For people who care about their food

Waiter! A magnifying glass, please…

Buddyboy, of Medway River Volunteer Fire Departments, has kindly sent in another tricky question for us all to chew over. This time it’s about portion sizes being too small. Please have a read and feel free to post your comments.

Here’s a question for Not Delia that has had me wondering for a while.

We routinely order food in a restaurant expecting that it would be tasty and served in an adequate quantity, commensurate with the price. The other day, and this has happened before, a member of our dining party ordered a starter dish in a fine dining restaurant. It was one of the most expensive starters available. While the other starters served were generously portioned, his was the exact opposite. It was tiny. It was a fish dish consisting of a lobster claw, a scallop and a third piece of seafood drizzled with what looked like chocolate sauce (it wasn’t). The diner was taken aback by how small it was.

Here’s the question. What is the correct way to deal with such disappointments? Clearly the customer could and should bring the disappointment immediately to the attention of the server but, in the final analysis, is it acceptable to send the dish back, declining to eat and pay for it, then carry on with the rest of the meal with everyone else?



I have mixed feelings about this because I’m not a fan of big portions – I simply don’t have a large enough appetite to eat them. If I was having a starter and a main course, I would be glad if the starter was quite tiny. After all, it’s an appetiser and not intended to fill you up. However, it does seem a bit odd that everyone’s starter was generously portioned except for this one, more expensive, dish. There again, perhaps the ingredients and even the preparation and presentation time might justify the additional expense of this particular tiny starter.

I wonder how much it is a cultural thing too. In my limited experience, I’ve found that North Americans do tend to eat rather more than many people elsewhere. Several years ago, Mr ND and I had the privilege of visiting a famous deli in Manhattan. The food was superb! But after doing my best for about 40 minutes I had to give up as it seemed like I was making no inroad into the vast quantity on my plate.

We quite often hedge our bets by ordering a few starters to share, and/or ordering one meal between two – on the basis that you can always order more if you’re still hungry. But that system obviously wouldn’t work in a fine dining restaurant. As I’ve said before, I like buffets, to pick and choose a little bit of lots of things, to try new foods, and ultimately, I suppose, to be in control of my own portion size. (Mind you, I had a bit of a rant about people abusing the buffet system recently.)

To go back to some of your specific points, your expectation is that the food should “be tasty and served in an adequate quantity, commensurate with the price.” I think that’s a very reasonable expectation. I guess it depends on how you define “adequate quantity”. We watch Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen when we get the chance, and I’ve often remarked about the size of their starters. Some of them are larger than I would want for a meal.

It’s the one-size-fits-all attitude that’s the problem, isn’t it? But in a busy kitchen, especially a fine dining one, it would add a lot to the chefs’ burdens to have to produce all their orders in small, medium and large portions, so I’m not really sure how to get around the problem. Offering half-portions might help, but there’s still probably the same labour and other overhead costs involved in presenting a half-sized dish.

As for the correct way to deal with such disappointments, I don’t know the correct etiquette. Most people don’t like to complain so they just grin and bear it. I don’t go out of my way to complain but if something isn’t right, then I would say so. I must admit most restaurateurs don’t appreciate this. I wish I had £1 for every time I’ve been told, “Well, no one else has ever complained before.”

I’m looking forward to some input and comments on this issue from others. Thanks again for your question, Buddyboy.

11 Responses to “Waiter! A magnifying glass, please…”

  1. Graeme

    I have found that in many north American restaurants if they can’t provide the quality they try to subdue you with quantity. I’d rather have a smaller portion of something incredibly tasty and satisfying than a big lump of something which just passes for edible.

  2. Not Delia

    Me too, Graeme. We often have people recommending places to us based on price or quantity. It turns me right off. If I recommend something it’s because the food is good there, not because it’s cheap or serves large quantities. Each to their own, I suppose.

    But to be fair to Buddyboy, he’s a 6’5″ rufty tufty guy with a big appetite and I’m a 5’2″ less than 8 stone weakling. You can’t really expect us to want and enjoy the same portion sizes. (I did say on a comment on another posting, if we ever meet and have a meal together, he’s welcome to have half of mine.)

  3. Buddyboy

    That’s an interesting piece, ND. There are a couple of parts that really caught my eye.

    [i]* “The customer: if your target customer is a ‘lady who lunches’ then your portions will be smaller than if you’re catering for rugby players, for example.”[/i]

    That’s very true, but in reality some of the customers will be lunching ladies, and some will be ‘rugby player’ types. Invevitably at least some will be disappointed with the portion sizes, perhaps even all of them if the sizes end up being a compromise which pleases nobody.

    [i]* “if you’re running a special offer, such as two courses for £10, for example, a main-course portion of beef on the £10 menu would be much smaller than a main-course beef portion priced at £14 on the standard menu.”[/i]

    This may be true, even acceptable, in the U.K. It certainly would not fly here in Canada. A special is a special here. If it’s cheaper, that’s what’s special about it. If it is smaller because it’s cheaper, we call that a ‘rip-off’. My mother in law, a recent immigrant here from the U.K., simply can’t handle the concept of specials, I mean true specials. “There’s something wrong with it, there has to be”, is a typical comment.

    I’m more and more coming to the conclusion that restaurants should offer portion sizes with no impact on the cost being charged. People who ask for small portions because larger portions, they say, put them off their food, would be happy to get what they want. The larger portions asked for by others would mainly be covered by the savings on the former. If customer satisfaction is the goal, what’s not to like about this? A smaller step in the right direction, in my view, would be describing the portion size on the menu. Price is often no indication.

  4. Not Delia

    So, you want me to pay to subsidise your food? Why should I pay the same as you if you eat twice as much? I’d much rather have, and pay for, a half portion.

  5. Buddyboy

    No, I want the portion size to be governed by what is reasonable for most, if not all. The only objection I have heard to larger portions is that they “put me off my food”. Why would some people have to go hungry because some people are put off by portions too large for them? If restaurants don’t want to provide enough for most, they will disappoint most. It is they who, to this point, decline to offer portion sizes. You don’t want to waste food either? Again, allow the customer to indicate the size wanted.

    As for some subsidizing others, that’s a two way street as I have already indicated (your expectation of smaller portions leaves others going hungry and disappointed). Most of the cost of the meal is in the preparation (time), service (cost of staff), accoutrements (equipment, tables, chairs, building), extras (advertising, insurance). This is all independent of the amount of the food on your plate. What I particularly object to is being served a fair sized steak or other main ingredient accompanied by something like half a dozen peas and two tiny potatoes under the guise of ‘fine dining’. Surely it is reasonable for a restaurant to offer generous portions for a reasonable price, then for those who prefer smaller portions to be served such if they so request. This is not one subsidizing the other. This is starting out with a fair balance, subject to adjustment on request.

  6. Luxury Travel

    “Offering half-portions might help, but there’s still probably the same labour and other overhead costs involved in presenting a half-sized dish.”

    I suppose one solution to that particular issue would be to have the half-size dish costing more than half of the price for the full size dish, much like half bottles of wine are rarely just half the cost of a full bottle.

  7. Buddyboy

    Graeme: Re your comment at number 1, I don’t disagree. However, what about the other side of the coin where the food is great but simply inadequate in quantity? So far no-one has offered re the central question “What is the correct way to deal with such disappointments?”

  8. Mr Not Delia

    To me it’s largely a matter of value for money. Going back to your original question, Buddyboy, it really wouldn’t surprise me to find that the dish you describe was smaller but more expensive than, say, a starter of pasta or risotto – scallops and lobster cost considerably more, after all.

    Some kind of indication of portion size might well be helpful if the size of a dish is markedly smaller than others in the same broad category, or if it’s considerably more expensive.

    But if there is no indication, then you’re still left with the problem of how to deal with disappointments.

    If the ingredients are exotic or recognised gourmet treats, then that and the price are good clues as to likely portion size. If you suspect that a dish is likely to be small, and would find this a problem, then perhaps the best thing to do would be to ask the waiter beforehand for a description of the dish, and forestall any disappointment.

    Failing that, then by all means let the waiter know of your disappointment. If you don’t get a reasonable explanation of why the dish is smaller than you were expecting, then you don’t pay the service charge and you don’t eat there again.

    But I don’t think that you can reasonably send back the dish unpaid if it matches the description on the menu and the quality is what might reasonably be expected. (Quality includes the size or proportion of the individual ingredients. If the description features a scallop as one of the main ingredients and it’s the size of a 1p piece, then they’re taking the mick – unless they’ve already told you that’s the size it will be.)

  9. Not Delia

    Restaurants can’t easily get around the one-size-fits all, because if they’re managing their costs properly they’ll have a system of portion control in place. Every plate gets three sausages, two scoops of mash etc. I can imagine the chaos that would ensue if people started asking for one sausage, three scoops of mash, etc.

    You just have to take what you get and if it’s not enough for you, then you can order more. Dave and I ordered a dish of fish in a bar/cafe in Penang recently. According to the menu it would be accompanied by “vegetables”, we tried to get more info from the waiter about what was meant by “vegetables”. Would there be potatoes? “Oh, yes,” he assured us.

    When the dish appeared, there were a couple of slivers of potato sauteed along with the other veg. Not enough potatoes for those of us of Celtic origin. So we promptly ordered a side dish of potato wedges. No problem.

    A lot of menus do indicate the portion size on them, such as an 8 oz steak or whatever. Other times it’s just the luck of the draw and a case of hoping that your “reasonable expectations” will be met. And if they’re not? Write about it on your favourite food blog. We have restaurant reviews here too, you know. 😈

  10. Buddyboy

    Thanks to all for the feedback to my question. Obviously there is no simple answer to what is a complex question involving a variety of judgments and social and moral issues. It does indeed boil down to frequenting those establishments that give good value in whatever way. Part of my own issue is that I live in a more remote area with a limited number of restaurants worth visiting. Just going elsewhere is less of an option in such circumstances; city dwellers have a great advantage in that regard.

    Yesterday my wife and I went to a true fine dining restaurant that we keep for special occasions. We had four fabulous courses, superb food and more than adequate portions. The plates were warmed, the service was great and the soup spoons were a proper bouillon shape. I didn’t need to snack on anything when we got home later. It doesn’t get any better than that.

    One disappointment was that late last week we received a phone call from the owner of a local restaurant informing us that they were serving lamb kebabs at their east Indian buffet the next evening. My wife loves lamb, even more so with a curry, and lamb is a meat not often served here in Canada. Unfortunately a prior commitment precluded us from going that evening but, I can tell you, we are so appreciative of a restaurant owner who takes the time to know what customers want and appreciate, then follows up with a personal notification when it’s on the menu. Guess where we eat regularly, where we recommend, and where we take many of our friends. And that restaurant is prospering. No need to guess why.

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