How to Complain at a Restaurant? Just Ask Our Critic

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People who study complaints divide them into two categories, instrumental and expressive. An instrumental complaint is “directed toward a specific target and intended to bring about a specific outcome,” according to Robin Kowalski, a professor of psychology at Clemson University who has studied the social functions of complaining. Calling a restaurant’s owner the next day to say that you waited an hour for dessert and don’t intend to come back is an instrumental complaint. Texting a friend to say the polar vortex is making your skin peel off is an expressive complaint. We call expressive complaints venting, kvetching, griping or a number of other names.

It’s important to know which of the two types of complaint is right for you before opening the first can of invective. Venting has its uses. In one study, Dr. Kowalski and some colleagues showed that when we are asked to put our feelings of dissatisfaction with somebody into writing, our “positive affect” — good feelings, basically — will rise about 15 minutes later, after an initial downswing. In the same way, if a meal lets you down, taking a pair of pliers and a blowtorch to the restaurant on Yelp might give you a brief lift.

But once the rush of having gotten it off your chest is gone, you’d realize nothing has changed. You’re still out the price of dinner, and you won’t find out whether your grievance has reached the right ears unless somebody at the restaurant responds. Some owners make a point of scouring review sites so they can do just that. Others use the review’s date and details to identify and get in touch with the kvetcher. But there are more direct ways to get your gripe acknowledged than scrawling it on the walls of the internet.

“If there’s something that’s really bothering you, the ultimate benefits are going to come from targeted complaining,” Dr. Kowalski said. “Telling the person or restaurant.”

 

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I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It.

man standing outside Stanich's

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In my office, I have a coffee mug from Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon. Under the restaurant name, it says “Great hamburgers since 1949.” The mug was given to me by Steve Stanich on the day I told him that, after eating 330 burgers during a 30-city search, I was naming Stanich’s cheeseburger the best burger in America. That same day, we filmed a short video to announce my pick. On camera, Stanich cried as he talked about how proud his parents would be. After the shoot, he handed me the mug, visibly moved. “My parents are thanking you from the grave,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. When I left, I felt light and happy. I’d done a good thing.

Five months later, in a story in The Oregonian, restaurant critic Michael Russell detailed how Stanich’s had been forced to shut down. In the article, Steve Stanich called my burger award a curse, “the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” He told a story about the country music singer Tim McGraw showing up one day, and not being able to serve him because there was a five hour wait for a burger. On January 2, 2018, Stanich shut down the restaurant for what he called a “two week deep cleaning.” Ten months later, Stanich’s is still closed. Now when I look at the Stanich’s mug in my office, I no longer feel light and happy. I feel like I’ve done a bad thing.

And that fact is the thing I can’t quite get past. That a decision I made for a list I put on the internet has impacted a family business and forever altered its future. That I have changed family dynamics and relationships. And it could very easily happen again.

I’ve been asking myself what the other side of this looks like. How do I do this better? Is there a way to celebrate a place without the possibility of destroying it? Or is this just what we are now — a horde with a checklist and a camera phone, intent on self-producing the destruction of anything left that feels real, one Instagram story at a time?

 

Could You Make It Through Dinner Without Checking Your Phone?

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The reason for the tech-free dinner? The cellphones were stashed in a small decorative box on their table, an initiative that Marco Canora, Hearth’s chef and owner, began in November to help customers disconnect from their devices for a little bit.

Some restaurants, partly from irritation when patrons take pictures of the food, place limits on cellphones in their dining rooms. Others, including in Chicago and San Antonio, have banned them entirely.

Avoiding Cameras While Training the Lens on Food

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How has tech transformed the world of dining?

There are lots of incremental, behind-the-scenes changes that affect restaurants more than consumers, such as more sophisticated reservation systems and point-of-sale software, but I think the most powerful, sweeping change has come from digital photography hooked up to the internet. Photography is now the main way we communicate about restaurant cooking. As a word guy I hate to say this, but it’s true.

I wrote an essay about this a few years ago, when the outlines of the new world were just coming into view, and it’s much more clear now. At the time, restaurant designers were just starting to think about lighting the dining room so people could take better pictures for Instagram. Now they talk openly about it, and you see it everywhere. It’s the thing that killed off the last trend in lighting, those amber-colored dangling Edison bulbs.

Now everybody is installing pin spots in the ceiling pointing straight down at the table, which is why you see all these very sharp and high-contrast pictures of plates on Instagram. The restaurants are doing this because it’s largely free marketing. (Some Instagrammers are so popular that restaurants will invite them in for a comped meal, so it’s not entirely free.) I was told that one major restaurant publicity firm in New York has a full-time employee who does nothing but help restaurants with Instagram.

Instagram is pushing restaurants to be kitschy, colorful, and irresistible to photographers

 

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When it came time to design their first restaurant, Media Noche, San Francisco entrepreneurs Madelyn Markoe and Jessie Barker found themselves lacking inspiration. Their designer had asked them for ideas and they felt like “deer in headlights.” Ultimately, Markoe says, they came up with a single instruction: “We wanted to be Instagrammable.”

For years now, Instagram has sat at the center of trends in food and beverages. Rainbow-colored “unicorn foods” are often designed with Instagram in mind, and entrepreneurs responsible for popular treats like the galaxy donut and Sugar Factory milkshake often see lines around the block after images of their products go viral. Firms like Paperwhite Studio specialize in turning restaurants into Instagram bait by designing twee sugar packets, menus, and coasters bearing slogans like “hello, my sweet” and “hug more.

Now some entrepreneurs are taking the idea a step further, designing their physical spaces in the hopes of inspiring the maximum number of photos.

What Your Yelp Review Says About You

drink

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Here are a few common examples of Yelp review comments and their actual meanings:

“The staff was snooty” I felt intimidated by how fancy this place was and/or arrived underdressed.

“The actor/waiter was…” My waiter was extremely good-looking and I resent that.

“Not authentic” I’d like to take this opportunity to brag about my world travels to a bunch of strangers online.

“Hipster” There was kale on the menu and nobody else was wearing UGG boots.

“We didn’t get a free ____” I am a terrible human being who doesn’t comprehend how the economy works.

“The portions were too small” I’m probably from the Midwest and/or typically dine at large chains where I’m accustomed to being served a giant trough of food.

“Too scene-y” Nobody hit on me.

“Not enough vegetarian options” I use my dietary restrictions as a means to get attention and can’t accomplish that at an actual vegetarian restaurant, which is where I should have gone in the first place.

“The ______ was terrible” I lack a basic understanding of the concept of personal preference.

 

 

Your romantic first dates? Restaurants hate them.

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Your awkward first date can amuse restaurant staff. But other patrons may not be that delighted. And because every seat is a piece of money-making real estate, the dozens of dates you’ve gone on this year may also be affecting many businesses’ bottom line.

Particularly when daters stare into their phones for 30 minutes without ordering, waiting for their match to turn up. And when they spend another two hours talking about their childhood and lactose intolerance while nursing a single, happy-hour-priced beer.

As the number of first dates taking place every night explodes — Tinder alone purports to generate 1.3 million dates per week — it’s transforming restaurants in numerous ways, affecting their ambience, their table timing, even the way they’re designed.