(416) 588-5695

Diary of a Restaurant: Ch 30 – I Hate to Complain But…

Apr 22, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

We didn’t get many complaints at Mildred Pierce and we worked hard to keep them to a minimum. Complaints and criticism can be as hard to deliver as they are to receive, so it is important to listen sympathetically and respond accordingly. People quite often begin with “I don’t like to complain but…” or “I come here all the time and…” as if they need to justify themselves, or are expecting an argument. Truthfully, being told that the food or service in your restaurant fails to meet a guest’s expectations can make you defensive, but it’s important to see it as an opportunity to sort out a problem and satisfy a customer before it becomes an issue.

People who have had complaints satisfactorily dealt with become more loyal customers. If that involves reducing a beautiful piece of beef tenderloin to a hockey puck, we can, regretfully, do it.

Sometimes it’s simply a matter of gently pointing out that the dish is exactly as it should be and not what the customer thought it was supposed to be. A young woman complained about her osso bucco, distressed to find there was meat in it. 

“I’ve had “occo” bucco before and there was no meat.”

“You must have had something different,” I said, “OSSO bucco is by definition a braised veal shank – osso being Italian for bone, and bucco the hole in the middle, I think,  – which if you are in luck, as I see you are, might still be filled with marrow.”

She looked at her plate with some distaste.

I still had to get her another meal but at least I had the satisfaction of offering a lesson in culinary appreciation and of knowing that the situation was resolved.

There was a  French gentleman, middle aged and urbane, who dined with us regularly. He usually came in the company of one of a number of somewhat younger, attractive women, with whom he would engage in passionate discussions on art and literature. One evening, he summoned me to his table with a peremptory wave.

“Thees is not a bouillabaisse,” he said with an incipient shrug, his open palms hovering over a brimming bowl of saffron infused broth, thick thick with tomato, shrimp, mussels and chunks of salmon.

“Well, it’s our version of a bouillabaisse,” I offered cheerily, “There are many different interpretations of the dish,” 

“Well, it is not a bouillabaisse and I don’t just say that because I am from Marseilles” he said with another shrug. “I cannot eat thees. Bring me zee salmon.”

I smiled and acquiesced, lifting both his plate and his guest’s. I could not, after all, allow her to eat alone.

I knew that strictly speaking, bouillabaisse was made of fish and shellfish from the Mediterranean, and that there were many versions from the cities along the southern coast of France. What I did not know was that for Les Marseillaises there is only one version of bouillabaisse, from a recipe created for them by the goddess Venus herself and it definitely did not contain mussels  – or salmon for that matter. So I got a culinary lesson myself for the cost of two entrées.

Some use a feigned complaint as an opportunity to boast a little.

“You know I really don’t like to complain but this dish isn’t quite what I’d expected – very different from what I had when I dined with my cousin, the Duke of Westminster, at his club. Do you know White’s?”

“I know London well enough to know White’s, but I’ve never been invited” I reply humbly. Chuckles all round, and he’s happy because everyone within earshot has heard him.

It was my duty to respond to letters of complaint. It was disappointing to know that someone had been to the restaurant and had a sufficiently bad time; paid, tipped and had to write a letter when they got home. It was doubly disappointing to know that we had not found the opportunity to do something about it when they were in the restaurant. After some forensic internal investigation, I would write expressing regret that they had not had an enjoyable time and usually invite them back as our guests. 

Jerry, one of our regulars, had comments and suggestions to offer on each course as it was cleared and on the overall experience at the end of the meal. If we weren’t around or were busy when he finished, he often sent a letter with the breakdown – three handwritten pages was not uncommon.

“Service in the latter part of our meal was slow” (Yes, because you monopolized your server for twenty minutes with a dissertation on how to properly sear foie gras.

“The bread was tasteless, not what we’re used to having” (Sorry about that. We’d had a busy weekend and I had to supplement our usual sourdough with a light white from one of the bakeries on Dundas. I noticed you still managed to go through three baskets.)

The parenthetical comments I kept to myself, but I always answered his letters – apologizing politely and thanking him for his perceptive input. Occasionally, he even had some good points.

There were written complaints that I was glad were not made in person because they made a civil response difficult. For instance, I received the following – 

Dear Sir,

As much as I am an “old-time” Torontonian, last Sunday evening four of us were dining, for the first time, “outside” your restaurant.

That “outside” area was very pleasant, the food was excellent, the flowers colorful and the service was first class. At the end of dinner, I went to the washroom through the main dining room.

I was horrified! The light “inside” the main dining room was completely ineffective, there were too many tables jammed in and the decoration was terrible! The interior, I am sorry to say, was a mile away from everything in your business.


M— K—–

I struggled to figure out what to say in response. In addition to being annoyed, I  really couldn’t believe that he was actually distressed by the look of the room. So I wrote,

Dear M— K—–

First of all let me thank you for writing to give your impressions from your visit to Mildred Pierce. I was pleased to hear that your dinner on the patio was such a delightful experience.

Your reaction to the interior of the restaurant though, was a bit of a surprise. Surely “horror” is a reaction more likely evinced by finding body parts washed up on the lake shore than by walking into a badly decorated room. However, the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of guests who have dined at Mildred Pierce over the past fourteen years have been positively impressed with the decor. Many, including writers for the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail (and you know how persnickety  Ms. Kates can be), National Post, Travel and Leisure, National Geographic Travel, USA Today and the New York Times have been enchanted and written glowing accounts of this warm and inviting room. The designer was well-known Toronto artist Rebecca Last, whose work has been featured in Toronto Life, House and Home and Style at Home magazines. Buoyed by this confidence, I am more mystified and bemused than hurt by your terse little letter, as I certainly might have been some years ago. I am always grateful for comments that will help me enhance the experience of my guests and I thank you for offering yours. I will certainly remember them if ever anyone agrees with you.

As for now, shall we hope for pleasant weather, so you may dine with us again? For the décor “inside” is not going to change and as an “old-time” Torontonian you must know the décor “outside” most certainly will.

Yours truly.

“You can’t send that!” said Donna

“Why not  – it’s the truth. I’m just being honest.” 

“It’s not very polite, that’s why.”

“He wasn’t very polite.”

“Don’t send it!

So grumbling, I sent this letter instead. At least my first letter provided me with a sort of catharsis.

Dear M— K——

First of all let me thank you for writing to give your impressions from your visit to Mildred Pierce. We were pleased to hear that your dinner on the patio was such a delightful experience for you.

We’re sorry that you found the interior of Mildred Pierce less pleasant but are grateful to you, nonetheless, for sharing your thoughts with us.

Yours truly,

READ THE NEXT CHAPTER: ‘Cheerios and Apple Pie’