To pay or not to pay: The complex world of bad restaurant meals

To pay or not to pay: The complex world of bad restaurant meals

Eating out is a gamble. If you don’t want to roll the diner’s dice, stay home and cook your own dinner

Jason SheehanWe’d been waiting almost two hours for our first course. For our actual first course.

Our server had brought the wrong plates once, and we’d politely told him that we hadn’t ordered this and that there was probably a very hungry table somewhere waiting for them.

He’d smiled, apologized, and whisked them away.

The second time he brought us the wrong plates? We just sat there. Didn’t say a word.

Ate them glumly, with the dawning realization that this might be the only food we got all night.

My misshapen tart-thing appeared to have been made with vaguely tomato-flavored fiberglass insulation -- likely in order to protect its delicate taste from the acetylene torch that’d been used to char the bottom into flaky carbon.

My wife had been brought fish. She didn’t want fish -- didn’t, in fact, eat fish. So I ate that, too -- having gone, at this point, into full-on desert island survival mode.

Sorry, honey. Love you bunches. But I think there is now a very good chance that some of us are not going to make it out of this bistro without starving to death, and I’m not going out like that …

Paying to be poisoned

What should’ve been a quick hour-and-a-half meal had taken approximately four hours, and all the humor had gone out of the situation at about the point that the chef in the kitchen had started throwing things and firing people.

When it was done, I paid my tab. For the food that’d never arrived.

And I tipped, too.

In Detroit, I was mugged in the parking lot going into a restaurant and then found a piece of glass in my hash browns. I spit out the glass and was careful going back out the door, but I paid my bill.

In Boulder, Colorado, I was poisoned. I mean, I was a restaurant critic -- a professional mouth -- so I’d been poisoned plenty.

Want to know how I stayed (relatively) thin while still often eating 10 meals out a week? Food poisoning. Certainly wasn’t my dedicated exercise regimen.

But compared to this one, every other bout of food poisoning had been puppies and rainbows. This one, I thought, might kill me.

But I’d paid my bill. I’d paid someone to do this to me.

Laughed about it while I was laying in the gutter in the snow wondering if the ambulance would find me before I froze to death.

In the course of the dozen-odd years I have spent as a restaurant critic and food writer, I have had every type of bad meal there is.

I have been punched and threatened and insulted by the staff. I’ve watched a waiter sneeze onto my steak and once was lit on fire (though that was really my fault -- restaurants that serve Chimay should not have candles on the tables).

And I have always -- always -- paid my bill.

The gunfire exception

The one exception? When someone fired a gun into the ceiling of a diner in Rochester, New York while I was having a lovely breakfast at 3 a.m.

Everyone made for the doors in a less than orderly fashion and, as part of the general exodus, I decided it probably wasn’t worth going back in for the last few bites of my corned beef hash and eggs and to pay the US$10 or so that I owed.

Mostly because the man with the gun was still inside.

I know, there are those of you out there who feel that, as a customer in a service environment, you have the right to refuse to pay if the experience of dining does not live up to your precious expectations. To just waggle your fingers in the direction of the taco or pasta or crème brulée that displeased you and walk out.

You are wrong.

What’s more, you’re jerks (a word I use only because CNN won’t let me use the word to describe what you really are) and everyone knows it, even if they don’t say so to your face.

Never mind the legal discussion, which is too intricate to get into here -- just be aware not enjoying something is not just cause to not pay.

Would you demand to be let off a rollercoaster halfway through the ride if you decided it wasn’t rollercoaster-y enough?

If you’re sitting at the tables in Monaco and try to draw to an inside straight and (gasp!) get dealt the wrong card, do you get to pout, pull your money off the table and say, “Sorry, gentlemen. That didn’t work out quite the way I expected so I’m just going to take my money and go…”

Try it. See how far you get. I dare you.

The diner's wager

Going out to eat is a gamble every time. It’s a bet that you make with yourself -- an educated and knowing risk that you take when you put yourself in the hands of strangers and ask them to make you pie.

Terrible things can happen. Do it often enough and terrible things will happen, guaranteed.

But so will wonderful things. And funny things. And weird things that just fall so far off reality’s bell curve that no one will ever believe you when you tell the story later.

And that is why you cover the bill no matter what.

That’s why, barring gunfire, you pony up and pay the tab no matter how lousy the food, how bewildering the service, how horrifying the bathrooms or how many people sneeze on your entrée.

You pay, first off, because it’s the right thing to do. And second, because every night out is a crapshoot with highs and lows on the line but the odds favoring mediocrity every time.

Sometimes you get lucky and have the greatest meal of your week, your year or your life in the last place you ever expected it, which is a bargain at any price.

And sometimes you end up spitting glass or eating someone else’s fish and walk (or crawl) away with a story instead.

A punchline.

Something to share over the good meals that will come later. And that, too, is invaluable. Worth the cost even if the food isn’t.

The only sure bet is to stay home. Eat a can of Dinty Moore beef stew on the couch in your underpants. Risk nothing. Gain less.

But I promise you, that’s one story that no one is ever going to want to hear.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are soley those of Jason Sheehan

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Jason Sheehan is a former chef and current food editor at Philadelphia magazine. He was given a James Beard Award and his work has appeared in the Daily Beast, Cooking Light and Best Food Writing. His mom still thinks he should have been an orthodontist.

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