Is a restaurant's menu the final word on dining fare, or just a starting point? There are several reasons you might want to order a dish that's not listed on the menu:
- You have food allergies or dietary restrictions
- You heard about a particular dish the restaurant serves, but it's not listed on the menu
- You've had a tasty dish or daily special that you'd like to eat again
- You want to try what the staff is eating
- Your favorite dish dropped off the new menu
- You want to impress friends that you're "in" with the chef
- You're brave, you're flush with cash, and you crave adventure
Whatever your reason for going off-menu, here are some pointers to help you get the meal you want on your night out.
Where You Can Order Off the Menu
Restaurants create menus to control costs and ensure efficiency in the kitchen. But they're very aware that service and satisfaction are what keep customers coming back. Many chain restaurants offer an extensive, standard menu that's loaded with flexibility, so if your off-menu request is reasonable and the kitchen has the ingredients to make it, the chef will most likely honor it.
With independent restaurants, it's hit-and-miss. Some offer a fluid menu that draws on seasonally available foods. Even if the restaurant wants to honor your request, the chef is limited by what's in the kitchen. But if you're there on a slow night, you could ask the chef to get creative. It gives you a chance to try something new -- and the chef gets an opportunity to test new inventions.
Customer requests help shape the menu. If your favorite dish dropped off the new menu, that doesn't mean it's not available. It could just mean that it wasn't a high selling item, and the manager put a more popular dish in its place. Chances are the chef still remembers how to cook your special dish -- and will, if you ask for it.
Asking for Something That's Not on the Menu
If you're dealing with a specific dietary limitation, give the restaurant a few days lead time. "If [customers are] vegan or lactose intolerant, those are things that they should clarify before they make the reservation," says Neal McCarthy, manager of Miller Union restaurant in Atlanta. As long as he or she knows what's needed and has time to prepare, it's possible to work around dietary restrictions.
If you're hoping to repeat the special you had last month or the dish a coworker raved about, describe the offering to your waiter and ask if it's an option tonight. It wouldn't hurt to include some praise for the chef. If the answer from the kitchen is "no," it may simply be because they don't have the ingredients, or a different chef is on duty. In that case, talk over possibilities with your waiter. Just remember to be polite. You want to be a valued customer, not a difficult one.
- Keep requests in line with food the restaurant serves.
- Make special requests on slow nights, not during a dinner rush.
- It's better to ask for sauces and toppings on the side than tell the chef how to cook.
Freestyle on the Cheap
If you want to go off-menu at fast-food joints, there's some lingo to learn. While some of the secret code words are real, others are better described as Internet hoaxes. Some reliable ways to learn about menu choices that aren't on the menu board:
- Word of mouth
- Listen to other people order
- Visit the restaurant's Web site
- Get a job there
- Order a "limited time" offering after it's gone
- Just ask
If they've got the stuff, and you're willing to pay for it, the restaurant should be willing to put together whatever food combination want.
- Bruni, Frank. "When the Menu is Just a Starting Point." The New York Times. Diner's Journal. Aug. 24, 2006. (Jan. 17, 2011) http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/08/24/when-the-menu-is-just-a-starting-point/
- Conradt, Stacey. "10 secret menu items at fast food restaurants." CNN Living. Sept. 28, 2009. (Jan. 17, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2009-09-28/living/mf.10.secret.menu.items_1_jamba-juice-menu-grilled-cheese?_s=PM:LIVING
- Hsieh, Emily. "How to Order Off the Menu: An interview with Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder." Allure. March 2009. (Jan. 17, 2011) http://www.allure.com/howtos/2009/03/order_off_the_menu
- Marcus, Erica. "Ordering restaurant food that's not on the menu." Long Island News Day. Nov. 10, 2010. (Jan. 17, 2011) http://long-island.newsday.com/restaurants/ordering-restaurant-food-that-s-not-on-the-menu-1.2444212
- McCarthy, Neal. Personal interview. Jan. 20, 2011.