x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Diners have rights, but let's not forget restaurants do, too

I'm sensitive, probably to a fault, to the plight of the restaurateur. Although not all share an idea of a good time out, we have rights too.

These are things I know: The tile beneath my cheek is cold. The skin on my cheek is hot. And the kimchi I ate yesterday afternoon was bad. A textbook case of food poisoning is an opportunity to consider a lot of things, such as the snowflake-like individuality of ice chips, the colour of Gatorade most likely to occur in nature, and which one of my sleeping friends I am going to rouse with an emergency request for electrolytes and ginger ale.

Tomorrow will bring a brand-new dilemma. Will I force myself to call the deli where I bought the kimchi when it opens? Should I carry out my duty as a self-appointed public health officer and report my symptoms? I could try not to apologise for bringing them this unpleasant news. I will be strong, do the right thing; explain that I'm interested only in protecting other kimchi freaks and not in threatening anyone's livelihood or spreading any rumours. I can recommend they dispose of the kimchi, cringing inwardly as I worry about sounding litigious.

The only thing people enjoy more than talking about a restaurant experience that delighted them is talking about one that disappointed. And if there's one thing that can scare a person away from someday opening a place of their own, it's the volatility of the general public and its hunger for sensationalism and scandal.

It's easy to malign the customer. Insight into the sparring of fact and folklore in the public health and restaurant worlds makes it impossible to identify with one side of any complaint without considering the implications for the other. I've written in defence of restaurateurs and the service industry, but rarely in defence of consumers, for whatever reason.

There's nothing novel about moronic lawsuits against the restaurant industry that don't bode well for the reputation of the complaining consumer. In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) filed a class-action lawsuit against Denny's for carrying menu items so high in sodium.

More recent gems include a 2010 lawsuit filed by a doctor with a family practice in Hollywood, who sued Houston's Restaurant after he ordered and ate an entire grilled artichoke, then ended up in a hospital with severe abdominal pain. The court document stated that the waiter did not ask the doctor if he knew how to eat an artichoke and neglected to explain that the outer leaves are inedible.

"It takes a sophisticated diner to be familiar with the artichoke," the doctor's lawyer was quoted as saying.

Then, in 2011, a disgruntled diner sought at least US$4,000 (Dh14,693) in damages for the "humiliation, embarrassment and mental anguish" he purportedly suffered after being discriminated against on the basis of his disability, type II diabetes, when the proprietor of a Japanese restaurant told him he couldn't just eat the fish and discard the rice if he wanted to partake the restaurant's all-you-can-eat sushi deal.

Thankfully, when a diabetic, morbidly obese, heart-disease afflicted man tried to sue McDonald's, KFC, Wendy's and Burger King because they didn't alert him to how unhealthy their foods were, a judge threw the case out of court, then did it again, and finally barred it from being filed a third time.

But in late 2010 a Brazilian court ruled that McDonald's must pay a veteran employee $17,500 as compensation for the 30 kilograms he gained over 12 years, during which time the 32-year-old former manager said he felt forced to sample the food every day to monitor quality control.

Restaurants have filed their own ridiculous lawsuits, too. In 2002, McDonald's filed a $25 million lawsuit against an Italian food critic who called the ambience "mechanical" and the bread "poor".

It depends on the pace and price level of the restaurant, but as a general rule, I support restaurants that don't allow patrons to linger once the bill is settled during a dinner rush if there is another party with a reservation waiting to use the table. Restaurants are businesses and reservations are customised contracts. Some restaurants can and will charge you for breaking that contract unless you give adequate notice. Likewise, if you have made a reservation and the restaurant cannot give you a table, they've broken their contract, too, and you have a right to hold them responsible.

I'm sensitive, probably to a fault, to the plight of the restaurateur. Although not all consumers share an idea of a good time out, we have rights, too. Part of exercising those rights means giving them a voice. First and foremost, we have a right to civility; both the giving and the receiving of it. Personally, I don't take issue with restaurants that enforce child-free policies, and I actually love mobile phone-free and fragrance-free policies, but these policies remain inflammatory and controversial. What do you do when the table next to yours is so rowdy that it's wrecking your dinner? Let a manager know. There's nothing wrong with asking to be moved to a quieter part of the restaurant.

If you have doubts about the edible nature of anything you're served, send it back. If you simply don't like it, that's another story. Some restaurants will choose to address your untouched food and may offer to replace it, but they're under no obligation to do so. Expect to pay for what you ordered, not for what you ate.

If there's anything more likely to poison our dinner than a food-borne pathogen, it's bitterness, vitriol and a sense of entitlement.



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