Ask the Editor: What Happens If a Server Spills Food on Me?

Freak out or take the L? Here's how to manage your expectations when a restaurant messes up.

Photo | iStock

If a server spills pasta all over my expensive white pants, should I expect freebies?

—Rich, Long Beach Island, NJ

Philly Mag food editor Alex Tewfik

When I was waiting tables in college, I spilled an entire tray of ice water on a little girl. I was young, still new to the industry, still getting used to balancing trays, and as I leaned over to pass out waters to my table, a single glass tipped over knocking down the other five glasses like bowling pins. Not a single glass fell off my tray, thank god, but the water sure did — right onto the head of a small child in pigtails behind me, dressed in her Sunday best. The shriek she let out still haunts me to this day.

Her dad was pissed (rightfully so). I did what I could to help — got her towels, apologized a bunch. But I didn’t tell the manager because I was afraid I’d be fired (wrong move). And after they finished eating, I dropped the check like nothing ever happened (wrong move).

A zero was carved so aggressively onto the tip line of the receipt, I was surprised it wasn’t written with gasoline and a match. He underlined it three times. And I remember nodding at the checkbook in agreement. I got exactly what I deserved. If my manager had been made aware, she might’ve sent out some extra plates on the house. She might’ve comped the meal. She would’ve done something instead of nothing, no doubt.

As she should’ve! The restaurant business is almost entirely dependent on repeat customers, and it’s the manager’s responsibility to make sure you return after a less-than-stellar experience. So, if the server spills pasta all over your white pants, it’s safe to expect a little extra love — not all the love (definitely not a full-comp, unless the mistake was egregious) — but something, especially if you’re at a spot that’s a little more upscale. Servers are trained to read the diner after an accident occurs, and depending on the severity of the spill, or the displeasure of the guest, the management (if they know what they’re doing) will deal with each mishap as a case-by-case basis. 

“Some people would rather not have the extra attention,” says Kensington Quarters GM Tim Kweeder. “You really have to feel out the guest.”

If they’re really good, they’ll offer to pay for your dry-cleaning. And sure, bringing your dry-cleaning bill to the restaurant the next day might be awkward, but if they want to make it right — let them! Otherwise, expect a free round of drinks, or some dessert on the house. 

And if whatever they do doesn’t win you over, then… woe is you. Sucks, I know. But restaurants are cramped, hectic, saucy places. You know that. And you knew what you were getting yourself into the second you put on those pants.

You took a bet and you lost. Next time, wear black and enjoy some free gelato.