How to complain about a meal or service in a restaurant

When can I get a refund or replacement meal?

The only ground on which you are entitled to a refund or replacement in a restaurant is that your meal is not of "acceptable quality". The CONSUMER GUARANTEES ACT 1993 provides a guarantee that goods supplied will be of "acceptable quality", the test being whether a reasonable consumer would regard the goods as acceptable, having regard to the nature of the goods, the price, and any other relevant circumstances.

In this situation you should notify your waitress or waiter as soon as possible, preferably before finishing your meal. You may be required to discuss your complaint with the manager. Some specific arrangement should be made to deal with the situation, whether it is you not being charged for the meal, or you being given a replacement meal or vouchers to be used at a later date.

If you simply do not like a meal that you have ordered you have no right to demand a refund or replacement meal. However, because of the importance of goodwill in the food industry the restaurant may well do either of these despite the fact that it is not required to.

Applying the "reasonable consumer" test

There are obvious difficulties with using the "reasonable consumer" as a yardstick for the standard expected for food and service at a restaurant. What is reasonable is a subjective standard, and different people will have different perceptions. However, the standard must take into account the type of restaurant and the amount that was paid for the meal.

Protection under the Fair Trading Act

As a restaurant is a business engaged in the sale of goods and services, those who eat there are also protected by the rules against misleading and deceptive trading contained in the FAIR TRADING ACT 1986 (see How to ensure your business complies with the Fair Trading Act).

Hygiene and safety standards

The preparation and sale of food is governed by strict regulations as to hygiene, health and safety. Should you find any foreign objects in your meal, such as hair or insects, not only are you perfectly entitled to demand a refund or replacement meal, you may, if you wish, complain to your local Hospital and Health Service (for example, Hutt Valley Health) (see How to complain about hygiene conditions in a restaurant).

What if I become ill from eating in a restaurant?

If you can show that you became ill as a result of eating food bought from a restaurant, compensation is available only through the Accident Compensation (ACC) scheme (see How to claim accident compensation). This will cover medical bills, lost wages, and pain or distress.

What about drycleaning bills?

If while you are dining at a restaurant a staff member spills food on your clothing, you are entitled to have your drycleaning bill met by the restaurant. If any stains remain you may seek the replacement cost from the restaurant.

Can the restaurant seat me wherever they want?

Provided there is no obvious discrimination, a restaurant is perfectly entitled to seat you wherever they see fit.

Cautionary notes
  • A restaurant that advertises an all-you-can-eat "buffet" type menu will only breach the FAIR TRADING ACT 1986 if the restaurant runs out of all dishes. In other words, if one particular dish happens to run out or is only available subject to a limit per person, this will not breach the Act.


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