My girlfriend Isabel and I are eating at P.F. Chang’s and we’ve run into a problem. The waiter got the order wrong.

“This isn’t sweet and sour pork,” Isabel says, pushing her entrée around the plate. “It’s sweet and sour chicken.”

“You sure?” I say. Slightly offended that I’ve questioned her gustatory senses, Isabel spears a forkful of the stuff and offers it to me. “What do you think?”

After masticating the food thoughtfully I say, “Yep. It’s the original white meat.”

“I’m so disappointed,” she pouts. “It’s not what I wanted.”

When you’re spending your hard-earned money at a restaurant, getting the wrong food or a screwed up order is a bummer. Yet, when a restaurant churns out thousands of meals a week, the odds are good that either the waiter or the kitchen will mess up at some point. But no matter whose fault it is, you the customer have the right to send the food back. But many of you don’t. Why? You’re afraid of being punished.

Fear of sputum is one reason. Worrying about embarrassment, making a fuss or wait staff opprobrium is another. For the most part, these fears are groundless. Restaurants won’t stay in business long if its discovered that the servers are adding bodily fluids to the daily specials or making the customers feel like shit. (Though I’ve been guilty of the later.) Its not about sending the food back or not. It’s about HOW you send it back. Here’s a list of things you should not do. (And yes, all these things have actually happened to me.)

1. Don’t say things like, “How hard is it to take an order? Are you stupid? No wonder you’re just a waiter.”

2. Don’t call the server an asshole, insult their maternal lineage or say, “I’ll get you fired.”

3. Don’t demand that all the other guests’ food be sent back to the kitchen until their friend’s error has been fixed. Almost no kitchen will do it. The chefs aren’t going to whip up a new batch of entrées for everybody. They’ll stick the food in the oven to keep warm which dries it out. Now nobody’s happy.

4. Don’t storm out. That could be construed as theft of service.

5. Screaming at the top of your lungs is impolite. And it may give you a stroke.

6. Do not go into the kitchen and start yelling at the men with knives. If you need me to explain why, then I can’t help you.

7. Don’t demand that everybody at the table should eat for free. Ain’t gonna happen.

8. Don’t burst into tears and say things like, “You’ve ruined my entire weekend.” You’re just announcing to the dining room that you’re off your meds.

9. Don’t eat half your food before you register your complaint.

10. Don’t throw the food at the waiter. That’s assault.

Here’s what you should do and what you should expect.

1. Call the waiter over the moment you realize something’s wrong.

2. Politely but firmly explain why you’re dissatisfied. (Wrong food, undercooked, over cooked, tastes weird.)

3. Say you want your food replaced.

4. You can ask for the same item or a different one. If you wanted something that takes a long time to cook like a well-done steak or risotto, I’d suggest getting something that takes less time to cook so you’re not waiting forever. If you do want the aforementioned items, realize that it will take time.

5. While you’re waiting for your food the restaurant should send out an appetizer gratis to tide you over. It sucks being the only person at a table not eating.

6. Don’t personalize the issue. It was a mistake.

7. The waiter should keep you informed about how long it will take to fix the situation. If the waiter hides from you, which happens with inexperienced, coked out or socially maladjusted wait staff, get the manager.

8. A free drink should be forthcoming. When I was a waiter I learned that altering a diner’s consciousness usually tamped down any bad feelings.

9. The waiter should apologize – no matter if the error was his or the kitchen’s fault.

10. The entrée that got screwed up should be free. If not, at least your dessert should be on the house. Lots of restaurants will say giving out free stuff is against their policy. Why? Usually because there’s a corporate dictum, manager or owner that’s penny-wise but pound-foolish. If a restaurant refuses to make good, vote with your feet.

Sometimes, however, the screw up is the customer’s fault. I can’t tell you how many times a person on a diet let their id unconsciously order Fettuccini Alfredo when they thought they were ordering a salad. Despite the fact I always repeated the order to a customer, most diners would scream to high heaven that I fucked up. Bottom line? Pay attention when you’re ordering. Don’t be talking on your cell phone, texting, French kissing, jabbering about business or giving hand jobs under the table . Focus. And if you messed up, admit it. Very often the restaurant will try and make things right.

Of course I followed my own advice when explaining our situation in P.F. Chang’s. Sadly, however, the restaurant didn’t holdup their end of the bargain Here’s how.

1. No free drink. I was told it was against their policy. Annoying. That just told me the rules are more important to P.F. Chang’s than the customer.

2. The waiter admitted his mistake, but the kitchen took its sweet time to fix it.

3. No free app. Isabel and I finished my Mongolian Beef until her order came out.

4. We were charged for the sweet and sour pork.

5. We paid for our desserts.

To be fair, the manager came over to apologize. She offered us a free entrée to take home. That was nice, but what good does that do us? We ate already. In the end we she gave us two free desserts – but we had to wait ten minutes to get them. Not cool. I understand P.F. Chang’s has rules, but they need to revise them.

Of course I paid for everything and tipped the waiter twenty percent, probably because I’ve been in that waiter’s shoes myself. And, in the end, Isabel and I had a nice time. That’s because we didn’t freak out over the situation and made the best of it. Will I go to P.F. Chang’s again? Probably. They’ve always given me good service and I’m willing to bet this experience was an aberration. Besides, I’ll always give restaurant two or three chances before I excommunicate them.

Bottom line. Don’t be afraid to send your food back. You work hard for your money. And in a recession where many of us are going out to eat less, it is the restaurants that bend over backwards to make their customers happy who will survive.

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