While cutting into the steak you order every time you eat out, how often do you look across the table and envy your dinner companion’s dish? Whether you’re overwhelmed by the menu or simply afraid to branch out, the result ends up being the same-old plate of food that often leaves you feeling unsatisfied. To help get you out of your food-ordering rut, we talked to industry insiders to learn the art of the perfect restaurant meal. From what not to order to a different approach to dining, learn how to conquer the menu the next time you dine somewhere new.
1. Do some research first.
Knowing about where you plan on eating is as important as deciding what you’ll eat when you get there. When possible, check out the restaurant before you go. “I always go to a restaurant prepared,” says Elizabeth Karmel, grilling expert and executive chef of Hill Country in New York City. “What I mean by that is spending two to three minutes doing research online. See what they’re famous for or what their signature dish is. That’s always good insurance.” Visit the restaurant’s website if it has one, or try looking it up on a review site such as Yelp.com. This is particularly important if you’re in charge of deciding where to go. “I really believe that it starts with the restaurant choice. There are lot of ‘dos’ just in choosing a restaurant,” says Bobby Werhane, restaurateur (Spasso, Caffe Muzio) and founder of Experience Hospitality. “I think about what type of company I’m with, and the type of dining experience I’m looking for that evening.” Once at the restaurant, pay attention to other diners' food to get insight into what you might like. “I’m always eyeballing others' plates, especially if I’m not working. Otherwise, how do you know?” says Adam Platt, restaurant critic for New York magazine.
2. Befriend your server.
Striking up a conversation with your server is one of the best ways to guarantee great food. You don't have to be schmoozy; simply check in and get a feel for their perspective. “The most important thing is to develop a rapport with your server,” says Calli Genzale, a server at Tom Colicchio’s Riverpark restaurant in New York City. “The more they feel connected to you, the more they’re going to try to make your experience that much better.” Although some restaurants do want servers to push certain menu items (and will reward them for it), a genuine conversation will not only help steer you away from overpriced dishes, but ultimately toward a satisfactory meal. Instead of asking “What’s good?”, try narrowing down your picks to two or three, and then asking your server's opinion, paying close attention to how enthusiastic they are about the dishes. “When you ask your server if they recommend the mushroom risotto and they say, ‘Yeah, it’s good,’ with a little shrug of their shoulders and a nonchalant tip of their head, you should read that as ‘It’s mediocre at best,’" says Amber Marshall-Omes, a former server at Sotto Sotto in Atlanta. “The word ‘good’ usually means ‘boring.’ Look for a sparkle in their eye and words like fantastic, awesome, delicious and definitely.”
3. Scan the menu with a purpose and ask questions.
“You don’t want to be a slave to the menu writers,” says Kim Severson, journalist and author of the food memoir Spoon Fed. “Some menus are written in a way to promote certain dishes more than others. Special boxes highlight dishes that are high-profit items for restaurants.” If you’re unsure about what to order, let the theme of the menu guide you. “If a restaurant is doing all Italian, and they have one or two Southern items, I would go for the Italian,” Karmel says. If you’re unsure of what a dish actually is, don’t guess. “It’s important to ask. If you’re not sure what one of those fancy French words means, ask the waiter,” says Craig Hopson, executive chef at Le Cirque in New York City. “There’s a bit of poetic license on the menu, but it’s the responsibility of the restaurant to ensure that what it says on the menu is on the plate.” And don’t give up easily, adds cookbook author and celebrity caterer Lulu Powers. “If the waiter doesn’t know, they can go ask the kitchen. People just need to learn to ask questions and not feel embarrassed.”
4. Order based on the season and region you're in.
You don’t have to be a full-fledged foodie to appreciate a few basics about seasonality. Unless you’re in California, where a diverse amount of fresh produce is readily available year-round, stick to root vegetables and citrus in colder months and garden vegetables, stone fruit, berries and tomatoes in warmer months. “If you order asparagus in December, it’s coming from Mexico,” says Hopson. “If it’s January or February and it’s frozen outside where you are, chances are the spinach isn’t coming from outside either.” If you’re not sure what’s in season, ask, Severson says, adding that “it’s completely appropriate to ask if something is fresh or has been frozen.” As for location, your best bet is to go with what’s sourced as close to the region as possible. “I would not order Caribbean food in a fish-fry house in Sheboygan, Wisconsin,” Karmel says, adding that meat and potatoes are the way to go. Hopson agrees. “If you’re in a beachside town, always order the seafood. When you’re in the middle of a rural farm, order the beef.”
5. Be selective about the special.
A restaurant’s daily specials can be tricky to navigate, but basically, it boils down to this: If you’re at a top-tier restaurant, the special is, frankly speaking, special. If not, proceed with caution—especially if it’s pasta with vegetables. “That’s often the garbage dish. They’ll see what they have a lot of in the kitchen and the chef will throw it together,” says Severson. “It’s a big dilemma,” adds Platt. “If it’s a good restaurant, it’s fresh stuff they found at the market; if it’s a crap tourist restaurant, then [pushing goods is] what they’re doing.” In her work at various restaurants throughout the South, Marshall-Omes has “seen chefs fly fish in from Hawaii just to feature it for a night,” but conversely, she's “participated in many contests designed to get rid of product on the verge of spoilage.” To seek out legitimate specials, Werhane recommends diners stick with restaurants that change their menu at least four times a year, which reflects a more artisanal, seasonal approach to the food.
6. Pay attention to your proteins.
Food lore dictates that diners should pass on chicken—it’s easy to cook and has a higher price markup than other meats. But it's not quite that simple. “I feel I can make chicken at home, so I don’t usually order it,” Severson says. “But if you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t normally serve chicken, and it’s on the menu, then it means the chef thinks it’s something special.” When not on the job as a critic, Platt actually enjoys ordering the basics. “If you were to have roasted chicken in a good restaurant, you’ll have a good, satisfying plate of roast chicken,” he says. “The stuff I order as a regular citizen eater is standard things like salmon or lamb—lamb is a great, safe restaurant dish; as a critic, though, it’s not that interesting, it’s safe. But one reason they’re safe is that the flavor profile is very strong; they’re hard to screw up and always cooked the same way.” Fish, on the other hand, should not be a staple fallback—at least on weekends. Although it depends on the restaurant, Powers says she “would not order fish on Sundays.” Marshall-Omes adds that “the trick to fish is to stick to busy restaurants on busy days. If a restaurant is hopping, chances are they don’t have a lot of stagnant product.” However, she adds, “a lot of restaurants get their last order of the week on Friday, so Sunday might not be the freshest fish. Some food-cost-driven chefs may try to make it until Monday.”
7. Go beyond single entrée ordering.
This article originally appeared on WomansDay.com and it's republished here with permission.
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