining.

3) The third complaint isn’t really a complaint and, to me, is more sad than anything else. We are all driven by the American dream. Everyone wants a nice house, car, and the occasional night out at an expensive restaurant. Of course, those expectations are all relative. For many people, the Steak House was an “expensive restaurant”. Sometimes people, who probably should not be spending their money on disposable activities, would order more food than they could pay for. When this occurred it would be reflected in an extremely poor tip or a declined credit card. Either way, it was uncomfortable for all parties. The customer would, more than likely, leave a good tip if they could afford it. On the other hand, I can assure you that servers don’t like telling customers their credit card company won’t let them spend any more money and getting screwed on a tip isn’t fun either. All in all, I wish these people would just stay home and spend their money on their kids or something to improve their financial situation (like paying down their credit cards).

No matter the form the complaint takes, the most obvious representative of the restaurant is the server and as a result, we tend to feel the brunt of these complaints. I say unfortunately, because servers have absolutely nothing to do with the cost of the meal. None whatsoever. We did not set the menu prices and we certainly don’t have the power to change them. You, as a customer, enter into an unspoken agreement when you enter a restaurant. You, the customer, agree to pay the prices the menu asks and we, the servers, agree to provide the best experience we can provide. Please keep this in mind the next time you don’t like the price of your meal and take it out on your server.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 2: “This is definitely NOT what I ordered!!!” and similar complaints.

As a server, hearing the words “this is not what I ordered” from one of my customers never failed to turn my stomach inside out. I took my job as a waiter very seriously. Hearing these six little words guaranteed my customer was not happy. People pay a lot of money for their meals when they go out to eat. I always tried to keep my customers as happy as possible. Obviously, I had financial incentives to motivate me in this regard. Beyond tips, I also know how it feels to go to a restaurant and have your meal get completely screwed up. We have all there before. Most of us go out to eat when we have something, small or large, to celebrate. Whether it’s a birthday or anniversary or simply another day closer to retirement, going out to eat helps us celebrate these milestones. If our meal is not what we ordered it completely ruins the mood. Many customers are completely flummoxed at these moments. I’m not referring to those moments when your steak is underdone or your chicken is raw. I’m referring to the times when you order a chicken sandwich and receive lobster bisque. How does this happen?

In my experience there are two ways that the meal a customer orders differs from what appears on their plate.

1) The server is an idiot and/or is having a bad day.

I am not a server apologist. There are bad servers in this world who don’t belong in the profession just like there are bad politicians, police officers, teachers, and cashiers. Also, there are also moments when servers are under an extreme amount of pressure and your order falls through the cracks. I was always amazed at how bad the servers I worked with were at separating their personal lives from their jobs. Sometimes a bad day a server is having outside of work turns into a horrible day at work. Sometimes servers lose the piece of paper they wrote your order on. Rather then ask you what you wanted again and look foolish, the server guesses. To this point, occasionally you will run into a server who doesn’t write your order down, professing to have a wonderful memory. These servers always fascinated me in the sense that they allow their ego to get in the way of actually doing a good job. To many servers, not writing down orders is a badge of honor. They believe it shows how smart they are or how great their memory is. I was never one of those servers. In my opinion, it shows how irresponsible they are. When I get stressed as a server, what my customers are drinking or what they want on their salad goes in one ear and out the other. My mind is ten steps ahead of those small details. I’m thinking about how long table X’s food is taking or how I need to greet the three other tables in my section that were just sat, for example. Those are what I would call major details. How do I prevent screwing up your salad order or bringing you a Coke when you asked for water? I WRITE IT DOWN. Servers don’t have room for egos in their professional life. At any rate, this is one way in which the order you gave so clearly to your server is completely wrong when it arrives at your table.

2) You didn’t read the menu,

Honestly, this is much more common then reason one. Most of the time, the reason your order is incorrect is because you didn’t read the menu or you ordered the wrong item. After about seven years on the job, I realized that people don’t like to read, even menus. Ego again plays a role in this situation, except the customer is the guilty party. When a customer orders a meal that isn’t exactly what he/she thought it would be, it could go one of two ways. The customer realizes his or her mistake (usually after consulting a menu), swallows the appropriate amount of pride, and is apologetic for the error. In these situations I would do everything in my power to get the right food to the table. Reasonable people deserve to be treated reasonably. Or, the customer throws a fit, asks to see the manager, and complains about everything they can think of. This is where ego comes into play. Secretly, I believe these customers realize they ordered incorrectly. Unfortunately, by the time they realize they made a mistake, they are too far into the compliant process to own up to the error. There is a reason pride is a deadly sin. Customers who do this gamble with another person’s livelihood. Your complaint might be all a manager needs to fire a server on the spot. I’ve seen it happen. Your inability to read the menu may cost someone their job.

People deserve to have the food they order match the food that arrives at their table. I have all the sympathy in the world for customers who run into bad servers who let their ego get in the way of their job. However, those of you who refuse to read the menu and then cover up your mistake with angry words, complaints, and bluster probably get what you deserve.

Common Restaurant Complaint Number 1: “My server is so slow!”

Without question, this is the most common complaint heard in any restaurant anywhere in the world. To these customers, their drink, appetizer, meal, dessert, etc just doesn’t get to the table fast enough. This is a pandemic in the restaurant industry. On a busy night, a restaurant manager will field several of these complaints typically reducing the “victim’s” bill to compensate for the trouble. The question that begs to be answered is: WHY?

There are several reasons why service in a restaurant may not be as fast as you would like it to be. Let’s start with the most obvious first:

1) You are impatient.

American society is constantly moving. We work more hours as a society than just about anyone in the world. We consume massive amounts of caffeine. We are the birth place of “fast food” like McDonalds, Burger King, and Taco Bell. We need weather updates on the 9’s. We think diet pills are a good idea to speed weight loss despite their health effects. Generally speaking, we will not tolerate waiting for anything. We are allergic to lines, traffic jams, hold buttons, and dial up Internet access.

This same rule applies to restaurants and going out to eat. The restaurant I spent seven years working for had a number of benchmarks for service. The restaurant’s parent corporation engaged the services of a market research firm that asked people to outline acceptable amounts of time to wait for certain aspects of restaurant service. According to this research, that was to become corporate restaurant policy, customers liked being greeted in less than ninety seconds and served their drinks three minutes later. Appetizers should be on the table in seven minutes with entrees following eight minutes later. Twenty minutes after entrée service, the desert menu should be offered. Fifty-five minutes after the customer sat down, the check should be paid and the customer should be on his and her way. Research shows that this timetable should be escalated considerably for lunch. I am not making this up. This is what market research shows.

Having said all this, the first reason that service seems slow to many of you when you go out to eat is that you have grossly unreasonable expectations. The steakhouse I worked in offered 30 dollar meals. Do you really want to eat a 30 dollar steak in 55 minutes? According to market research, YES.

2) Some severs are terrible. Some servers are overwhelmed.

Another very real reason your service is slow may be that is that your server isn’t very good. Just like there are bad lawyers, teachers, and doctors, there are inefficient servers. The servers who make the most money from tips are the most efficient people you have ever seen. To be an effective server you must be able to instantly prioritize the tasks that must be completed. “Should I get this order’s salad first or that order’s drinks?” “Should I bring this order’s meal or make change for that table?” Good servers have an alarm clock in their head that goes off when a meal is taking too long or the bar is dragging on a drink order. Efficient servers need interpersonal skills to smooth over long meal times or improperly cooked food. Good servers are decisive, focused, and out in front of potential problems. They also have the ability to handle stressful situations in a positive way without resulting to throwing, breaking, or swearing at the closest object or individual. In other words, really good servers have the same qualities that any successful person you know would have.

How many people do you know like this? Perhaps a better question would be, how many people do you know who are not like this? These inefficient people that you know go on to hold many different jobs. Some of them will become servers.

The law of averages states that you will run into a truly inefficient or overwhelmed server eventually and chances are, they will take a lot longer to bring your food, drinks, etc than you are reasonably prepared to wait. Those of you who have experienced this situation, you have my sympathies.

3) The restaurant is overwhelmed or poorly run.

The server is the fall guy for the restaurant. Most of the time when you think your service is slow it is, more than likely, it’s not your server’s fault. You server may be guilty of inadequate interpersonal skills to explain the problem with your meal to you. However, most of the time, when your meal isn’t everything you hoped it would be, you should squarely blame the restaurant and not the person taking your order. How can this be?

As I have mentioned, the server is the most visible representative of the restaurant. Servers greet tables, take orders, deliver food, and handle payment for the meals. However, servers are only one component of the restaurant. Servers do not seat tables, clean tables, cook meals, or wash dishes. The bartenders, hosts, bus boys, cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, and managers all make their own contribution to the speed of your service. The saying “you are only as good as your weakest link” is absolutely true in a restaurant. A server can only be as efficient as the least efficient person in these support positions. Management’s most important job in a restaurant is the hiring process. If managers hire efficient people, service will take care of itself. If managers hire poorly the restaurant will easily be overwhelmed by unexpected busy periods.

Have you ever had a dirty fork? Servers do not was dishes. Have you ever been unhappy with the wait to sit at a table? The seating process is completely out of the server’s realm of responsibility. Have you ever had a poorly made/weak alcoholic drink (that probably cost you $8)? The server did not pour that drink. Have you ever eaten at a restaurant that was out of something prominently featured on their menu? Like steak? Servers do not order food for the restaurant to prepare. This list could go on and on. Severs are simply the people who put it all together for the customer. Inefficient support staff contribute, in their own way, to the general quality and speed of service. Most of the time, when your “service is slow”, it has nothing to do with the server. You are simply eating in an overwhelmed or improperly run restaurant.

So, the next time you go out to eat and things are exactly the way you hoped they would be, stop to think about this top ten list. It is never as cut and dry as you may think

24 comments: The last word in Customer Service said...

Great post.

Your readers might want to try a leading customer service review website where people share reviews with other users and with companies. Companies that are involved with and value customer service read Measuredup to keep up on what people are saying and to be able to improve customer service.

Your readers might want to write some reviews about customers and hwo they are treated by them

It is free and easy to use.

Weilin said...

That was a very informative, and stimulating article. It has definetely gave me a second look towards servers

Alicia said...

Great article! Thanks for speaking out for CS people. I wish more people understood this stuff.

knoxfrzb said...

ive worked in food service for years and the attitude expressed in this article is the most self centered bunch of whiny nonsense i've ever heard. a waiters job is to wait on the customers and be polite no matter what. sure some people are jerks, but when you come down to it we are there and being paid to deal with jerks like they are friends. i enjoy making people's meals complete , no matter what. i am at work! i am not hanging out or at home cooking/seving...i am being paid to be there , so why does it matter what i'm doing or why? if i have to recook a steak or rexplain what medium rare means, then who cares? whoever wrote this petty, bitchy tripe is obviously miserable and burned out on the whole gig. come to where i work and you will never experience this attitude from anyone who works there, from the dishwashers to the general managers

knoxfrzb said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jack said...

I have a 42 waist, not unreasonably overweight, but larger than the norm. When I enter a restaurant, I do ask for a table and not a booth. Booths in a large percentage of restaurants jam me between the table and seat. I would rather be comfortably seated. Sorry about a servers inconvenience but it's my money that pays his tip and salary. No, I don't say, "at THAT table" but I do ask for a table, straightforward before seating.

Minna said...

Thank you for an enlightening article, I stumbled it.

I've had only one truly horrible encounter with a waiter. Me and my fiancé went out to eat on our anniversary, and decided on a restaurant that is owned by a large Finnish hotel chain and situated in the hotel's premises.

We had to wait for 75 minutes (yes, we counted) before the middle-aged waitress who had seated us remembered us and took our order (after 30 minutes or so we tried to find her (or any other waiter, for that matter) on our own but weren't able to... but still masochistically decided to stay and see where things would end up since we already had a bad feeling about the place). She couldn't have been busy with other customers - we were the only diners present.

Then the food came, and it was... abysmal. I'm not picky or anything, but this was honestly the kind of stuff that you'd have a hard time swallowing even in a roadside gas station even if you were so hungry you couldn't see straight. (I don't dare to go into the details as I currently suffer from viral gastroenteritis and wouldn't want to bring up too much bad memories. Or my lunch.)

After a ridiculously long wait - with us trying to peck at the pig swill we were served - the waiter came to give us the bill and then we had the following dialogue which was so confusing my brain still hurts. (Remember the place was a hotel's restaurant.)

Waitress: Which hotel room do you live in?
Me: Hmm? We're not staying in the hotel.
Waitress (exploding into full-blown, saliva-spitting rage): WHAT? WERE YOU THINKING OF LEAVING WITHOUT PAYING?!? SHOULD I CALL THE POLICE?!?
Me: *completely and utterly dumbfounded* ... No, I have my credit card right here in my hand, see, I was kind of going to pay with it...? = ? = ?

The waitress stormed off, brought us the bill and then asked if we wanted to order any dessert (why ask this after we'd paid?). At this point my fiancé kindly informed her that we wouldn't dare to put anything else from this place's kitchen into our mouths, except maybe at gunpoint. Maybe.

Seriously guys, WTF.

- Minna

PS. It sort of gets even better: this restaurant in question is situated right across the street from our apartment. Every time I look out of my window I see their advertising billboard and my brain overheats all over again. Nghhh.

caleb said...

I have worked as a cook/server for the last 7 years and that pretty much sums it up. although the steakhouse I work at now is not such a corporate zombie, like alot of other places.

"being triple sat takes years off your life" lol love it.

caleb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gary said...

As a long time food and beverage industry worker I sympathize with some of your complaints but you make the point yourself when you say you work for the customer and not corporate. Those people are paying your exorbitant food cost + tip for the experience... otherwise they'd be in a cafeteria. Give them the seat they want, adjust your waiters tables, kick the cook in the ass until he gets the meal perfect.

Or go mow lawns.

ratfink said...

Rare: A Cool Bloody Center
Medium Rare: A Warm Bloody Center
Medium: A Hot Pink Center
Medium Well: Cooked Throughout
Well: Burned

Yikes, that is probably why you have so many complaints. That is pretty non-standard (yes there is a standard right down to internal temperatures).

A steak shouldn't be cool on the inside unless it's ordered blue.

A steak should never been charred unless ordered "Chicago style".

Cess80 said...

Where's my fuckin' food, bitch? I'm not the one with the crappy job.

kala_way said...

Great article, I can definitely sympathize with a lot of those. I worked in customer service for 5 years and it's amazing the things you hear and see.

I think the only thing that has ever really irritated me at a restaurant is when I'm lied to. When the host says my party of 3 will be seated in 5 minutes and 20 minutes later I go up and ask the status and she tells me that she told me it would be 30 minutes. That will prompt me to leave.

Overall I think the only way I'm a bad customer is that I never order much--no alcohol, no appetizers, no expensive fancy steaks, no desert--just water and an entree and I'm good to go, lol

Miss Lissy said...

I thought this was really interesting and I agree. Usually I only skim, but I read the whole thing this time. I used to work in a restaurant which was half sit down but more like fast food. (It had a drive thru). Costumers can be crazy. I know one time every table in the restaurant was full and this lady thought she should get her meal for free because we didn't have a table for her.

Anonymous said...

Overall, good points. I did want to comment on the 'doneness' of people's steaks. As a trained chef with 30 years in the kitchen, I can tell you that the terms "Rare", "Medium", "Well done", etc., are NOT subjective as you suggest. You are correct that "Medium Well" can be different from one restaurant to the next, but that is, in fact, 100% the cooks fault, not the customer's. The terms have a specific temperature with rare being the 'coldest' but it is not actually cold. It is expressly against Health Codes in North America to serve meat at any temp below 140 degrees, which is "Rare", and 185 degrees plus being "Well Done". Those temp readings are for the center of the particular cut of meat. Most people like their beef at a temp of 160-170 degrees which is in the "Medium" range, more done than "Medium Rare", less than "Medium Well". Your establishments descriptions were well thought out, but a bit inaccurate, particularly for "Rare" and "Well". The center would not be "cold" in a "Rare" steak, and if your cooks actually "Burned" a steak to call it "Well", they simply don't know how to properly cook food, and should get re-trained.

Spuffler said...

Just ate at a restaurant on a Friday at 7pm, with my wife, her ex-husband, and my stepdaughter who is a momentarily unemployed yet VERY highly regarded waitress. At one point during an otherwise uneventful meal, our server quickly trotted up to our table while my wife and her ex were having a rather intense conversation. The server paused until my step daughter and myself (only half the table) acknowledged she was standing there, not more than 2 seconds from her arrival. She asked a question of the whole table, did not get a response from the other two, and trotted away. She returned a minute later with a refill for my drink (free refills, she observed the empty, I did not need to point it out). Again, she waited just 5 seconds and again asked if we were all set, again, did not make contact with the same half of the table, and then left; total time she was present at the table, adding both trips, was less than 7 seconds. A moment later, that inattentive half of the table discovered they needed something, and started to ask why she took off so quick. I'm sorry, people, your job is to reach all the customers, averaging 3.5 seconds per trip is borderline. 2 times in a row? Not excusable. The stepdaughter defender the server, but 3 to 1, our response to the stepdaughter was that the server didn't assist 2 out of 4 people, and that was 2 visits in a row. We didn't fault our server in her tip, but just remember, you need to serve EVERY customer at every table, not just the few that are professional diners. Get the attention of EVERYONE at the table, even if it takes 4 MORE seconds per trip. After all, we COULD just sit right there nibbling the meals and chatting for another hour, if we wanted to. That would take out a good $20 from that tables nightly tips, am I right? The moral is simple; we don't give good tips if we aren't individually served satisfactorily. We aren't going to stop our lives and act a certain way just because our server is in a hurry on a Friday night. WE are the ones that pay YOUR tips, earn our money. And restaurants need to NOT put time constraints so tightly that 3.5 seconds per table visit becomes necessary.

Paul said...

Great read. I'm not a server but when I pay attention when I go to restaurants, I can sometimes here people complaining about those issues. For some reason, a lot of people begin to forget that servers are actual people, which is sad.

The only times I would get frustrated are when it's clearly the server's fault -- like if I receive no service and the place is practically empty, and I can see the server standing around and doing nothing. Luckily, such things are very rare.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to know what's going on at the other end in a restaurant (I've only worked in a kitchen).

I will say that after spending a few months in Tanzania, where it wasn't uncommon for a meal to take three hours (20 minute wait on a burger in Dar es Salam) I've become much more patient.

djaiv said...

After a lifetime of working in the back of the house, I only have a few things to say:
1)Don't eat at chain restaurants. You need to eat, it might as well be good food, which you won't get at corporate stores.

2)I went to school, trained, and did two absolutely horrible apprenticeships just to learn how to cook, and when some pinhead tells me that the lamb isn't cooked properly, he is taking his life in his own hands. Thankfully, the place I work at has a great motto: The customer is right when I say he is. If I fuck up, I will cheerfully fix it. If you just don't know what it is you wanted, shut up.

3)Gary, no one kicks the cook's ass. The cook is the backbone of the restaurant. A good server is a blessing but, honestly, a keypad at your table is just as useful. A decent chef is worth about 10 million crappy servers.

and 4) All that said, this was a great article. I am amazed at how picky and just plain rude many customers can be. Get out of my restaurant and go eat at some box store.

Anonymous said...

utter bullshit, nothing like reading the lopsided thoughts of a disgruntled waiter.

how about going out and buying a meal sometime, get on the other side of the tip scale and tell me you care why the waiter may or may not want to seat you where you want. If I'm paying more than half of your salary during my stay you sure as hell better make sure I'm comfortable mentally and physically.

HowToGetYourFoodSpitIn said...

Brave comment from anonymous poster.

me said...

Anonymous wrote:

"Overall, good points. I did want to comment on the 'doneness' of people's steaks. As a trained chef with 30 years in the kitchen, I can tell you that the terms "Rare", "Medium", "Well done", etc., are NOT subjective as you suggest. You are correct that "Medium Well" can be different from one restaurant to the next, but that is, in fact, 100% the cooks fault, not the customer's. The terms have a specific temperature with rare being the 'coldest' but it is not actually cold. It is expressly against Health Codes in North America to serve meat at any temp below 140 degrees, which is "Rare", and 185 degrees plus being "Well Done". Those temp readings are for the center of the particular cut of meat. Most people like their beef at a temp of 160-170 degrees which is in the "Medium" range, more done than "Medium Rare", less than "Medium Well". Your establishments descriptions were well thought out, but a bit inaccurate, particularly for "Rare" and "Well". The center would not be "cold" in a "Rare" steak, and if your cooks actually "Burned" a steak to call it "Well", they simply don't know how to properly cook food, and should get re-trained".

This just shows how tough it is for the guest when a "trained chef with 30 years in the kitchen" has trouble with this. First of all, I don't think it's against *any* health code to serve a steak at less than 140 internal temp. The USDA "recommends" an internal temp of 145, but it's not an enforceable thing (keep in mind that "intact muscle meat" has a lot more leeway anyway since as long as you sear the surface of the steak to 160 or more, most pathogens are destroyed, especially e.coli - you can get the surface of a steak to that temperature and still cook it "rare" as long as you don't pierce it with a fork or a themp probe)) Also, if you cook a steak to 185, it's going to be inedible. Simple as that.

Here are the normal industry standards (with a range listed because there is some variation between different "standards"):

Rare - 120 - 125
Medium Rare - 125-135
Medium - 140 - 145
Medium Well - 150 - 160
Well Done 160 - 170 (170 being almost inedible)

Now, having said that, some people are now using the USDA "recommended" guideline as "law" these days. They start at 140 and call that "rare", like here:
The USDA itself has redefined 145 as "medium-rare". Problem is, that's not what most people consider "medium rare" (140 certainly isn't what anyone would really consider "rare"). It's no wonder people are confused.

Here's the deal - in most "traditional steak houses (i.e. Morton's, Palm, Ruth's Criss, etc."), if you want to be safe and get the USDA recommended temp - you're going to have to order a medium steak. But you shouldn't expect anything but a little bit of red in the middle. It will be mostly pink. If you want red (whether cold, cool or warm), you're not going be getting to the USDA recommendation. Simple as that. I really don't know what they cook to at places like Bonanza or Longhorn. Of course, nobody actually takes the temperature of a steak anyway - they do it by feel. but those temps listed above are the equivalent of what you would find if you actually took the temperatures.

I think that rather than redefining what medium rare is, the USDA should recognize the "real-world" industry standards (even though they can also vary by 5 degrees) that have been in play for many years and simply "recommend" that people only order or cook beef to medium or above. It would eliminate confusion in the marketplace. It would help if chefs and broiler cooks knew the standards as well.

This looks like a good topic for my blog "So You Want To Be A Waiter" at

Anonymous said...

I must be very easy going and forgiving, for I have never complained to a server about the food or service. I just eat my meal, pay, and leave. If the meal and service were outstanding, I leave a better tip along with a kind word to the manager. In my experience, a kind word has the power to erase 10 unkind words, yet customers seem less motivated to compliment than they are to complain.

I have, however, never gone back to places that were disappointing, such as a certain pancake house whose tables felt like flypaper. I had crossed my arms in front of me and leaned on the table, and to my surprise, it felt like I was peeling a band-aid off my arms. Yikes! Some people don't seem to know the difference between wiping a table and wiping a table CLEAN.

Also, there used to be a great steak house called Shelly's Woodroast along I-394 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. It's now under new management and still good but no longer superior. In its glory days, I always had the absolute best service I have ever experienced anywhere, and I have traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad. The servers did not hover or interrupt, but every need was taken care of without input from me or my wife. They just knew exactly when to fill glasses and bring more popovers, which went unnoticed when replenished. They came without our bidding to ask if we wanted dessert or if we were ready for the bill, and they never interrupted our conversation nor asked us any questions when we had our mouths full. They were both invisible and attentive, even when the house was packed. Wow!

I reminded myself of a complaint I have about servers who ask questions when you have a mouthful, which makes it either awkward or impolite to answer, or worse, they ask the perfunctory, "Is everything okay here?" often not finishing the question before already facing away and leaving. I get the feeling that some servers are just going through a punch list without actually being available or responsive to their customers.

joe c said...

HowtoGetYourFoodSpitIn I pretty much agree with your range of temps. It also amazes me that a "chef" of 30 years has no clue about temps
Rare-Cold red center-120-125
Mid Rare-Cool red center- 130-135
Medium-Pink throughout-140-150(the closer to 140 the better)
Med Well- Trace of pink-150-158
Well Done- No pink-160
Cooking a steak like you said at 185 is just overcooked even by well done terms. The "chef" states most people like meat at 160 and he considers that medium, i consider him an idiot.