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Bad food doesn't always spell the end of the road for a restaurant. (Image: Naomi Tomky / Seattle Refined)

3 ways a restaurant can overcome terrible food with service

I usually let a restaurant get its bearings before rushing in to try it. I'll let others get the service hiccups, execution errors, and unbalanced flavors that tend to get smoothed out within a few weeks of an opening. However, when faced with a long line at a neighborhood favorite down the road, I decided to try a cocktail and a snack at a brand new spot, gleaming and stylish.
Despite the seasoning of hunger (the proverbial best sauce), the food was simply not good. Mysteriously chewy shoestring fries followed a spring-onion dish, which turned out to be essentially plain raw onions, and oysters on the half-shell seemed to have half the shell mixed in with the meat. The baby restaurant was just taking its first steps, like a wobbly Bambi in the woods of the Seattle food scene.

While the food was terrible, the grace and great service with which the restaurant counteracted it surprised and impressed, turning what could have been a declaration of it as "a place of no return" into someplace I look forward to trying againonce they've had some time to settle. Here's how the restaurant worked its service magic:

  1. Noticed Something Was Wrong: The worst thing a restaurant can do is to pretend everything is just peachy. The waiter returned after I'd had a chance to sample the food, noticing that I'd only been picking at it, and inquired about it. It's never comfortable to complain about food, so I tested the waters, making just a bit of noise. He encouraged me to say more, assuring me that was okay. He offered to remake one of the dishes that seemed to be a simple execution error, and notified his superiors that there was a dissatisfied customer.

  2. Showed a Desire to Improve: If the food is bad and nothing is going to be done to change it, why would anyone ever return? After the second version of the dish (only slightly better), the owner stopped by to discuss the issues. It seems simple enough, but the art of making a customer complaining about a dinner feel comfortable explaining the issuesin the hopes of improving the dish for next timeis never easy.

  3. Didn't Make the Customer Pay: I rarely advocate restaurants giving away free meals, since so many people abuse that offer, but if they don't eat the food because it's truly terrible and give honest feedback about the meal, don't make them pay. The owner explained that while she couldn't comp drinks (which were, despite an eclectic cocktail list, quite good), she'd be happy to pay for my meal. With the losses cut to the bad meal, I left feeling more sorry for a new restaurant trying hard than upset with the quality of the meal. A small difference, but a tiny, influential nuance.

The food won't be bringing me back to this restaurant until it's settled in a bit, but the excellent service and the heartfelt effort to try to make the restaurant better will keep it from going on the "never again" list.