There are a few different avenues
If you dine out often enough, you’ve definitely experienced an incident where a dish that looks appetizing on the menu doesn’t live up to what you’ve envisioned once it arrives at your table. While the wise reaction would be to try and send the disappointing dish back in the hopes of ordering something else instead, the process isn’t always so simple.
A blog post from Kiplinger describes some unfortunate incidents of false food advertising at restaurants, and the recourse that one would (or would not) have to resolve any disputed charges. While it turns out that patrons have some grounds to address their grievances with deceitful restaurants, the customer isn’t necessarily always right.
So what can you do? Since we tend to eat with our eyes first, the easiest way to resolve an issue with an unsatisfactory dish is to send it back before sinking your teeth into it. Taking a little nibble to confirm your worst fears may be okay, but eating a decent chunk of your meal before deciding it isn’t for you doesn’t leave you with much of a case to ask for a refund.
But there seem to be some situations where customers could have grounds to dispute a charge, thanks to some provisions of contract law. “If the only descriptions on the menu were [something like] ‘T-Steak Burger’ and ‘Vegetable Soup,’ there would be an issue as to what a reasonable consumer would expect,“ notes Loyola Law School (Los Angeles) Contracts Professor Bryan Hull. “Sellers of food and beverage have been sued for breach of warranty and false advertising.”
Of course, initiating a lawsuit is probably more trouble than it’s worth most of the time. Instead, you might want to take the issue up with your credit card company in order to dispute the charge. But as Hull notes, even that has its limits.
“Unless the bill is over $50, credit cardholders do not have a statutory right to contest the charge. However, a card issuer might have a policy allowing the bill to be disputed, and so a phone call to find out would be appropriate.”
If you’re feeling sufficiently vengeful and passive-aggressive, you can take your grievances to Yelp. Writing a scathing review from the safety of your keyboard is a useful approach for people who crave catharsis and loathe confrontation, but it won’t put money back in your pocket. There’s also the risk that a particularly scathing, salacious, and untruthful one-star review could expose you to the possibility of a defamation suit, so it’s best to keep your grievances truthful.
So, yeah. Getting a bad meal at a restaurant sucks, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. If you’re smart and polite enough, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. And even if you’re stuck footing the bill for something you’d rather not eat, it’s not really the end of the world. Just vote with (what’s left of) your wallet and don’t come back.