When Is It OK to Send a Dish Back?

Some people have no problem sending dishes back at a restaurant, but the rest of us stress over it. When is it actually OK?

Eating out is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, but things happen. We all have a story about receiving a meal where something wasn’t quite right. Maybe your steak was overcooked, or you ordered a dish without mushrooms and see a few peeking through on the plate. Some people have no problem sending it back to the kitchen to make it right, but the rest of us stress. We’ve seen too many movies, and we’re worried that it will come out worse the second time around.

As a former restaurant chef, let me clear one thing up: you can absolutely send back your food under the right circumstances. I’ve never worked in a kitchen that deliberately messed with the food or added unsavory ingredients to a re-fired plate. In fact, I greatly preferred if a customer gave me the opportunity to make things right instead of writing a bad review about the restaurant later.

Sending a dish back isn’t about being entitled or snobby; in some cases, it’s very much justified. Here are a few examples of reasons when you can send a dish back guilt-free.

When the Dish Is Wrong

Did you order chicken but receive steak? Maybe you asked for something without onions, or a salad with dressing on the side, and the modification didn’t get communicated properly? Don’t feel like you have to suffer through a dish you didn’t actually order. This is especially true if you informed the staff about an allergy when you ordered. Politely point out the mistake to the server and ask for the dish you actually ordered.

If It Comes out Cold

There are two compelling reasons to send back food that’s cold when it’s not supposed to be. Not only will it taste off, but it could actually present a food safety issue. Many restaurants make things like soups and sauces in large batches, reheating them to order. These leftovers must be reheated to 165°F to prevent foodborne illness. Don’t even hesitate on this one; ask for a new plate.

When the Food Was Prepared Improperly

The best steakhouses will explain the degrees of doneness as you order them. Ask for a medium-rare steak and the server will respond, “warm red center,” to ensure everyone is on the same page. Things happen, though, and steaks get over- or under-cooked. If you’re at a fancy restaurant paying top-dollar for your meal, don’t be afraid to insist on the temperature you ordered. For more casual restaurants, feel free to send it back if they missed the mark it by a ton: your rare steak turns out well-done, or a well-done steak is pinker than you’d like.

In the case of chicken, send back undercooked chicken 100% of the time. The kitchen needs to know that they’re undercooking—the number-one cause for food poisoning.

If You Find a Foreign Object on the Plate

Every kitchen I’ve ever worked in has tried their best to minimize this type of mistake, but it happens—even in super clean kitchens. A stray hair, a bug or something gross like a Band-Aid finds its way onto your plate. Worse yet, a piece of glass, plastic from the packaging material or a fragment from a steel wool scrubbing pad. It might turn you off and dissolve your appetite, but you should always tell your server about these types of issues so they can prevent causing harm, both to yourself and another customer.

The Food Isn’t Edible

OK, let’s set the ground rules: don’t eat all but one bite and ask for a new dish because you didn’t like it. And if you’re at an inexpensive, casual spot, it’s probably not OK to send back a dish that just doesn’t jive with your taste buds. But if you’re a few bites in and the food is inedible, it’s always fine ask for a replacement meal. It might not be about personal preference; maybe the cook accidentally added too much salt or one of the ingredients has gone bad. Sending it back lets the chef taste the dish to see if she thinks it should be modified or changed.

If you notice any of these red flags you’re about to eat at a bad restaurant, you might want to turn around and find a new spot. Best to avoid having to send the dish back in the first place!

Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay is a professional chef, recipe developer, writer and developmental editor. After years of working in restaurant kitchens, she turned to writing to share her skills and experience with home cooks and food enthusiasts. She's passionate about using local, organic ingredients and teaching others how to incorporate seasonal food into their diet. Lindsay still cooks professionally for pop-up events, writes for several publications and is the co-author of two books about Ayurveda.