The Five Stages of a Bad Meal

Ed. Note: Our friend Alex, formally the food editor of DC’s Brightest Young Things, recently moved to Boston. While she’s mourning the loss of leaving the District (and her favorite margarita spots), she’s also learned how to identify her grief during unpleasant meals.

This year my fiancé planned a birthday weekend getaway based entirely around getting me a good meal at a well-known and well-regarded restaurant in Portland, Maine.  The meal started well enough with a gracious entrée to our table-for-two and a handwritten birthday note awaiting me. The menu was narrative, seasonal and with the help of our waitress, I settled on a roasted Pekin duck.

Unfortunately the dinner was a shit-show: appetizers were small, uninspired and under-seasoned; the lighting was so dim we couldn’t really see our food; and my duck—which was promised to be crispy—came out with pale, wet, greasy skin. When questioned about the lack of crispy-skin, the response was “the chef says it is not ideal to change it at this time…” What? We bagged the rest of the meal, skipped the traditional birthday dessert and were glad to see part of our dinner was comped.

While we were initially angry, this experience got me thinking about other bad meals I’ve had and how I’ve dealt with them. You can apply the Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grief to a dining experience. While I know some may think this is a tacky exercise, the 5 stages have been used on everything from America’s debt problem to failed efforts of picking up women, so yeah, this is happening.

The Five Stages of a Bad Meal


This tends to happen during the meal itself. You start second guessing yourself: maybe you ordered wrong, or maybe you don’t understand what you’re eating, or maybe your food is the only food that is bad and everyone else loves their food so you had better pretend to like it. You just can’t believe you’re not eating something delicious.


Much of the anger you feel during a bad meal is about blame. You blame the person who recommended the place. You blame the reviewer who gave it 4 stars. You blame the waitress who told you the duck would have crispy skin. You blame the person who chose it. Or if you chose it, you feel the hot pointed anger of your dining companions and it becomes a deep, deep shame.

Sometimes anger can be about revenge. Maybe you’re so angry you post a crappy review on Yelp, you blast out a few angry tweets and then spend years telling people to avoid the place you went to. 


Bargaining ends up always being around money. You have to make a decision at a meal to either save money or just fuck it and spend more. Maybe you complain and try to get something kicked off the check or you cut out early and skip dessert.

In other cases, you decide the only way you’re going to enjoy the rest of the meal is by drinking, because everything tastes better when you’re schnockered. And maybe if you drink enough, you won’t remember the flaccid duck skin the next morning.


Paying too much for a bad meal would bum anyone out. Being disappointed when you’re excited about something, sucks. That’s all.


You know at some point you’ll get over your bad dining experience, and in many cases you just forget about it (see drinking reference above). At the end of the day it’s just a meal, you have three a day, you’ll get over it. Promise. I also believe bad meals remind you just how great a good meal can be.

It’s been said that not everyone goes through all 5 stages of grief, so keep that in mind and tell us which stages are you most familiar with when it comes to a bad meal.

(Photo: 20plus30)

You may also like


  • melissa February 28, 2011  

    This is brilliant. (; Nice to see you here. Hope you’re loving boston!

  • Alex February 28, 2011  

    Thanks Melissa! My unfettered love of food, writing and Gansie, couldn’t keep me away. Boston is cold, but otherwise delicious.

  • BS February 28, 2011  

    this is spot-on! three years ago my girlfriend and I had the $100 prix fixe at the ridiculously-hard-to-get-a-seat-at momofuku ko. One of the 10 courses, the duck, was overcooked. The veggie gf (who even ate meat for this occasion) has definitely not gotten past stage 4. Sometimes we’ll just be sitting around and she’ll randomly sigh and complain about that dish.

  • Carmen February 28, 2011  

    This is absolutely on target, and yes…I have gone through the five stages on more than one occasion, but the worse was at Komi’s where they brought me this nondescript fish dish, swimming in a pool of what looked and tasted like cod liver oil… BAD memories!!!

  • Lora March 1, 2011  

    Totally cracking up over this. I have a similar post (still unposted!) about the incredibly frustrating process of making French Macarons. Great minds think alike 🙂

  • TheGourmetCoffeeGuy March 2, 2011  

    Totally on target, can relate. Great post. Very informative and well written.

  • bill April 18, 2011  

    I grew up in new jerky , spent alot of time in NYC and have spent the past 20 years in Kentucky. Simple is if you eat “exotic overpriced gourmet” dishes expect to be disappointed , and paying for “atmosphere” is your gig , I can’t help you any.
    It’s the very simple staples done well which resonate and are always welcome… and no I don’t include biscuits and gravy among that.

Leave a comment