Recently, while hungover and, possibly, high at the diner I frequent for acceptable chicken and waffles and adequate burgers, I found an unpleasant surprise. I cut into a piece of fried chicken thigh and found ice. Cool, cool, cool, I thought. There are three other pieces of meat on the plate so I’ll just eat those. I turned to the neighboring fried breast and found more ice. Shucks, I thought. I guess it’s plain ol’ waffle day for me.
“Are you nuts?” my boyfriend asked. “Just send it back.”
Okay, man. Like obviously I’m not going to just send it back like some kind of bourgeois fascist with a MAGA hat and a monocle. I felt like asking that my chicken be heated more thoroughly was akin to me spitting in the face of all restaurant workers like a holier-than-thou jerk.
I’m not alone. In a study from March, only 52 percent of millennials said they are comfortable sending restaurant food back to the kitchen. That’s technically a majority, but in contrast, about 61 percent of baby boomers report having no problem sending food back. For a supposedly entitled generation, millennials don’t sound very entitled. It could be that we as a generation are sick of being demonized for culinary slights like patronizing fewer big food chains and Instagramming our fro-yo. It could be that many of us are keenly aware of being in the service industry ourselves, or don’t want to risk someone getting fired when us millennials are all too familiar with not being able to find jobs. Either way, many of us fear looking like elitist snobs.
The fear of looking like a pretentious jerk is real. Simon, 31, calls his recent experience sending food back — for the first time in his life — “emotionally confusing.” “I hate hate hate being a dick to restaurant staff as I had a horrid time working in it,” he says. He says his family is “the worst in restaurants” and he tries to be the opposite. “So I was very nervous and felt it went against all my principles.” But he quickly reassures me “it really was that bad.” Simon got risotto with mushrooms and truffle oil but the dish “tasted like microwaved rice you find at the supermarket” and lacked any mushrooms or truffle oil.
Charlie, 26, is the opposite. He has “no problem at all” sending food back “when it sucks.” A burger, for example, he will send back if it’s not medium rare like he ordered. Charlie lives in New York City, where a burger can easily run between $15 and $20. So for him, that cost is worth the wait for a second burger if his arrives more charred than he’d like.
Most recently, Charlie sent back a sandwich with surprise meat. “The last time I sent food back, there was ham in my food and there wasn’t ham on the menu. I think it was a turkey sandwich. That had little bits of ham in it. And I mean, that was an easy one. I was just very honest and said ‘hey, I eat ham but I didn’t plan to eat ham today. It just wasn’t on the menu so if you don’t mind taking it back for me.’”
Like Simon, Charlie doesn’t want to be like his family when sending food back. His mother, he says, was not so polite when sending food back and so he tries to be as nice as possible. He also says he also offers to pay for the second meal but has never been taken up on the offer.
I’m appalled at the prospect of restaurant staff getting angry at me for sending plates back, so I’m likely to suffer through whatever frozen flesh they’ve served me. Charlie, however, is chill if “maybe one out of every ten times” the staff is displeased with his request for a redo. “The whole spitting in your food thing, I think is bullshit” he says. Then again, “if someone spat in my food before, whatever.”
Lizzie Post, etiquette expert from the Emily Post Institute, says there is nothing wrong with sending food back in certain circumstances. “Don’t feel guilty!” She says when I expressed my shame at having sent back my icicle chicken.
Post says you can send food back guilt free when the food is inedible, like my frozen chicken, if there’s a “foreign object” like a hair or bug, or if the meal is prepared in a way you didn’t order, like Charlie’s overly done burger or Simon’s mushroomless mushroom risotto. Even if you made a special request when you ordered, like subbing a different side, Post gives her approval to send it back politely. “‘You can say ‘Oh I’m terribly sorry, I actually ordered mashed potatoes instead of a waffle, could I get a side of mashed potatoes?’ It’s perfectly fine.”
What you cannot do, says Post, is send food back because you simply didn’t like what you ordered. “It’s a risk when you order something that it might not be to your taste or the way you thought it would be.” If you do order a second meal for this reason, restaurants will often comp the first meal if you were polite about it but Post says you should always, like Charlie does, make it clear you’re okay with paying for both meals.