Thursday, 6 January 2011

Franklins, East Dulwich

There's a fantastic article by Russell Norman, on his blog and reprinted from the latest Fire and Knives, about the art of complaining in restaurants. It's told mainly from the restaurant's point of view, as you might expect from the man behind Polpo and Polpetto, and makes many salient points about the best ways to deal with comments from customers that, as any front of house will tell you, can range from reasonable to bizarre to downright wrong. The overall message seems to be no matter what the issue, apologise, smile and The Customer Is Always Right, which of course makes perfect sense, but it's his message to us, the paying customer, that really caught my attention -

So, should we complain in restaurants when something goes wrong? Absolutely, yes! But we should complain as soon as we can to give the restaurant time to fix the problem, not on the way out when they can do nothing. Believe it or not, I like it when customers complain because it opens a dialogue whereby I can show off and impress by how good the response and the ‘fix’ is. You should also complain about small things as well as big things – it helps the restaurant improve and, ultimately, means that return visits should get better and better as the restaurant sharpens its practices. We want to know if the knife is dirty. We want to know if the Virgin Mary isn’t spicy enough. We want to know if the table wobbles.

Which, again, from the restaurant's point of view, I can completely understand. Of course they want to know if there's something they're not doing right, and presumably if all their customers complained about everything they could think of all the time, it would be like having a vast, extremely grumpy but constantly updating market research programme specifically tailored to making your restaurant as good as it can possibly be. It would make for a very odd atmosphere for dinner, perhaps, but at least the message would get through.

The thing is, though, I hardly ever complain. If I get the wrong dish, or my beef is overcooked to oblivion, or there's a shard of broken glass in my ice cream, then of course I'll say something. But usually nothing short of a complete disaster will prompt any kind of intervention on my part, for various reasons. Firstly (and mainly, I suppose) it's that good old English attitude of not wanting to make a fuss, and to gamely plough on with the meal, hoping that if you don't mention it it will go away or fix itself. Stupid, I know, but that's the English for you - and despite the impression you may get from reading the posts on this blog, I really do always want to enjoy myself when I go out for a meal, not sit there moaning. Also, now more people know I'm a food blogger and - most importantly - know what a food blog is, I'm very conscious of coming across as rude or arrogant (or at least even more rude or arrogant than normal), showboating my superior taste and knowledge of eating out and boring everyone else senseless. And thirdly, I'm not convinced that there is always something a restaurant can do to improve things. Take, for example, this meal at Barbecoa - the quality of the produce was poor, the food unadventurous and the whole thing rather overpriced, but nothing was inedible and I wonder what our charming waitress would have said if I'd pointed that out - "I'm very sorry sir, I'll go out and find a new meat supplier this very second. And in future we won't charge any extra for the bread."

I promise there is a point to all this, so please bear with me. Franklins, a cosy restaurant in East Dulwich I sheltered in with a couple of blogger friends during the great snowstorm of 2010, served us a decent if uneven meal and the service veered between manically attentive and decisively ropey. So far so East Dulwich. But it was the things that annoyed us that we didn't mention to the staff compared to the things we didn't like that we did mention that hopefully illustrates some of the points I've rather ineptly been trying to make above. Consider, for example, these oysters:

Tiny, carelessly opened and less "loosened" than "hacked to bits", these hardly inexpensive natives (£2.40 a pop) nevertheless, despite the sad lack of briny liquor and poor presentation, tasted pretty good - crunchy and fresh. And while they were disappointing in many ways, they weren't quite disastrous enough to warrant a complaint, so in the interests of good company and a pleasant lunch, nothing was said.

Starter of confit rabbit with green beans certainly didn't warrant a complaint, because it was bloody good. The veg was crunchy fresh, the salty rabbit seasoned the dish very well, and I particularly liked the inclusion of a couple of bits of offal for interest and texture.

Ditto a main of venison haunch, which showcased tender and moist game dressed in a deeply addictive rich sauce, on an oozing mountain of savoy cabbage, shallots and (mmm) crispy bacon bits. When the guys at Franklins get it right, they really get it right, but when they get it wrong, they serve:

Unseasoned, unbuttered, undercooked and pretty much inedible sprout tops, it was like eating damp rubber, only not quite so enjoyable. This was not just a matter of opinion, this was objectively wrong, and so, emboldened by my blogger friends we mentioned it to the waitress, who apologised and took it off the bill. A good result, then, and a good example of a successful complaint.

And then, just as they were winning us back with their management of the whole sprout tops issue, the Franklins staff spoil it again by standing around chatting amongst themselves behind the bar and completely ignoring our requests to pay. In the end, one of us had to march up to the bar, credit card in hand, and physically interrupt the happily distracted group in order to get their attention. And how do you complain about that? "We think watching you socialise while we're trying to pay for our meal is incredibly irritating." I can't think of a way of making that complaint sound anything other than deliberately unpleasant, and of course nothing was said. Mind you, you'd hope they'd get the hint something was wrong when confronted by a stressed customer brandishing their VISA.

I suppose, in the end, a happy balance needs to be struck between the needs of a restaurant manager for accurate and constructive feedback on his or her restaurant, and the needs of the punter to have a nice, quiet, peaceable evening. I completely understand the frustrations of any business owner, not just restaurateurs, who serve their product to what for all they know are happy clients only to read a furious rant on a consumer review site (or, er, a food blog) the next day, but they must understand it's human nature, well, English nature at least, to not make a fuss about every little thing and run the risk of annoying your date. I will never be completely comfortable with complaining in restaurants, and to be honest don't like eating out with people who are; ultimately, I won't be made to feel guilty for not feeding back a comprehensive list of action points after a meal - it's my choice, I'm a paying customer, not a business consultant. If you think that's misguided, or just plain cowardly, then perhaps you're right, but I don't think I'm in the minority. Feel free to prove me wrong though, and I'd be very interested to see what everyone else out there thinks, so please leave comments, rebuttals and, yes, even complaints, below.

Franklins 7/10

Franklins on Urbanspoon


Helen said...

A shard of glass (plastic) in your ice cream? I'd hate that to happen to me...oh, wait...

Fun meal though. Very drunken. Again.

Hollow Legs said...

It's all in the delivery, Pople.

I'd like to think I was pretty sympathetic when we flapped that dry, undercooked sprout top to the waitress and she was happy to rectify it; similarly, I'd like to think walking up to them and handing them my credit card spoke volumes.

I don't think it's fair to be unhappy with your meal and then go and bitch about it to all and sundry (and the internet) without giving the restaurant a chance to rectify the situation, or to try and appease you. We are only human after all; mistakes are made. It's just the way you tell it. Being rude and loud while complaining helps no one and makes you out to be a brat; being discreet, apologetic but firm is, I've found, the most successful.

And if anyone I'm dining with thinks I'm show-boating or arrogant off the back of being a food blogger, then they're not the kind of person I want to eat with.

Ross Bruniges said...

Slow service at the end of a meal is something that really annoys me and it's happened quite a number of times in recent memory too.

It feels like people think that the experience is over once the final plate is served. They need to keep their eyes on the prize I reckon.

Northern Snippet said...

I agree for most issues the best way to deal with complaints is to smile apologise and give the customer what they want.Some things annoy,for example having to change a btl of wine because the customer doesn't like it.But it's easier than being drawn into an argument.It's usually easy to spot a complaint which is done in a genuine way,these are the ones which it's great to be given the opportunity to put right.
There are however professional complainers,whose sole intention is to obtain a freebie.
I empathise with your feeling that you go out to enjoy yourself therefore don't want to complain about minor issues,in that vein Im afraid we don't even complain when served badly overcooked steak.I suppose it's because we don't get out very often..
Interesting point about having to go over and pay the bill,we're always conscious in our own place that service can be worse when it's quiet as the staff are not under pressure have time to relax and chat.
Great post.

Gregory said...

As mistakes happen, I generally judge a good restaurant on it's ability to recover from a mishap rather than the mistake itself.

Punish slow bill delivery with the removal of service... they will get the hint.

Emyr Thomas, Bon Vivant said...

Hi Chris,

I agree that a happy medium is the best approach - if something is so bad that you'll complain about it later, then it should certainly be mentioned at the time for the restaurant to try to rectify the situation, although sometimes, as you say, there's nothing they can do about it, so you have to wonder if there's a point in complaining.

I agree with Lizzie that it's all about the delivery - being apologetic and subtle is often the best approach - it's never appropriate to do it in an angry or aggressive manner.



Su-Lin said...

I pretty much agree with everything you've written here. And as you say, sometimes if everything was bad, what can the restaurant do there and then? The inability to pay at the end of a meal is always something that stresses me out.

Alex Watts said...

Love the article. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. I don't like to complain either unless it's absolutely necessary. I agree, it is terribly English isn't it.

But if I do complain, I always do it at the end of the meal. I've seen what too many chefs do to food to ever send it back and then eat it. Particularly when it is highly subjective, like how pink a rare steak is etc.

Keep up the good writing!


Kay @ Chopstix2Steaknives said...

This is really interesting because a complaint is a complaint. Some restaurants take it well while others don't.

I generally only make my thoughts known if the waiter asks. Otherwise, if it will potentially impact the mood of the dining party, no complaint is worth it unless something was truly inedible or terrible.

Food/noise/cutlery issues are fixable but how do you mention when the service is bad? Can't exactly mention to the same person 'You have been ignoring us and not serving our table and left us thirsty for half an hour with no refill'.

Do agree with Lizzie that it's the way the complaint is made that makes a difference. And I'll probably on do it as places where I do want them to be better.

Fred Sirieix said...

I agree with Russell, it is good when you get feedback from customers. Any feedback is good feedback. I am a professional and genuine comments can only help my restaurant and I get better.You don't have to be a consultant to give feedback, I think it is nice to be nice and help others fulfill their potential. I pesonaly give feedback most times (mainly when asked however but at times voluntarily). I like Lizzie when she said it's all in the delivery. That's true. Just be calm and say what you have to say. More often that none a sensible and caring waiter will listen and make it better for you. Trust will then be re-establish and a bond will be created. Although as Chris said "what's the point to complain/feedback when you know the place is not for you?"-I agree, save your breath. Fred

Catherine said...

I agree with Gregory - slow service, no service charge; and I do complain in restaurants, firmly but politely. There's only one restaurant where the food was so dreadful I refused to pay and that was Prezzo, which has produced the two most dire meals I've ever been confronted with.

Food Urchin said...

I'm with Lizzie, nail any issues quickly and politely. Holding back simply because you don't want to make a fuss creates a one way street for both the diner and the restaurateur because problems aren't getting ironed out.

And as for the psychological fear factor of sending something back, I think it's the 'bogeyman' stories, which Lennie alludes to, that's what stops some people from complaining. But seriously how often does this really happen?

Douglas Blyde said...


Special Dining Offers said...

I also agree it's good to complain if there's something wrong but I've been to a restaurant and seen people complain in the wrong way.

I've seen poor waitors get roared at for things that weren't neccessarily their fault. I think it's important, if you are going to complain, to make sure it's done in a polite way. People make mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

There is a Nigerian Restaurant called 805 on Old Kent Road. You haven't reviewed one yet and I found it good. It would be nice to know your views.

Da Ducky said...

I was in a restaurant in the US and asked for a rare steak. It come out as a definite medium. As I was there in company, I considered what value mentioning something which by the time it was sorted, my other half's meal would be finished and all my veggies eaten. So I didn't but my other half did. However I asked the waitress not to correct it as I'd be finished before a rare version arrived. However she insisted and I had a piece of meat to take home, which was nice, but pointless.

Sometimes a mistake takes so long to fix, its not even worth bothering to fix. If you mention it, it will perhaps only benefit someone else which is good for them, but not what you went to the restaurant for.