Ask guests to dish on the things that most annoy them in restaurant dining and get ready for a long list. In the digital age, when a bad experience goes live in the time it takes to slurp an oyster, restaurateurs have to stay sharp. From the smallest displeasure to downright fury, what one customer thinks is outrageous another will deem perfectly reasonable. Every meal is a mini-election in which eaters vote for their favorite places with their dollars, making every gripe and compliment matter equally when diners express them.
Case in point, when the guest is celebrity party planner Colin Cowie, dinner service begins with a silent prayer that he will walk through your restaurant’s doors. Oprah Winfrey. Jennifer Lopez. Kim Kardashian. Ryan Seacrest. Jennifer Aniston. Tom Cruise. The list of people who have crowned Cowie party planner to the stars goes on and on. He is also at the forefront of his hospitality design venture F.O.O.D. Inc., along the likes of elite culinary professionals Laurent Tourondel, Ming Tsai and Alfred Portale.
Famous for his ruthless editing and impeccable style (when he appeared on Oprah he taught the world that even a can of tuna is worth busting out a place setting), no one can set a table like him. Having his pick of places to dine worldwide, Cowie has had ample time to hone in on what drives him to avoid certain restaurant atmospheres.
To assume Cowie’s standards are impossible to meet is a mistake—this dining expert’s pet peeves are among the most common and simple to fix, yet they can make a big difference between comfort and distracting from the meal.
“In summertime, I absolutely hate walking into a restaurant that is 55 degrees and freezing,” says Cowie, who has traveled 13 million miles and visited nearly 100 countries of varying climates.
At the center of Cowie’s events is something else restaurant owners and chefs often get wrong: lighting. This is the design secret behind the most romantic restaurants and the chic answer to contemporary spaces, the variable that sets the mood and backdrop for the entire dining encounter. In most cases, to fix this problem, restaurant owners don’t have to make major lighting changes. Cowie has a better solution.
“The worst of all is to dine at night and have the lights be too bright,” says Cowie, who advocates for more control over lighting in every dining space. “Every light switch should have a dimmer, a soft light source and be accompanied by warm candlelight.”
But at the top of Cowie’s list of pet peeves is another sensory faux paux, sound problems.
“There is nothing more unpleasant than a restaurant with bad acoustics and music that is so loud you can’t have a great conversation,” says Cowie.
Airline pilot Patrick Smith, host of AskThePilot.com and author of the New York Times bestseller Cockpit Confidential, agrees. Like Cowie, a blaring background is not music to his ears during a meal.
“My single biggest pet peeve, far and away, is noise,” says Smith, who was voted one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Bloggers. “The noise levels in restaurants is almost downright violent in many places, but in U.S. establishments in particular.”
Neglecting the Solo Diners
Travel Blogger Suzanne Wolko’s dining pet peeve relates to solo dining around the world. She writes about her travels and highlights her solo dining experiences on PhilaTravelGirl. After a decade working in restaurants as a server, she is surprised by how some restaurants embrace solo diners at individual tables, communal tables and through chatty staff, while others stumble with requests from single diners or deny their needs altogether.
In the digital age, when a bad experience goes live in the time it takes to slurp an oyster, restaurateurs have to stay sharp.
“My experiences have ranged from amazing to abysmal including restaurants that won’t take a reservation for one person and I’ve often had to reserve for two people,” says Wolko. “While traveling in Lima, Peru, the hotel concierge recommended a popular Peruvian restaurant, but they refused a reservation for one. I’ve had issues at a few hotels as well, when staying at the hotel and the rooftop restaurant wouldn’t give me a table because I was alone.”
Wolko has good advice for seating staff, including that not everyone likes the bar atmosphere or stools to sit on for a meal. She says restaurants do often push barstool dining, even when she prefers a table for comfort and quiet.
“At a table, I have space to be comfortable and enjoy my meal without the bar distractions like noise, lack of space or television, for example,” she says.
Maria Marsala, financial advisor coach and CEO of Elevating Your Business, has a similar complaint, but hers has more to do with attentiveness than solo discrimination.
“As a single business owner who travels the country by myself, I wish people would stop assuming that I don’t want extra water, or have any needs during the meal,” she says. “I don’t know if they expect that single people wouldn’t leave them a good tip or if they all seem to have gone to the same hospitality school, but it’s very annoying that I have to find them for an extra napkin, refill of water, or to get the ketchup I asked for originally.”
Dealing with Obnoxious Guests
Sometimes a diner’s pet peeve isn’t with the restaurant at all, but with other guests. Such is the case with the travel duo of Travel with JME & Bryan, who bill themselves as vegetarian, animal-loving, adventurous conservationists.
“When we go out to eat, one of my pet peeves is when people are rude to the servers and that goes for whether the meal was right or not—there is no need for rudeness,” says the team, who enjoy learning about local cultures. “Another is when kids are running around, being loud, doing inappropriate things and the parents are either doing nothing or trying to beg and reason with them. This might include stomping up and down the aisles, talking loudly, shrieking and other such lack of manners.”
“There is nothing more unpleasant than a restaurant with bad acoustics and music that is so loud you can’t have a great conversation.” – Colin Cowie
In this case, majority rules. When one table is disrupting many, communicating with the unruly gang is essential—if they walk out, the restaurant loses one table’s revenue. But when multiple customers leave due to an unsuitable dining environment, the loss is much greater.
Excuses are never acceptable when the restaurant is at fault and in most instances, even when it isn’t. Customer service is the opposite of arguing. And when a diner has a problem, the only response should be a promise to solve it.
How to Fix Common Restaurant Complaints
No one can please everyone, but small things can make a big difference in gratuity and repeat business. Indulge guests who are rooting for your business with their dollars. Here is a list of a few pet peeves to guard against and simple ways to correct them.
- Ketchup reigns supreme at the top of condiment pet peeves. Ditch the packets and use bottles, but be sure to clean them regularly. Diners take note of dirty condiment containers.
- Enough with the automatic refills. Refilling coffee and tea before asking is consistently ranked as annoying by diners. The art of custom flavoring tea and coffee is a time-honored diner preference. Asking before topping off is a cost-saver, so save the extra beverage for the guest who wants more.
- Hold the fruit. Unless a guest asks for lemon or lime, leave it in the kitchen. Citrus goes to waste every day in restaurants, unsightly languishing on bread plates and tablecloths.
- Diners are fed up with chefs disguising tiny food items as tapas on the menu. The formal definition of tapas is “small Spanish savory dishes, typically served with drinks at a bar.” Unless this applies to your restaurant, be honest with your guests as to what they can expect when the plate arrives at the table, rather than slap a pretentious name on a plate of cubed cheese and call it tapas.
- Poor wine education leads to lost revenue and bad customer experience. Restaurateurs pour millions of dollars down the drain because bar or wait staff fail to properly preserve wine bottles the night before. Ask your wine representative to conduct a training session.
- Make your servers menu mavens. Nothing says, “My chef doesn’t care about you,” like a server who can’t recite current dishes with enthusiasm. Every server should be able to describe the menu when asked. Hold a contest for best menu describers and watch how fast your servers master this task.
- Move it! Diners report seeing their food sitting in the window for more than a few seconds as one of the biggest reasons for sending back their dish. It’s not even the temperature or consistency that ticks them off, but rather the lack of attentiveness. Have at least one dedicated food runner and don’t leave that plate in the window.