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Making Complaints in Restaurants and Food Outlets

If you've had an unsatisfactory meal, you should be sure to know your rights and how to complain.

It’s fair to expect that a trip to a restaurant should be an enjoyable experience, but if it falls short you should be aware of how to make a complaint. Consumer rights apply to restaurants as well, meaning that the law has you covered in these situations. If you’ve been let down by your dining experience, there are a number of steps you can take to resolve the issue.

Bad food complaints

When eating at a restaurant, you are entitled to the same rights as with any other goods and services, including the requirement that the food should be “as described” and “of reasonable quality”. Obviously, it must also be safe to eat.

An example of a meal not being “as described” might be if it did not include some of the ingredients you expected or were promised. Not being “of reasonable quality” might mean that it is burnt or undercooked. Of course, “reasonable quality” might mean different things to different people, but in many cases it will be obvious if the food is not up to par.

As soon as you realise that your food is not up to standards, you should stop eating it and complain to a member of staff. You can ask for something else from the menu, ask that the dish be replaced, or simply opt not to eat. You should not have to pay for any meal you reject in this way, although you should of course pay for anything else that you ate or drank. You should also pay if they bring you a replacement meal which you deem acceptable.

If the member of staff serving you is unable to help you with your complaint, you should ask to speak to the manager instead. If you have difficulty persuading the manager that you should not have to pay for the unsatisfactory portion of the meal, you have several options available to you. You could pay the remainder of the bill, minus the amount owed for the food you rejected. If you do this, leave your contact details with the restaurant so they can chase you up for the remaining money if they genuinely believe that you should have paid. You will subsequently be able to make further protests if you feel you are in the right.

Alternatively, you could pay the bill in full, but make it clear that you are paying “under protest”, write “paying under protest” on the bill itself and give your contact details to the restaurant. This will help you to claim a refund at a later date by sending the manager a letter of complaint. You can even take them to the small claims court if they do not respond within a reasonable amount of time, although it is unlikely that this would ordinarily be a necessary or worthwhile action to take.

If you develop food poisoning after eating at a restaurant, this is clearly a more serious matter, and you may be able to claim compensation. It can be hard to prove that you got food poisoning from a specific meal, but if you believe you can, you should gather any evidence required (including a doctor’s note) and make a complaint to the restaurant. You can claim for the cost of the meal, plus compensation for pain and suffering, any loss of earnings that resulted from your illness and any other financial losses you incurred as a result of the food poisoning.

Food should always be prepared in clean and hygienic conditions. If you are concerned that food is not being stored or prepared properly, that the people handling the food are unclean, or that the premises where the food is being served are dirty or in bad condition, you may be able to argue that the food is not of satisfactory quality. You could ask for a refund because of this.

You may also want to contact your local environmental health department, who will be able to check up on whether the restaurant is meeting hygiene standards under the law.

Bad service complaints

Sometimes, dining out can be ruined not by the food itself but by the poor or unpleasant service provided by the waiting staff. Fortunately, your consumer rights still apply in these circumstances.

The relevant parts of the law state that any service must be done “with reasonable care and skill” and “within a reasonable time”. This covers problems such as being treated poorly by staff or experiencing lengthy waits with no obvious cause before being served.

Bear in mind that “reasonable” can mean different things depending on the situation. For example, you would expect to wait longer for your food during the dinner rush than if you were sitting in an otherwise empty café at 3pm. Likewise, the quality of service in a burger bar would not be expected to match that of a high-class restaurant.

If you encounter poor service at a restaurant, you should make a complaint to the staff member who has been responsible for serving you, and ask to speak to the manager if you do not consider their response acceptable.

How your complaint is handled is at the discretion of the restaurant. You may be offered a discount on your bill or free drinks or desserts, for example.

If the service was poor, you can refuse to pay a service charge, even if it is considered compulsory and was stated upfront. However, you must pay the remainder of the bill, as you cannot refuse to pay for food you’ve eaten simply because the service was poor.

If the restaurant is unhappy with your refusal to pay the service charge, you can leave them your contact details to show that you are not simply trying to get out of paying the bill. They can then get in touch with you for the rest of the money later, though you may wish to contest this further.

Alternatively, you can choose to pay “under protest”, noting this on the bill, and contact the restaurant with a letter of complaint later, asking for a refund due to the bad service. If they do not give you a satisfactory response, you could take the issue to a small claims court, although it is unlikely that this would be a reasonable response in all but the most extreme of cases.

Pricing complaints

You should only be charged the price stated on the menu for your food, though other fees, such as service charges, may be added to the bill. If you find that you have been overcharged, you can ask to have the prices reduced to those listed on the menu.

If the restaurant does not display its prices, you should not be charged more than a “reasonable amount” for the food. Exactly what is reasonable can sometimes be a matter of opinion, but it will sometimes be apparent that you are being overcharged.

It is important to note that if a restaurant does not display prices for their food, or attempts to charge its customers more than the listed price, it may be committing a criminal offence. You should contact your local Trading Standards office if this happens to you.

If a compulsory service charge is stated upfront, whether in writing or verbally, this is considered part of your agreement with the restaurant. By eating there you have accepted that you will pay the charge, unless the service turns out to be unacceptably bad (see ‘Poor service’ above).

However, if a service charge pops up on your bill unexpectedly, you are not required to pay it and can ask for it to be reduced or removed entirely. This kind of service charge can only ever be considered voluntary, even if the restaurant states otherwise, as you were not informed of it before dining and therefore have not agreed to pay it.

Understanding your rights in a restaurant

Reservations and double-booking

If you have reserved a table at a restaurant but they have double-booked and you don’t get to eat there, you can claim compensation for this. You should be able to claim back the cost of the journey to the restaurant, as well as compensation for any distress or inconvenience caused if, for example, the meal was for a special occasion. If you have to dine at an alternative restaurant due to a double-booking, you may even be able to recover any extra money you had to spend as a result.

Free drinking water

Under the Licensing Act 2003, any establishment which serves alcoholic drinks must also supply free tap water to customers. In restaurants where alcohol is not on sale, however, there is no requirement for them to supply free drinking water. They may charge you for water or not offer it at all.

Toilet facilities

Any restaurant serving alcoholic drinks, or which is open after 11pm, must have toilets available for the use of customers. Those which do not meet these criteria are not necessarily required to have toilet facilities available for customers, though they are advised to do so and some local authorities may also require it.