If a person pays for dinner, is he the only one who can complain to the waiter for poor service?

If a person pays for dinner, is he the only one who can complain to the waiter for poor service?

by Alan
(Cleveland, OH, USA)

My 90-year father is visiting town, and he took my wife and I out to dinner. He brought his 85-year-old sister along, my aunt. Not typical of most 90 year olds, my dad is very healthy and alert, having been a lifelong athlete and non-smoker. (He still plays golf three times a week.) We went to a popular upscale steak house. I had suggested a pancake house, but he said, "No, let's go some place nice."


Well, from the start, I saw that the waiter was kind of a dud. He just mumbled and spoke so quietly that I could barely hear him. We had to keep asking him to repeat himself, just so we could understand what he was saying. But we struggled though it. We finally ordered our dinners. My dad ordered a steak burger with mustard, and my wife ordered a steak burger, and she also mentioned "with mustard." I ordered a medium rare steak burger. The dinner finally came, and the waiter brought a small cup of ketchup with the meals, and he left. My dad and wife were both looking around on the table for a jar of mustard. But there was none. I put ketchup on my burger, as did my aunt.

My dad and my wife were both hoping the waiter would come back so they could remind him to bring some mustard, but he didn't. After about 4 minutes, my dad asked another passing waitress to "please bring us some mustard." She said, "okay", but another 4 minutes went by, still no mustard, and their burgers were starting to get cold. I thought about getting up to go ask the manager to bring us some mustard, but my dad beat me to it. He got up and walked over to the cash register and asked if we could have some mustard. The person behind the register went into the kitchen herself and brought us back two cups of mustard.

A few more minutes went by and our assigned waiter came back to our table. He happened to look at me, and he mumbled, "Is everything okay?" I said, "No, in fact, it isn't. You're not doing your job. We've been sitting here waiting for mustard all this time to put on our hamburgers." He said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I'll go get you some." I said, "Forget it, someone did your job and brought it to us." Again, he apologized, and he left.

This is where the problem starts. My dad got an angry expression on his face and he snapped at me, "You had no place saying anything to him. I'm paying for this meal, and neither I or your wife felt it was necessary to say anything." I said, "The waiter asked me if everything was okay, and I wanted to let him know it wasn't." Again, he snapped at me that it wasn't my place to say anything, as he was the one paying for dinner. This got me quite upset, and I said, "I'm done. I don't have to go through this humiliation." I told my wife that we should leave, but she just said, "Calm down." So, I went outside for a cigarette. I came back after about ten minutes, but I didn't bother to finish the rest of my meal, as my stomach was in knots because of his admonition.

After my dad paid the bill, we all walked outside. I had regained my composure enough and I apologized for walking out because I was upset. He said, "When I take you out to dinner, I'll decide whether or not to complain, not you." So, I responded with, "It wasn't any big deal. If that's how you feel, there just won't be any more dinners then. I don't need this." There was a big awkward pause at that point. I hugged my aunt and we all said goodbye.

When we got in the car my wife said to me, "He's 90 years old, and he's 'Old school', he has his set of rules of what's proper and what isn't." I said, "It was just the four of us, this wasn't a big formal family dinner with all the relatives. The waiter didn't ask my dad if everything was okay, he asked me."

It's a day later since this happened. I woke up feeling bad, because he's going back to Florida today. Personally, I think it was one of those moments in human behavior where I just reacted in a normal manner to a question posed to me by waiter who was doing a very poor job of taking care of us. When my dad reprimanded me, I felt surprised and humiliated for what I considered to be a "non-issue" until he chose to bring it up. By the way, I'm 68 years old myself, but I felt that my dad was treating me as though I were still 14. I'm not. His last reaction as we were leaving upset me so much that I almost wanted to tell him, "We might as well say goodbye now, because I'm not going through this again in the future." But, I bit my tongue and didn't say it.

My dad visits town every year, and it seems that on each occasion he finds some excuse to be critical and judgmental of my behavior- something that's always unexpected and like a slap in the head. It's gotten to the point where I dread these yearly visits.


Jul 28, 2011
Who can complain about the service?
by: Kevin (Modern Manners and Etiquette)

Sounds like the mustard caused quite an issue. It is frustrating when the simplest thing causes a huge chain of events.

I do not know of any etiquette rules or traditions that state that only the person paying for the food may complain about the service. Think about it this way: The service staff is not serving ONLY the person paying; they are servicing the entire party. Therefore, if something is not quite right, the party has the right to say so.

But, the heart of the issue based on your situation is not the waiter, or the mustard, or who pays for the meal. The heart of the issue is your relationship with your father.

You remarked that he is critical and judgmental of you. It is easy to feel "picked on" as the person receiving correction, however, most parents do not do it out of spite or anything else. If you have had children, you likely have corrected their behavior. Whether you were right or wrong in correcting them, you felt that it was for their good to correct them. And that is the point...

Parents only correct their children to make them better people. If he didn't care about you, he wouldn't take the time to point out mistakes to help you improve.

Does this mean that you were wrong? No, because this isn't really an issue about right or wrong. It is an issue of a relationship. One of the most important relationships in your life.

The real problem here is that both of you are trying to justify your own position, and it is causing a lack of harmony. My advice to you...let it go. It isn't as important as maintaining peace with your father.

I lost my father over 7 years ago. My relationship with him was near non-existent because he found it hard to relate with his children. I deeply regret that I did not take the initiative to improve that relationship and now I cannot fix it.

You do not want to have the same kind of regret with your father. Let it go. This issue at the restaurant is not that important. If you can see him before he leaves, tell him that you love him. If he is gone, do the same thing over the phone.

That relationship with your father is worth far more than the service issue with the waiter, the mustard, or anything else.

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