Friday, October 15, 2010


A fellow foodie recently raised the question of how to approach a restaurant you love to let them know they're slipping. The brief conversation jogged something I've thought about a lot in the past and wanted to tackle here. What is that intangible moment when you recognize — and finally note — that one of your favorites has gone off its game? At what point, do you realize it's not just an off-night or two but a real slip in quality?

When your favorite neighborhood joint messes up too many meals or loses the servers who helped give it a bit of extra charm, do you say something? Or do you just stop going? Become that regular who no longer eats there every Thursday? What responsibility do we have as customers — and sometimes friends — to let a place know that it is off its game?

A few years ago, the kid and I had a regular meal at one of the Richmond Fan favorites. Many weeks, we'd be there twice. The servers knew us; we were treated well. Then the quality started to slip a little bit. A couple of our favorite servers left; some orders came out wrong; the quality of ingredients seemed to go off a bit. Ultimately, though, it was managerial indifference, a shrug when a server added a tip to my card when I'd left cash for a tip, that got us to stop going to the place.

As a loyal person, I recognize our willingness to put up with some of the mistakes was a direct result of my love for the restaurant. The managerial shrug — and a fiver handed back to me — put us off for months, until the kid wanted to go back one day and we got word that one of our favorite servers had been looking for us. And the food? It was just okay, and I realized that I'd been lulled into accepting what was at best middling food made with fair ingredients for years. When I could have taken my business elsewhere, I kept going because it was just easy and it was what we expected.

The place in question is busy enough that the loss of our business probably didn't hurt them. Likewise, they do enough business that my complaint about quality would probably have fallen on ears made deaf by the ring of the cash register. That said, there have been moments when I've been willing to step up — commenting on a change in the quality of bread made by one of our local shining stars, mentioning a side dish that is clearly overdone from a kitchen that knows better — and in most cases, the comments were greeted with thanks.

The truth is that the Richmond dining scene is big enough that restaurants should guard against resting on their laurels. But because it is also a dining scene in which a few luminaries carry a lot of weight, many customers put up with more paint-by-numbers food than they should.

Keeping that in mind, I would push everyone who loves food and who develops relationships with restaurants to let joints know when they're off their game. Even if it's a matter of asking questions about why something seems different, resist the urge to be obnoxious, but let the chef or server know if something isn't as good as it was before.


UPDATE: Guess I should add that I have specifically avoided naming names. There are a number of places that I've simply stopped going to because they've either decided to rest on their laurels or haven't kept up their game as new competition has hit the streets. Feel free to name names in the comments, however.