Comp Time at Volterra

If a dish sucks, should it automatically come off your bill?

At restaurants, the line between necessity and nicety isn't always bright. Should customers expect hostesses to take their coats, or be pleasantly surprised when they do? Have free refills bubbled up to finer restaurants, or is it still acceptable for a bistro to tack three different fees onto a heavy soft-drinkers' bill?

I recently had an opportunity to ponder the gray area between baseline and outstanding service while dining at Ballard's Volterra, a restaurant I'd long been meaning to check out. I didn't go in any kind of official capacity: I was in the mood for pasta after a long workweek, and figured I'd multitask by crossing another canonical Seattle restaurant off my "to eat" list.

Since I was worn out and hungry when we reached our table, I didn't much want to fool with the menu, and so asked our server to recommend a few dishes. He spoke glowingly of a truffle custard, calling it the kitchen's finest appetizer. Imagining a thick mushroom pudding (I'm solely at fault for the fantasy: The menu describes only a "truffle custard with shaved spicy coppa, Pecorino Toscano, drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and micro salad"), I placed my order. What I was served wasn't thick or mushroomy: It was a horrifically bland white flan that occupied most of the plate. I was done after a single jiggly bite.

I'm willing to give the server a pass for not noticing that I'd pushed the appetizer aside. It was a busy night, and most of the tables were taken. And I can't blame the overwhelmed busser for not reporting back to the server that my dish was sitting untouched when he cleared my husband's cleaned plate. But when the server finally returned to ready the table for the next course, he asked only if he could box up the custard thing. "No," I said. "I didn't like it." The server shrugged and returned to the kitchen.

The courtesy gesture here is obvious: The dish should have been taken off the bill. But we were charged the full $12 for it.

Because of the work I do, I don't ask to speak with managers, and I'm almost certain the manager would have resolved the situation in our favor if we'd brought it to his or her attention. But I'm troubled by the prospect of diners being forced into such negotiations. If I had my druthers, servers in nicer restaurants—and any restaurant charging double-digit prices for appetizers counts as nice—would always alert their managers when customers 'fessed up to not liking their dishes.

When a customer orders a dish, he's implicitly promising to pay for it; a restaurant can't be held financially responsible for every whim of the palate. So as much as it may gall me to pay $12 for nothing, it's probably not fair to expect a restaurant to comp every dish that goes uneaten. But I think it's well within the boundaries of standard service to follow up with customers who are clearly unhappy with their choices, and I have a hunch that most successful restaurateurs would agree.

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